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Matt Wellens | Duluth News Tribune | September 27, 2018

Women's hockey: Olympic hero Maddie Rooney returns to UMD a humble, larger-than-life figure

Maddie Rooney represented the USA in the 2018 Olympics.

After spending the previous year traveling the globe as the superstar goaltender for the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic women's hockey team, Maddie Rooney is happy to be back on the Minnesota Duluth campus this fall.

It's nice to be a college student once again, she said. The redshirt junior is excited to be skating with her Bulldogs teammates, as well.

Rooney is relieved her life is back to normal, or as normal as one's life can be after millions watched you clinch gold via a save in a shootout against Canada.

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"It's pretty normal so far. I hope it stays that way," said Rooney, before later sharing an experience with a couple professors prior to taking part in a national team camp this month. "I had to miss a week for the evaluation camp in Maine, so I told them I was going out there for USA Hockey and they were like, 'Oh, you're the goalie!'

" 'Yeah.' "

Rooney -- who in the last year appeared on "Ellen" and challenged Justin Bieber to a shootout on "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon -- has yet to catch any classmates whispering "Is that who I think it is?" in the seats behind her. Nor is she being mobbed for autographs and selfies on her way to class.

She has had to fend off offers to buy her coffee back home in Andover, Minn., but for the most part classmates are leaving her be.

Inevitably the question does come up though: "Are you Maddie Rooney?"

"I'll be out here in Canal (Park) and little girls will want pictures and things like that, which I'm always really happy to do," Rooney said. "I'm always grateful to say hi to people. Going out in the bars people will be very outgoing with me and make jokes. It's been really fun."

While Rooney vehemently denies her celebrity status, UMD coach Maura Crowell knows exactly what she has in her crease this season. Rooney isn't just the best goaltender in the WCHA or the best goaltender in all of college hockey. She is arguably the best goalie in the world after making 29 saves, plus two dramatic shootout stops, in a win over Canada in the gold-medal game in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Having Rooney on the roster ups the profile of the UMD program on campus, in the community and on the recruiting trail. And the best part for Crowell is the Bulldogs will have Rooney in goal not just for 2018-19, but through the 2019-20 season.

"We have Maddie, who is a special Olympian because of the role she was in, because the way that game ended with her making the save," Crowell said. "A lot of kids are back from the Olympics and on college teams, but this situation is a little bit different."

Rooney has brought back more than just name recognition from her year with Team USA.

Coaches and teammates speak of a goaltender who is physically stronger. She is more poised and confident in the net and locker room. She has matured greatly from her first two seasons as a Bulldog.

Oh, and Rooney can not only stop the puck, she can play it as well as anyone now.

"I developed my puck-handling skills a lot," Rooney said. "I want to be more of that type of goalie this year and have my defense be confident in catching passes, fanning out for passes, things like that.

"It's almost like I'm a sixth skater out there. It makes breakouts go a lot more efficiently and quicker. Just being more of a presence back there can give a team more confidence."

Junior co-captain Jalyn Elmes, the Bulldogs' top returning defenseman, appreciates essentially having a third defenseman on the ice this season, especially since the team graduated four regulars from last year's blue line.

The Bulldogs also bring back senior Shelby Brossart and sophomore McKenzie Revering on defense, while Crowell said she plans to play incoming freshmen defensemen Lizi Norton, Kailee Skinner and Maggie Flaherty right away.

All three rookies were in the lineup for Saturday's exhibition at Amsoil Arena against the National Women's Hockey League's Minnesota Whitecaps.

"Her ability to play the puck is awesome and it's going to get our D-men more comfortable playing in the D-zone," Elmes said. "It's going to add a lot of confidence on the back end."

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That puck movement should help create more offense, too, by not only allowing defensemen to jump up on the rush, but by pushing the puck up to UMD's experienced group of forwards much quicker. Those include the team's top returning scorers from a year ago, sophomores Naomi Rogge (16-8--24) and Ashton Bell (11-12--23).

Like UMD men's goaltender Hunter Shepard, who had two assists last season, Rooney could be seeing herself on the scoresheet in 2018-19.

"She plays the puck behind the net, she moves the puck up to the wings on the boards even," junior forward and co-captain Sydney Brodt said. "I think it's going to make our transition game a lot faster this year. She plays a huge role in that."

A goalie that frequently plays the puck can be a blessing if everything is executed properly, but it also can be a curse if communication breaks down.

Rooney said there will be mistakes early on, especially since it's something not all players are used to at this level. Rooney didn't play the puck much as a freshman or sophomore.

Elmes is confident she and her fellow blueliners are ready for whatever their goalie brings. So far, players have adapted because they have tremendous trust in Rooney, Elmes said.

"We're all really comfortable with her back there making plays, and she knows what she's doing," Elmes said.

"It's not just Maddie anymore."

Speaking with the News Tribune last week in her office at Amsoil Arena, Crowell noted another big change Rooney has undergone over the last year.

"She always goes by two names now," Crowell said. "It's not just Maddie anymore."

There is one segment of the population where "Maddie Rooney" is still known as just "Maddie," and that's with her teammates, even though Saturday's exhibition against the Whitecaps was the first time most had played alongside her at UMD. The Bulldogs welcomed 10 freshmen a year ago -- though only eight remain -- in addition to North Dakota transfer Ryleigh Houston. This year's roster features nine freshmen.

Just six of Rooney's teammates from her sophomore year of 2016-17 remain with the program -- or seven if you count Ashleigh Brykaliuk, who has gone from being Rooney's captain to being her assistant coach.

Rooney said these Bulldogs have a much younger vibe than previous teams she played on.

"It's definitely been different. Now Bryk is my coach, so that's cool," Rooney said. "I'm getting to know all the new freshmen and sophomores. I'm just really excited to get close with everyone and be a part of the team again."

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Despite the turnover, Rooney said new and old teammates have been very welcoming. But there have been a few jokes from her Olympic days. That whole Bieber thing is going to follow her for a while.

"You spend enough time with her, it goes away. She is a great person and you start treating her like the 21-year-old that she is," Crowell said. "We wanted to make sure the team treated her like a normal human being, not the superstar Maddie Rooney, and I think they've done a good job with that. Maddie is pretty humble and down to Earth. That's the way she wanted to be treated, too." 

This article is written by Matt Wellens from Duluth News Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.