Goalie Nicole Hensley did not think the Olympics were possible.
Not while growing up in Colorado, which has never produced a female Olympic hockey player.
Not when she started her freshman season opener for little Lindenwood University. Ohio State shelled her with 64 shots in Columbus. She saved 60 in a 4-0 defeat. Lindenwood lost Hensley’s next seven starts, too.
But now, as the U.S. plays its pre-Olympic tournament this week, Hensley is all but assured of making the 23-woman roster for PyeongChang expected to be named in about two months.
She got the start in both games against rival Canada at the world championship tournament last spring, winning each time.
Four weeks later, Hensley was called into a meeting with U.S. head coach Robb Stauber, assistant Brett Strot and general manager Reagan Carey.
You made the national team, they told her. The Olympics are in nine months.
“I was practically in tears,” Hensley, 23, said. “It’s hard to remember anything else. I just couldn’t believe it, I guess.”
Hensley fell in love with the sport as a girl in Lakewood, a city seven miles southwest of Denver. How could she not. The hometown Avalanche made the NHL playoffs every season from when Hensley was 1 until she was 10.
“Her entire room was completely decked out in Avalanche memorabilia,” mom Linda said. “Hockey sticks, posters, anything that they sold at the Pepsi Center she had.”
She adored Joe Sakic.
“We were on vacation on the Outer Banks the year they won the Stanley Cup,” in 2001, Linda said. “The beach is right there, but we had to come in and watch every game.”
Hensley’s parents drove her and little sister Brittany (not much of a hockey fan, now on the Colorado State rodeo team) around the metropolitan area to local Conoco gas stations, where players and coaches signed autographs.
“We went to every single one of those signings,” Linda said.
Sakic once visited her local rink.
“She got an autograph on a crumpled piece of paper that she still has,” Linda said. “When he retired we had some friends of friends who knew him. They had put out a commemorative hockey stick with all his lifetime stats, so he autographed that stick for her.”
Hensley started out as a skater. She became a goalie to continue playing with boys when they started checking at pee-wee ages of 11 and 12.
By her last years of high school, Hensley traveled with the Colorado Select girls club team. Her senior season ended with a concussion after another skater ran into her.
“I actually blacked out,” Hensley said. “I guess I stood up and fell back down, but I don’t remember doing that.”
“When we got home and to our doctor a few days later, she still wasn’t remembering things properly and wasn’t counting properly,” Linda said.
It was not significant enough to question Hensley’s decision to accept her only hockey scholarship offer to Lindenwood. Symptoms cleared after two or three weeks.
Hensley joined a Lindenwood team that had gone 8-21 the previous season, its first as an NCAA program. The returning No. 1 goalie took a shot off her clavicle two or three weeks before the season opener.
So coaches decided Hensley would open her freshman year in net at Ohio State, a school with five times the enrollment of Lindenwood’s 11,000 or so.
“The instant look on her face was oh crap,” Lindenwood goalie coach Cory Whitaker said. “Then, right after that, it was, this is my chance.
“From that point on, you knew that she was going to do anything possible to not give up that starting position.”
Hensley was praised for only giving up four goals as Lindenwood was outshot 64-19. There would be plenty more games like it during a freshman campaign that included another concussion and a few thousand bus miles, including an 18-hour ride to Bemidji State in Minnesota.
Then there’s the conference tournament game that everyone talks about.
Robert Morris University pelted Hensley with 92 shots over three regulation periods and three overtimes. Hensley stopped 90 of them, shattering the NCAA Division I single-game record by 12 saves, but Lindenwood lost 2-1.
A Robert Morris assistant saved the puck and gave it to Lindenwood.
“That’s what started to spark interest, I think people started to say maybe this kid is capable of something more,” said Hensley, who felt fine after that game — until she tried to roll out of bed the next morning.
USA Hockey invited Hensley to a camp for the nation’s top development goalies after her freshman and sophomore seasons.
“I would have put myself maybe middle of the pack for the 12 that were there,” she said. “I never really saw myself standing out or anything like that.”
After her sophomore year, Carey called Hensley to invite her to a more select camp of six to nine goalies. Then, Hensley made the world championship team as the third and final goalie — and third-youngest player on the roster — following her senior year in 2016.
But it wasn’t until later in 2016 at an August camp when Hensley felt like an Olympic prospect.
“Up until that time, I had been somewhat intimidated to even be on the ice with people like Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker and Meghan Duggan,” Hensley said, naming star forwards on the 2014 Olympic silver-medal team. “At that camp, I just started to realize I had the ability to play with them and that [the Olympics] could be a possibility.”
Rather than join a club team after graduating in 2016, Hensley stayed in Missouri, where she had a job as a video coach for Lindenwood and a goalie coach in St. Louis.
She was the only member of the 2017 World Championship team who had not played in a league that season.
No matter, she got the start for the opener against Canada over Alex Rigsby, who had blanked the Canadians in the 2016 World final but was mending from a torn hip capsule.
Hensley stopped all 18 Canadian shots, a performance that led Stauber, a former NHL goalie, to call on her again for both medal-round games. 11-0 over Germany in the semifinals. 3-2 over Canada in overtime for a fourth straight world title.
Hensley usually plays with a Bible verse somewhere on her mask. Maddie Rooney, a fellow goalie and roommate, said Hensley’s defining characteristics are that she devotes at least an hour a day to scripture and owns about 25 pairs of Nikes.
There’s also a small ice cream cone drawn at the base of her glove, an inside joke shared with her post-grad coach, Luke Venker.
“She used to get kind of upset if she couldn’t do something right, extremely frustrated, and we would start bickering at each other,” Venker said. “I go, ‘What’s going to make you happy right now?’ She yelled out, ‘Ice cream!’ The running joke is, if she gets mad, just think about ice cream.”
Hensley said that at Lindenwood, she would play in front of 60 fans “on a good night.” The school has never had a Winter Olympian, though two-time Paralympic champion hockey player Josh Pauls studied there, along with recent Summer Olympians.
Space was recently prepared in the athletic office for a framed U.S. hockey jersey to display next to a few football jerseys from NFL alumni.
“Goalies, they develop a little bit later than younger players,” Stauber said. “They can develop quite frankly in any program. Just because a goalie goes to Wisconsin doesn’t necesarily mean that they’re a lot better than somebody that’s at Lindenwood.”
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Clarification: An earlier version of this post did not mention that two-time Paralympic champion Josh Pauls attended Lindenwood.