Lake Stevens' Bender pursues Olympic hockey dream
To realize that dream, the 20-year-old Bender made the decision six years ago to leave her Lake Stevens home. She moved to Faribault, Minn., when she was 14 to attend Shattuck-St. Mary's School, where her teams would later win two national titles. From there she was recruited to play at Boston College, which reached the NCAA Division I Frozen Four a year ago and is a strong candidate to return again this season.
As Bender explained, these were necessary steps on her Olympic journey. Though she is not a candidate for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia -- that team has already been chosen and will be announced Wednesday -- she has her eye on the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
As a hockey player, she said, "there are certain moments you think about. Some of them are little stepping stones, like winning nationals at Shattuck. Putting on the jersey at BC. And then going to the Frozen Four.
"The next one, I think, would be having the chance to put on a U.S. jersey and play for my country. But obviously the pinnacle would be being on the (Olympic medals) podium. That would be the ultimate. That's what you dream about."
Bender got her start in hockey as a 6-year-old girl growing up in Lake Stevens. Her father, Buddy Bender, had been a hockey player as a boy in Philadelphia -- "I got the hockey bug when the Broad Street Bullies were winning their Stanley Cups (in 1973-74 and 1974-75)," he said -- and he later played at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
Lexi Bender played other sports as a girl, including softball -- she won a varsity letter at Lake Stevens High School while attending Cavelero Mid-High as a ninth grader -- but hockey was always her first love. And since her dad had continued playing on men's rec league teams, she said, "it was something we could do together."
The decision for her to attend a prep school in Minnesota was not an easy one, particularly for Buddy Bender and his wife Danika.
"It was very difficult sending her off," he said. "But at the end of the day, and for Lexi to achieve what she wants to achieve, it had to happen.
"She was very mature about it. It was something she wanted to do. Heck, we even went out and bought a puppy before she left, thinking she might reconsider the whole thing," he added with a chuckle.
Shattuck-St. Mary's is an elite school, both athletically and academically, and it helped prepare Lexi Bender for the jump to college hockey. She had her pick of top programs, with Wisconsin and Harvard also in her final three, but a visit to Boston College during a family vacation years ago helped make that school her first choice.
A defenseman, she played in all 37 games as a freshman for the Eagles, who reached the Frozen Four before losing in the semifinals to eventual national champion Minnesota, 3-2 in overtime. This season she is again playing a big role as Boston College is 12-4-2 and ranked seventh nationally at the season's midpoint.
"Lexi's done a great job for us as an offensive defenseman," said Boston College head coach Katie King Crowley. "She jumps up in the play, helps us in the offense, on the power play and on the penalty kill. She's also a great defenseman when she's back in our defensive zone. So we definitely use her in all facets of the game."
There is an added benefit for Bender being at Boston College. Because in her quest to be on the U.S. Olympic team someday, she has excellent mentors in Crowley, a three-time U.S. team member (including 1998, when the Americans won the Olympic gold medal in Nagano, Japan) and Eagles associate head coach Courtney Kennedy, a two-time Olympian.
Bender's Olympic goal is "certainly realistic," Crowley said. "Lexi does a great job off the ice in terms of being in the weight room, eating right, and doing all the little things she needs to do. She's also a strong, strong kid and a smart hockey player, so she has the talent, too.
"I certainly think that's something of a goal of hers, and we're going to do everything in our power to help her get there."
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