As a young girl, Lexi Bender of Snohomish had a chance to meet Brooke Whitney and Kelly Stephens, two Seattle-area women who were among the nation’s best female hockey players.
Whitney, who is from Snohomish, won the 2002 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as the top player in NCAA women’s hockey in her senior season at Boston’s Northeastern University. Stephens, who grew up in Shoreline, won a pair of national championships at the University of Minnesota and received a bronze medal with the 2006 U.S Olympic team.
“My dad set it up for me to meet both of them,” Bender said, “and that was extremely influential for me in what I wanted to pursue.”
Indeed, her goal was to become an elite hockey player herself, and after getting advice and encouragement from Whitney and Stephens, she set about making it happen. Bender moved from Snohomish to attend high school and play top-level hockey in Minnesota, and then went on to play four seasons at Boston College, which has a strong women’s hockey program.
The 23-year-old Bender, an All-Hockey East first-team selection as a senior in 2015-16, graduated from BC in the spring and is now playing professionally with the Boston Pride of the second-year National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). But having never forgotten how meaningful it was to meet elite players such as Whitney and Stephens, Bender has likewise tried to encourage and support the next generation of up-and-coming players.
Last Friday, Bender appeared at a free holiday skate for female hockey players ages 13-22 at Everett’s Xfinity Arena. She was joined by former Ohio State star Natalie Spooner, who won a gold medal as a member of Team Canada at the 2014 Olympic Games.
“The looks you see on these girls’ faces when you do these events … they’re so wanting to learn,” Bender said. “They want to get where you are, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes. They’re just beginning to understand all the work that goes in and they’re willing to do it.”
Bender’s hope is to see the continued growth in girls hockey in the Puget Sound area. The idea, she said, is that younger girls in the future will have more opportunities here at home than she herself had years ago.
“I mean, I love my experience (in hockey),” she said. “But if there had been an opportunity for me to stay home when I was 14 (instead of moving to Minnesota), I would have done that. So for girls to be able to have opportunities (to advance in hockey) and to give girls the opportunities to stay local and pursue their dreams, that’s very relevant to me.”
Bender was chosen to join the United States national team program while still at Boston College, and in 2014 she was named to the U.S. Under-22 Select Team for a summer series against Canada. She had hopes of being on the American team for the 2016 Winter Olympics, but was cut from the program last summer.
Being an Olympian “was a dream I had for a long time,” Bender said, “so that was incredibly disappointing.” Still, she found consolation from conversations with a mental skills coach, where “a lot of what we talk about is bringing your best every day and letting that be your measuring stick.”
Though the disappointment was severe, “you’re also able to look at yourself in the mirror and know that you gave it everything you had, and then you can look back with no regrets,” she said.
Bender, who left Boston College with a double major in geoscience and economics, works today as a sales associate for Tradition Energy in Boston, where she monitors the energy market and interacts with clients. But hockey still takes a good bit of her time, given that her NWHL season runs from September to April with one and sometimes two games on most weekends.
The league “is so new that I think the potential isn’t capped,” Bender said. “There are still a lot of possibilities and a lot of unknowns. But we put a great product on the ice, and the fans have been incredibly dedicated to seeing our growth.
“With everyone working together, I think we have a chance to (create) something really special.”