Column: Laguna Hills’ Annie Pankowski relishes another shot at making U.S. Olympic hockey team

Annie Pankowski, a forward for the U.S. Women's hockey team, is all smiles after practice at Great Park Ice in Irvine on Wednesday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Annie Pankowski understood why she was one of the final cuts from the 2014 U.S. Olympic hockey roster, even if she disagreed with the decision when she was told a few weeks before the team left for Sochi, Russia. Then 18, the Laguna Hills native — a stellar graduate of the Lady Ducks youth programs — probably wasn’t ready to thrive at a higher level. Besides, there was always next time.

She enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where she was voted national rookie of the year in 2015 and added maturity to her precocious skills. She took a year’s absence from school to train with Team USA during the 2017-18 season and was assured the 23 players in training camp would compete at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Friends and family bought tickets for the trip.

But then came another summons to see the coaches and get the news she had been cut again. She was devastated. A corner of her soul is still scarred. “I think a little part of it always stays with you,” she said. “I don’t think you really get over it.”

Pankowski, 25, is taking a third shot at making the Olympics — but not because winning a berth on the 2022 Beijing team would define her.

U.S. Women's hockey forward Annie Pankowski, from Laguna Hills, practices with the team as they start training camp at Great Park Ice in Irvine on Wednesday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

She’s an intelligent and accomplished woman who spent thousands of hours working for a Madison, Wis., nonprofit called OccuPaws, training guide dogs for people who have problems with their mobility or their sight.

She had the mental and emotional strength to rebound from that searing Olympic snub to score the insurance goal in Wisconsin’s NCAA championship victory over Minnesota last spring.

A few weeks after that she was a dominant force in scoring seven points in seven games as the U.S. women won the world championship.

“She took all that frustration and disappointment in Annie Pankowski style,” said Lady Ducks program director Kathy McGarrigle, who coached her for four years. “That’s the kid I’ve known forever.

“Annie, even when she was 10, was a player that would read a situation like a need-to-win game and you could just see her ability to put the whole team on her shoulders and make that a win. A goal if it was needed, a defensive-zone-stand sort of thing with so many seconds to go in the game. She was the person that you would look at and say, ‘Yeah, you need to be out there right now.’ And she would make something happen.”

Pankowski is juggling veterinary school with playing for the national team, which is training at Great Park Ice in Irvine this week to prepare for the last three games of its five-game Rivalry Series against fellow powerhouse Canada. The series will end Feb. 8 at Honda Center in Anaheim. McGarrigle said more than 200 Lady Ducks and their families will flock to root for one of their own.

U.S. Women's hockey forward Annie Pankowski, left in red, from Laguna Hills, scores a goal as she practices with the team as they start training camp at Great Park Ice in Irvine on Wednesday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Although disappointment might await her again, it simply never occurred to Pankowski not to pursue an Olympic berth for the third time.

“It was hard for six months and then you start over and it’s a new [quadrennial] and it’s a new team and there’s new coaches, so you get a fresh start. I’m really grateful for that,” she said after the team’s spirited practice Wednesday. “Last year was a really good year for me and I’m really happy with the way I bounced back in college and with the national team. I guess I have a little bit of a different role now. I’m just grateful to be here.”

Her new role comes courtesy of coach Bob Corkum, who was a member of the expansion 1993-94 Mighty Ducks and has coached the U.S women for a year and a half. He and assistants Joel Johnson and Brian Pothier see Pankowski as a premier scorer and they’ve given her linemates who suit her game.

On Wednesday she skated alongside Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hannah Brandt, an intriguing trio that boasts speed and skill galore. “I think he’s putting me in a place to succeed and I’m really grateful for that,” Pankowski said.

Corkum didn’t want to hear previous coaches’ evaluations of Pankowski. He wanted to make up his mind based on what he sees and he has been impressed so far.

“What I know of Annie is that she’s an absolute competitor. She comes to the rink every day with a huge smile on her face and ready to compete and make herself and her teammates better,” Corkum said. “She’s a prolific goal scorer. She’s done it at the college level. She does it at this level. She’s a wonderful, wonderful player and an even better person.”

Bob Corkum, head coach of the U.S. Women's National Hockey Team, coached the team at the start of training camp at Great Park Ice in Irvine on Wednesday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The U.S. women’s team has never played in Southern California, and Pankowski welcomes the chance to have home-ice advantage of sorts. She bought a home in Madison, but her family is here and she has fond memories of learning to play roller hockey just down the road before she made the switch to the ice version.

“It’s going to be really exciting,” she said. “My family has a lot of people going. It will be awesome.”

It would only be right if they also get to see her in Beijing in 2022.