The confetti has fallen, the victory tour is over and the gold medal she captured in Korea mere months ago is nestled safe at her parents’ home in Lakewood. This brief lull in post-Olympic glory is almost reflective of what Nicole Hensley does on the hockey rink: hurry up and wait.
Hensley guarded the net as a rotating goalie during Team USA’s run for the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, becoming the first women’s hockey gold medalist from Colorado in the state’s athletically rich history for winter sports. But these past few weeks have been the least demanding on her frenzy-filled schedule.
Hockey aside — which has been a 12-month gig since college, if not earlier — Hensley just capped a Team USA celebration tour that included a meet-and-greet with Megan Trainor, a borderline-viral appearance on The Tonight Show Jimmy Fallon, Disney World and many other stops over nearly a full month after Korea. She’s back in Colorado, but only briefly before she resumes training, hiking the Manitou Incline and indulging in Little Man Ice Cream among other things to keep her grounded.
“Their salted Oreo is one of my favorites,” Hensley said. “And their peanut butter cup is so good.”
This is Hensley: a critical catalyst for a team arguably provided Team USA’s entire delegation’s most defining moment at the Olympics. Stripped of the pomp and circumstance, this ambitious native enjoys the minute yet homely details about Denver that we all do. And when pressed to reflect on the milestones she’s reached in such a short span, it still hasn’t sunk in.
“It’s definitely cool. But there are so many winter sport athletes from Colorado that it’s just kind of like happy to be in the same group as them,” Hensley said. “It’s obviously like a powerhouse for the winter sports. It was cool to obviously get to represent my family and Lakewood and Colorado as a whole over there, but I don’t ever know that I really thought about it much more than just like running into the other athletes and being like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re from Colorado too?’”
Everything about Hensley’s career has been unconventional.
She began on roller blades in her cul-da-sac. She decided to be a goalie rather than skate out because she wanted to keep playing with the boys. And she received just one scholarship offer, from up-and-coming Lindenwood in Missouri, which ambitiously had just launched its hockey program. Yet Hensley insists that had she not meandered down the deliberate path she did, she might not have wound up wearing gold.
Hensley’s parents came to Colorado from Kansas City in 1990, and admittedly lacked any hockey acumen. Just as Hensley’s neighbor was teaching her to blade her way around the cul-de-sac, the Avalanche began their run to the 2001 Stanley Cup title, which in part sparked her adolescent interest in unison.
As she migrated from pavement to ice, Hensley surged through the rapidly-developing Colorado Select Girls Hockey league, which was formed in 2001 and remains the first and only all-girls USA Hockey Model Association in the country. But her closest friends were boys and she possessed the ability to play at a high level with them. And that’s when she reached an impasse.
At around age 12 is when boys start ‘checking’ – the (very) physical act of disrupting the puck bearer – which created warranted apprehension with her mother, Leslie. The only way Hensley would be allowed to continue with the boys, Leslie said, was if Hensley shifted to goalie, the one position on the ice with the least physical contact yet with perhaps the most mental demand.
“I watched too many of those boys kind of occasionally line up some girls,” Leslie Hensley said. “That wasn’t something I was willing to let her experience. But as a goaltender those guys on our team protected her beautifully.”
Doing so helped Hensley prepare for Lindenwood, where she was pegged for upwards of 60 shots per game, nearly double what Hensley estimates that level sees now. The repetition was taxing, but necessary.
“She saw an enormous amount of rubber that first year, over 1,000 shots,” Leslie Hensley said. “I think that helped prepare her as far as being able to face that many shots and still perform well getting on USA Hockey’s radar.”
Injuries to key contributors opened a starting spot at goalie for the 2017 world championships, and Hensley ran with the opportunity, allowing just two goals over the medal round games, which were won on US soil. And her Olympic career – and growing pool of fans, both from Colorado and globally – took off.
Hensley spent her last days in Korea in February soaring the slopes in good fun with bronze medalist snowboarder and Steamboat Springs’ own Arielle Gold, who invited a handful of the hockey team out for one last hoo-rah before heading home. Having grown up with a family condo in Keystone, Hensley was well acclimated to skiing, but had never attempting boarding.
“We had to have just looked like the most ridiculous group because it was just us tumbling down the hill, Arielle trying to help us,” Hensley said. “We got the hang of it by the end a little bit, but it was mostly just us tumbling down the hill.”
And weeks after her return, Hensley received a full-circle welcome back of sorts when the Avalanche invited her to drop the ceremonial first puck at a home game on March 24, while donning a custom No. 29 jersey as an homage to her Team USA number. Hensley says it’s still surreal to consider the mutual admiration many NHL stars shared with her, nearly two decades after they inspired the early stages of her career.
“That’s another cool thing I think about the hockey world is that there’s very much a mutual respect,” Hensley said. “They look at a gold medal, not exactly the way they look at the Stanley Cup, but they understand the level of achievement for women’s hockey. That mutual respect is really cool.”
A celebrity and a casual citizen all the same.
Hensley resumes training this month in preparation for the World Nations Cup this November, and if all goes to plan, defending the Americans’ title at the world championships next spring. She speaks eagerly and passionately, and with an eye on the next Winter Olympics in 2022.
There’s nothing but conviction in Colorado’s newest gold medalist in what’s still yet to come.