Three of the five Let’s Play Hockey Ms. Hockey finalists are competing in the tournament: forward Hanna Brodt (Roseville) and defensemen Milica McMillen (Breck, above) and Lee Stecklein (Roseville). Star Tribune
Breck senior defenseman Milica McMillen once stood out in high school girls' hockey for reasons beyond her considerable skills.
She was, in her own words, an intimidator. Body checking was outlawed in girls' hockey, but McMillen grew up playing the boys' game and old habits were hard to break. She developed a reputation as one of the nation's best players at her age who also played overly physical at times.
"I'd try to target players sometimes," McMillen acknowledged. "It was, 'I really don't like her so I'm going to go hit her.' I don't do that anymore."
Opposing coaches have long appreciated McMillen's size (6-foot), speed, hard shot and head for the game. This season, though, she's turned heads with her maturity, allowing her to control games while controlling her emotions.
Breck, the No. 1 seed in the Class 1A tournament, plays Chisago Lakes at 6 p.m. Wednesday in a quarterfinal game at Xcel Energy Center. The Mustangs have reached the state tournament four previous times in McMillen's career, only to fall short of a title. She said this season feels different.
"We came together as a team and said we wanted to win," McMillen said. "I think now that we're here we actually believe it's possible."
Players kept the faith amid major preseason drama. Coach Len Vannelli resigned in early October facing heavy suspension from the Minnesota State High School League's Eligibility Committee for violating a "non-school competition and training" bylaw.
McMillen called hockey coaches and insiders, encouraging people she knew and trusted to apply for the job. New coach Chris Peterson, who worked with McMillen in summer programs, said her call put Breck on his radar.
Peterson, an assistant coach at Benilde-St. Margaret's, Hopkins and Eden Prairie during McMillen's tenure, already knew who his best player would be.
"She was a tough kid who played hard and was very skilled," Peterson said. "She came on in seventh grade and people would say, 'Wait until she's a senior.' I would say, 'Wait until she's a sophomore.'"
Peterson challenged McMillen to play a "no-contact" season, using her body to ward off defenders and playing a smarter physical game. She responded with a team-best 28 goals. She also led the Mustangs through her actions.
"I know the younger players look up to me and I knew that whatever I would do, my attitude would become theirs," McMillen said. "Part of the reason I try to stay out of the box is because my team relies on me."
Once feared, McMillen is more respected in hockey circles. Roseville defenseman Lee Stecklein, who will play with McMillen and the Gophers next season, said, "I wish I could do some things that she does. She looks effortless."
McMillen's first name, pronounced muh-LEETZ-ah, is popular in her grandfather's native country of Serbia and means gracious. The word best describes her feelings this season. She grateful to have a coach, talented teammates and one more shot to win a state title.
"We talked before the season about how [Hill-Murray forward] Hannah Brandt has Ms. Hockey and those other awards locked up already," Peterson said. "So I asked her what she wanted and she wanted to get to state and win it."