Annie Pankowksi fell in love with hockey growing up in Southern California. She dreamed of playing in the NHL and wanted to be like Anaheim Ducks forward Paul Kariya, a future Hockey Hall of Famer.
She'll return this weekend as a player that other young girls now aspire to be.
Pankowski is coming home to play in California for the first time with the United States Women's National Team as they wrap up the 2019-20 Rivalry Series against Canada at Honda Center on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; NHLN). The U.S women clinched the best-of-5 series with a 3-1 win in Vancouver on Wednesday, but they'll try to add a fourth victory in front of the largest crowd to watch a women's game in the United States. More than 11,000 tickets have been sold, meaning that the crowd will eclipse the 10,158 that watched them play Canada in Detroit on Jan. 6, 2002.
Pankowski, a 25-year-old forward who in 2019 helped the University of Wisconsin win the NCAA championship and won the IIHF World Championship as a member of the U.S team for the third time, is a big part of that.
"It's amazing," said Pankowski, who is from Laguna Hills, California. "I grew up wanting to be Paul Kariya, and so for them to grow up and want to be the next me is one of those things that, you're like, 'Wow, I've made a difference in the sport of hockey and in California.'"
Pankowski, whose family had season tickets to the Ducks, started playing roller hockey with her brother and joined the Lady Ducks program when she transitioned to the ice. Back then, it was common for girls to play on the Under-12 and Under-14 teams because there weren't enough players. Pankowski didn't have any women's hockey role models from the area to relate or aspire to, so she left to play at the North American Hockey Academy in Wellesley, Massachusetts, as a teen. When she returned to the area with the U.S. Women's National Team for a training camp in late January, Pankowski couldn't believe how much the sport had grown in her home state.
"The growth of the Lady Ducks program I grew up in, it's just incredible to see," Pankowski said. "They have three or four teams at every age group, which is unheard of. I remember there wasn't enough girls to field teams, and now you have competitive teams doing well in nationals, putting Southern California on the map and going on to play college. All that stuff sets the foundation to have more kids in that program."
Those kids now have more role models like Pankowski, who have gone on to play in college, for the Women's National Team and in Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association events, including the first-ever Elite Women's 3-on-3 presented by Adidas during the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game Weekend.
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She has seen the impact that an increased profile can have on young players.
"Even though we're in California, people still know who I am, who Kendall [Coyne Schofield] is, who Hilary Knight is," Pankowski said. "They're giving those girls a path to dream for."
It's a path Pankowksi couldn't easily see when she was growing up. She had to leave "to get in front of college coaches because nobody was looking in Southern California."
This weekend all eyes will be on women's hockey in Southern California.
"It's crazy to see the journey come full circle," Pankowski said. "It started for me in California and it was a tiny market and it is going back to California as a huge market, one of the fastest growing for women. To have the chance to be home to play for the first time in front of my parents and people who supported me along this journey this whole time is really great."