Claudia Kepler knew it was going to be a different kind of hockey season, so she set out with a different kind of outlook.
After she decided to transfer from Ohio State to her hometown University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team in the spring of 2016, Western Collegiate Hockey Association rules dictated that Kepler couldn’t play in games last season.
Given that time to watch games from the seats, she made it a goal to observe more of life and try to incorporate the good traits of others into her existence.
“I learned how to be patient,” Kepler said. “I learned how to enjoy my time even without playing games.”
Back in the lineup this season, the Verona native has been a major part of a scoring balance that has the top-ranked Badgers at 12-0.
Kepler leads UW and is tied for fourth nationally with eight goals. She’s one of 15 Badgers players who have scored; the total was 13 through a dozen games last season.
And for a team that had big questions about who’d score the goals in the wake of personnel losses, the Badgers are holding their own. They’ve scored 43 times, just two shy of the total the team had through the same number of games a year ago.
UW puts that somewhat surprising start up against No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday and Sunday at LaBahn Arena in a WCHA series that holds intrigue for more than just the top-five matchup.
It’s the first time Kepler will play against Ohio State, where she spent the first three seasons of her collegiate career.
“It’s just going to be fun,” she said. “It’s going be like I was practicing against them two years ago, but now it’s just going to be real time here in Wisconsin.”
Forward Baylee Wellhausen, who shares a house with Kepler as well as the Badgers’ captaincy, said she can sense there’s something extra in this series.
“I can see it in her eyes,” Wellhausen said. “Even in the house, I can just feel her energy for this weekend. Being able to actually play against them, I can only imagine how that would feel, playing against the people you used to be teammates with. That has to be a crazy feeling.”
Kepler, who scored 38 goals in 107 games for the Buckeyes from 2013 to 2016, said she weighed the consequences of a transfer for months.
“It’s my last year. Are teams going to want me?” she said, recalling the string of thoughts that came to her during the deliberation. “Am I going to want to sit out? Am I going to have fun sitting out? Am I going to like going to a new team? Am I going to fit into a new team?
“I guess the thing it came down to was, when you grow up, you put so much time and effort into wanting to play college hockey, and that was really the deciding factor: OK, I just want to have a good last year.”
There was still that year off to navigate, and a new approach. Instead of seeing them as a grind, she got pumped up for practices. When the team was on road trips, she’d get work in on the ice and send encouraging text messages.
“That,” Wellhausen said, “is just what made her such an awesome leader.”
The answers to Kepler’s questions came quickly. She caught on at UW and said she had a blast last season even though she couldn’t take part in the big events.
“They just made me feel like a part of the team even when I wasn’t playing in the game,” Kepler said. “Last year was still very fun, and that played a big factor in being happy when I transferred. Last year and this year, I’m very happy with.”