ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — Everything is new and foreign — the food, language, geography and many of her teammates — for Nela Lopusanova after packing her hockey gear and leaving behind her family to make the 15-hour, 4,300-mile trek from Zilina, Slovakia, to upstate New York.
Wearing a Blackhawks T-shirt, the 15-year-old’s eyes lit up and she said, “That’s cool,” when informed Buffalo — where her idol, former Chicago star Patrick Kane grew up — is an hour's drive away.
And while she might be much closer now to Michigan, the only “Michigan” Lopusanova is familiar with is the slick, raise-the-puck-on-the-blade and loft it lacrosse-style into the net. The goal is named after Michigan’s Mike Legg, the first to accomplish the feat during the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
It’s a goal Lopusanova scored that made ESPN’s play of the day and put her on everyone’s radar after becoming the first female to do so in that fashion in international play during the Under-18 women’s hockey championships in January.
Unfamiliar as Lopusanova is with her new surroundings, she quickly discovered her reputation as a teenage hockey phenom preceded her arrival. Discussing how enthused she is following her first practice with the Bishop Kearney high school Selects Academy, Lopusanova was interrupted by a passerby.
“Sorry,” said Craig Severo, whose son attends Bishop Kearney. “It’s not every day you go, `Wow, you’re really good.′ Welcome to Rochester.”
Lopusanova rose to shake Severo’s hand and politely whispered thank you before settling back in her seat next to teammate Finley McCarthy.
“You’ve got fans,” McCarthy said, smiling.
“Wooh!” Lopusanova said, giggling.
“I like that when someone comes just wanting a photo or something,” she added. “It’s a really good feeling and it pushes me to do a better job.”
Impressive as her young career has been, Lopusanova made her first trip to North America to develop her game against elite competition in a bid to land a college scholarship.
“It was my dream and I was really working hard on that,” she said. “I was hoping that I would be here. And now I’m here. It’s a really good feeling for me.”
Here is a Catholic high school that in seven years since launching its Selects international hockey program has gained a reputation of developing some of North America’s top young female players.
Alumni include U.S. national team defender Caroline Harvey, who in March won an NCAA championship with Wisconsin, and a month later won a gold medal at the women’s world championships. The Selects roster features five players who participated in the recent U.S. Under-18 camp, and Czech Republic national team goalie Michaela Hesova.
“We’re super excited and honored to have her a part of it,” Selects director of girls hockey Cari Coen said. “But I think she’s also excited to be one of (the team), and be able to just push and grind and develop every day.”
Lopusanova took up figure skating at 2, and turned to hockey at 4, watching her older brother Simon play, and after attending an IIHF girls hockey program in her hometown.
In making her debut in Slovakia’s senior women’s league two years ago, Lopusanova scored 25 goals and 40 points in just six games. Last season, she upped her total to 28 goals and 49 points in eight games.
At the Under-18 women’s championships, Lopunasova had nine goals and a tournament-leading 12 points. Aside from “The Michigan,” she scored by driving to the net and eluding a defender by pulling the puck between her legs. Another time, she was alone in the left circle and avoided two defenders before snapping in a shot, beating the goalie high on the short side.
As much of a fan Lopusanova is of Kane, and wearing his No. 88 for the Selects, the NHL player has become a fan of hers after catching a couple of Slovakia's world championship games on TV.
“It was surprising to hear that she was only 14, especially when you’re watching her, right? She looks like the best player on the ice,” Kane said, adding what impressed him was the joy she displayed after each goal. “It’s nice to see that passion, that someone loves the game that much.”
Second on the NHL career scoring list among U.S.-born players, Kane acknowledged even he wasn’t trying those types of moves at that age: “No chance,” he said.
“If you’re a hockey fan and you see someone doing that well at that age, it’s exciting,” Kane said. “It’s good for the game, whether it’s men or women. So yeah, I’ll definitely be watching. And it’s definitely cool for me to hear that she’s a fan as well.”
Listed at 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, Lopusanova showed flashes of her deft collection of abilities during her first practice.
In warmups, she scooped up the puck and continuously flipped it up four and five times on her blade while skating up the ice. During line rushes, Lopusanova displayed an effortless skating style that required only a few strides to out-race her teammates, before making sharp cuts without any hint of bending her ankles.
She possesses a hard shot in which she uses her speed to generate power. And Lopusanova has a nose for the puck. Trapped in the corner, she quickly stepped around the surprised defender to regain possession by digging the puck out from the other side.
Her teammates were not only watching, but Bella Fanale even tried to score a Michigan during warmups.
“Oh, 100% I got my eyes on her,” said McCarthy, who was representing the U.S. when first befriending Lopusanova at the world championships. “Any opportunity to play with someone who’s at a very high level is always very exciting.”
McCarthy is already committed to attending Wisconsin, which elicited an “Oooooh,” from Lopusanova, who hopes to one day play for the Badgers.
Difficult as it was to leave everyone behind, not even a bout of jet lag or limited English could contain her excitement in opening the next chapter of what is an already blossoming career.
“This is my dream,” Lopusanova said. “I’m so happy to be here.”
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