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From No. 1 Draft Pick to Hometown Hero, PWHL Star Taylor Heise Is Living the 'Dream’ (Exclusive)

The Team Minnesota star tells PEOPLE what it's like playing for her hometown team

<p>Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty</p> Taylor Heise

Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty

Taylor Heise

Taylor Heise is heading home.

The professional hockey star is getting ready for a drive back to Lake City – a small town, about 70 miles southeast of Minneapolis  – when she answers the phone for an interview about the new Professional Women’s Hockey League.

Heise, 23, is one of 138 players who joined the league this season, many of whom are veterans who never thought a league like this one would be possible. For Heise, however, the league came at the perfect time: Last year, she graduated from the University of Minnesota, where she flourished on the ice for five seasons, racking up 225 points in just 172 games, and a plethora of awards to boot.

In September, at the PWHL’s inaugural draft, Heise was the overall No. 1 pick, chosen by her hometown squad: Team Minnesota.

“It’s been a dream,” Heise tells PEOPLE, roughly a month into her first professional season. "I can't explain it any other way."

Like most of her teammates (including Olympic gold medalists Kendall Coyne-Schofield and Kelly Pannek) that dream — of professionally playing the sport she loves — wasn't one she was sure they could pursue.

But the newly-formed PWHL, which is backed by financial and sports powerhouses, promises to let them enjoy a career on the ice for the long haul. And the fans are ready.

“Usually after a game, it takes me two hours to get out of the rink because we’re meeting everyone and signing things,” Heise says. (And no wonder: Her Team Minnesota has jumped out to an early lead in the standings with four wins in its first five games. Heise has three goals and two assists in those games.)

<p>Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty</p> Taylor Heise

Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty

Taylor Heise

Heise’s autograph is a hot commodity at the Xcel Energy Center, where Team Minnesota plays — and where the Lake City native played her high school championship games at the Xcel Energy Arena. Since then, she's racked up awards (including the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the best player in the NCAA) and played for Team USA, with a host of medals, before landing on Team Minnesota right off the bat.

“All the young kids look up to her,” Coyne-Schofield, a fellow Midwesterner from the Chicago suburbs, tells PEOPLE. “It’s her first year being a pro, and taking on that responsibility of being the No. 1 overall draft pick, playing in your hometown, carries a lot of weight. I think she's carrying it well. She embraces that spotlight and the opportunity to have an impact on and off the ice.”

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If you ask Heise what some of her favorite memories are from the first three weeks of the season, the five-foot-10 center doesn’t bring up her goals or her team’s white-hot start.

She talks about skating around the stadium and seeing young girls on the other side of the glass — many of whom she recognizes from years of playing in the Minneapolis metro area — and who are taking in a professional women’s hockey game for the first time.

“I make sure I look at everyone's signs and make sure every kid that wants a puck gets one,” Heise says. “You just never know when something like this is going to end or when your time's done. So for me, I want to take advantage of every moment and make sure I'm making every moment special, no matter how small.”

Related: Everything to Know About the New Professional Women's Hockey League

At a recent Minnesota game, a young girl held up a sign thanking the players: “You’re doing this for me,” it read.

At an away game in Ottawa earlier this month, Heise says a mother introduced her to her six-month-old daughter who was witnessing her first live sporting event. Heise and the girl took a photo together, and the mother said she’d hang it up on her daughter’s wall at home.

“If I can help her to see that this is a possibility in life…,” Heise says, then pauses to find the right words: "I'm more than happy.”

<p>Ethan Miller/Getty</p> Taylor Heise

Ethan Miller/Getty

Taylor Heise

Heise came from a sports-crazed family, but their sport was basketball; in fact, Heise’s younger brothers Ryan and Nathan play the sport in college, in different schools in Iowa.

“My grandpa even says it all the time, like, ‘Who would've thought we'd be sitting here on a Saturday night watching hockey when there's 15,000 basketball games on TV?’ “ Heise laughs.

Related: The Best Photos From the PWHL's Opening Week

But growing up playing hockey spoke to Heise’s creativity and her independence. No one in her family had played the sport before, so getting better at the game meant relying on herself.

“I started playing at an outdoor rink, and when I started to get to 8, 9, and 10 years old, I realized I could do literally whatever I wanted out there,” she says. “There was so much room to grow, and skating was fun, but one of the most important things is that no one had ever done it in my family. For me to be able to grow by myself and learn was really fun. I honestly think one of my biggest assets in life was that I came up and did it on my own and figured it out.”

Other hockey parents noticed her talent and would tell Heise’s parents Amy and Tony: "I think your daughter should try this out at a bigger level."

Heise jokes that without the adults in her life encouraging her to keep going, “I'd probably be playing basketball in Iowa somewhere.”

<p>Zac BonDurant/Getty</p> Taylor Heise

Zac BonDurant/Getty

Taylor Heise

This week, Heise and Team Minnesota have a small break in the action, so she's on her way back to Red Wing, another small town about 15 miles away from where she grew up.

It’s there at the local Prairie Island Arena rink where Heise first learned to skate and to shoot. It’s also there where her old jersey number is hung in the rafters, memorializing a hometown hero who’s gone pro. And it’s there where Heise will drive up, pull out a bag of sticks, and do what she did almost every day growing up in Minnesota: She’ll play a pickup game with some local kids, all of them dreaming about making big plays in big moments.

It’s the first time Heise has been back to the arena since the PWHL season began. Maybe now, there will be even more young girls coming out to skate, and she'll be there to greet them with extra sticks and advice. Last year, when she did that, 100 kids showed up.

"The hometown rink, whoever wants to show up, can show up. I don't mind being out there by myself. That's always how it's been for me," she says. "But if people show up, I'm more than happy to hang out with them and to play some hockey because what's important to me."

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