How Natalie Darwitz Changed The Game In The Professional Women’s Hockey League

by | Feb 2024

Natalie Darwitz

Athlete Natalie Darwitz. Photo: Chris Emeott

Natalie Darwitz has spent a lifetime redefining hockey for women, and now she’s leading the new professional women’s hockey team in Minnesota.

When Natalie Darwitz first stepped on the ice to play hockey at the age of 5, it was a different world for female hockey players. Women’s hockey was nascent, and little girls still played on boys’ teams.

And yet she made a career out of a dream she couldn’t fully visualize as a kindergartner on ice skates. The Eagan-native grew up to win back-to-back national championships for the University of Minnesota Gophers, played on the U.S. National Team for 10 years and competed in three Olympics (earning two silver medals and a bronze). In 2008, Darwitz was named the best forward in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation for her performance at the World Championship where she led the tournament in scoring. She’s also coached multiple high school and college teams in Minnesota.

Natalie Darwitz got her start playing in Eagan.

Natalie Darwitz got her start playing in Eagan. Photo: Natalie Darwitz

Her latest venture as general manager of the Minnesota team in the newly formed Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) represents the next logical step in a career that continues to redefine hockey for women.

Hockey was very much a sport for boys when Darwitz was growing up, and she’s encouraged by the generations of little girls and young women hockey players, who came up behind her. “Having a dream to be on our team, that’s important,” she says of young girls playing hockey today. “Our generation grew up going to Gopher men’s games and picking out a male player [to admire or emulate].”

She wants the girls growing up today to look at her team and say, “‘I want to be that player that I look like,’” she says. “Hopefully, the league is bigger and better. Anybody who has a daughter, mother, sister: If you want the same opportunities for them, this has to be successful. We want our daughters to … have the same opportunities.”

Natalie Darwitz

Photo: Chris Emeott

Although the opportunities for girls playing hockey weren’t as abundant, Darwitz was enamored with hockey from a young age. The youngest of three children, Darwitz often tagged along with her dad while he was coaching her brother’s team, and she convinced her parents to let her play. “As a 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-year-old growing up, I fully thought I’d be playing in the NHL [National Hockey League],” she says. When she was in seventh grade, she joined a girls hockey team, because, at 5 foot 3 inches, it made more sense to compete with players closer to her own size. She realized that the NHL wouldn’t happen, but hockey could still get her a college scholarship, and after women’s hockey was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1998, that became her new goal.

Darwitz has fond memories of growing up in Eagan, playing hockey with friends at Goat Hill Park and Bridle Ridge Park and roller hockey at the Eagan Civic Arena and in the parking lots of Eagan High School and Northview Elementary. She’s proud to be from Eagan and expresses how meaningful it is to have built her entire career from these roots. “When I’m on the roster and it says Eagan, Minnesota, that’s cool,” she says.

Darwitz, who lives in Prior Lake, has spent the past 15 years or so as a dedicated coach to many teams that have found success with her, including Lakeville South High School Girls Hockey and University of Minnesota Women’s Hockey. Coaching was on the table for the PWHL, but she had bigger dreams. “At the end of the day, I could have the greatest impact on women’s hockey and women’s sports if my leadership grew,” Darwitz says. “Now, I get to expand my wings and my leadership and hopefully make a far greater difference.”

As the general manager she’s gotten a crash course in a lot of administrative work, and she’s responsible for overseeing the entire organization’s performance on the ice. She drafted the team and is in charge of trading players, hiring coaching staff and building the program.

Darwitz and Lakeville-native Maggie Flaherty at the PWHL draft in September.

Darwitz and Lakeville-native Maggie Flaherty at the PWHL draft in September. Photo: Professional Women’s Hockey League

Getting a professional sports team up and running from scratch is no easy task, especially in a few short months. The PWHL was announced on August 29, 2023, and teams were drafted in late September. Training camp started November 15, and its first season, which ends in May, is already underway at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. “Anybody who would get hired on a men’s team would be walking into an established organization, and we’re kind of building the plane as we’re flying it,” she says. “It would be a challenging job anyway, but in the long run, this is going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to enrich my heart and get me waking up in the morning, hopefully making an impact.”

The PWHL’s website lays out its mission, stating: “We commit to taking risks that will drive our growth.” In considering the inaugural season, Darwitz is excited to take on this small and competitive league with exactly that mission in mind: Growth is the only option. “There’s only six teams, and there’s going to be fierce competition every time we drop the puck,” she says.

The success of Minnesota’s team requires a focus and determination that Darwitz is familiar with. “At the end of the day, we look at wins and losses, and that’s how our success gets categorized,” she says.

With a trendsetter like Darwitz at the helm, the Minnesota team is positioned for success. “I have a great amount of pride being from Minnesota and seeing where this sport has evolved,” she says.

Professional Women’s Hockey League
Facebook: PWHL Minnesota
Instagram: @pwhl_minnesota


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