Honored for playing accomplishments, she now seeks to make mark as a hockey coach
Natalie Darwitz has been busy with the details of her family’s trip to Nashville next week, when she will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. From finalizing travel arrangements to deciding what she, her husband and their two young sons will wear, it’s been a whirlwind.
Then there’s the matter of preparing the Hamline University women’s hockey team that she coaches for a game. The Pipers, ranked eighth in the U.S. College Hockey Online women’s Division III poll, play 10th-ranked Wisconsin-Eau Claire on Monday, 48 hours before the induction ceremony.
Still to be determined is what Darwitz will say when she goes into the hall of fame Wednesday, Dec. 12.
“No, I haven’t written anything down yet,” Darwitz said Tuesday morning. “I’m still trying to find outfits for my kids, myself and my husband. I might just wing it. I might write down a few notes the night before, but I want what I say to be straight from the heart and not too scripted.”
Darwitz’s resume is unquestioned – starting in Eagan, where she played Pee Wee boys hockey and then became the Eagan High School girls team’s all-time leading scorer, to being the youngest player ever named to the U.S. Women’s National Team, to being a core player on the national team for more than a decade, to leading the University of Minnesota women’s team to back-to-back national championships, to becoming a respected coach after retiring as a player. It was a question of when she would go into the hall of fame, not if.
Still, she said she’s having some difficulty processing the idea of going into the hall at age 35, only eight years removed from her playing career.
“A lot of people in the hall of fame played for a lot longer than I did because they had the opportunities,” Darwitz said. “But I also played with (U.S. women’s hockey legends) Cammi Granato, Karyn Bye and Angela Ruggiero, and it’s going to be an honor to be in the hall of fame with them.”
The 2008 induction class also includes Red Berenson, former men's head coach at the University of Michigan; NHL executive David Poile, currently general manager of the Nashville Predators; Paul Stewart, the first U.S.-born referee to officiate 1,000 games in the NHL; and Leland (Hago) Harrington, a legendary coach and player in Massachusetts.
Darwitz was named to the national team in 1998 at age 15. Before retiring as a player, she skated in three Olympics, winning two silver medals and a bronze, and played on three IIHF Women’s World Championship teams.
She did not play on the 1998 U.S. Olympic team, which won the gold medal in the first year women’s hockey was part of the Games, but “that team made women’s hockey relevant in the U.S. and North America,” Darwitz said. “Then the question became, now what? How do we grow the game and get more girls playing?
“Over the years I think we were able to show that women’s hockey could be a fast, skilled game. Eventually, I think people realized it was good hockey, not just good women’s hockey.”
Darwitz led all players in the 2002 Olympic women’s tourney with seven goals. She went on to be captain of the national team from 2007 to 2010.
She was USA Hockey Women’s Player of the Year in 2005. That year, she set an NCAA single-season record with 114 points in leading Minnesota to a second consecutive national championship. She completed her career at Minnesota as the school’s career scoring leader.
She was introduced to coaching in the 2007-08 season when her father Scott, then the Eagan High girls head coach, talked his daughter into helping him. That led to two seasons as an assistant coach at Minnesota. In 2011, she decided to take a shot at being a head coach, applied for the open position with the Lakeville South High School girls program and got it. In four seasons the Cougars won 79 games and went to one state tournament.
In 2015, she became head coach at Hamline. “In a lot of ways, high school hockey was a perfect fit for me,” Darwitz said then. “But anytime you have a chance for advancement, personally or professionally, I think you have to take a look at it. I’m competitive, and I wanted to play at the highest level I could. It’s the same way for me as a coach.”
It couldn’t be just any college job, though. Darwitz’s desire to start a family ruled out, in her mind, becoming a Division I head coach because of the frequent road trips and huge time commitment.
Hamline University athletic director Jason Verdugo went to Darwitz with a different pitch. “He knew that I wanted a work-life balance,” Darwitz said. “He told me, ‘We know you’ll get the job done on the ice and we want you to be able to get the job done at home.’”
Hamline was not a Division III power when she took over. The Pipers won nine games in Darwitz’s first season, and yet it was the most victories in one season in almost 10 years.
By 2017-18, her third season at Hamline, Darwitz built a team that went 22-5-3 and finished third in the NCAA Division III tournament. She was named Division III Coach of the Year. Hamline also moved its home games and practices from an aging municipal arena near the campus to the TRIA Rink in downtown St. Paul, where the Minnesota Wild practices.
It sounded like Darwitz plans to stick around at Hamline for a while.
“It gives me a chance to provide for my family, and I can still see my kids and spend some time at the lake in the summer,” she said. “Division III is a good place for me right now. If I go to Division I, I don’t have any work-life balance and if I coach high school I don’t make any money.”
Once she returns from Nashville, it doesn’t mean her work in hockey is done. Hamline is 8-1 and aiming for returning to the NCAA tournament. Darwitz also hopes the Pipers can help counter what she sees as a disturbing trend in women’s hockey toward lower-scoring, defense-oriented games. She wants to see more free-flowing play and creativity – her trademarks as a player.
“It’s looking a little like men’s hockey did a few years ago with all the trapping,” she said. “We’re not seeing many two-on-ones in women’s hockey right now, and there’s a lot of mucking it up in the corners. I was watching part of a men’s college game last week and the score was 6-5, and I was thinking, ‘What?’ We don’t see that in the women’s game right now. I think we would if we went back to a more skilled game, and that’s what I’m trying to teach with my team.”
And it’ll be difficult for players not to listen to a coach with hall of fame credentials.