This is the fourth in a series of articles honoring the 20 players who have been selected to the WCHA's 20th Anniversary Team. This week's honoree is Natalie Darwitz, who played at the University of Minnesota from 2002-03 to 2004-05.
By Bill Brophy
She has gotten used to being called "Coach." In fact, Natalie Darwitz was named the "Coach of the Year" after leading Hamline University to a third-place finish in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) Division III tournament last season.
But, Darwitz admits it is tough to accustom herself to her latest title: United States Hockey Hall of Famer. Natalie was named to the 2018 class and will be formally inducted in ceremonies in Nashville, Tenn. on December 12. She is the fifth individual woman to be named to the Hall of Fame.
"I can't really believe that yet, to be honest," said Darwitz. "It's like I don't see myself at that level. Hall of Famers are supposed to have gray hair."
As she starts her fourth season as head coach at Hamline, Darwitz still has the blonde hair that Minnesota hockey fans remember from her days at Ridder Arena, a period when the Gophers won two NCAA titles. It was for that career that Darwitz has been named as one of the 20 best players in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's (WCHA) first 20 years.
Ben Smith, Natalie's former Olympic team coach, has no problem with Darwitz and Hall of Famer being mentioned in the same sentence.
"She is just a terrific talent," said Smith, who still works for USA Hockey as an evaluator for the men's world junior team. "Her skating ability would stick out, right off the bat. It was like she skated on air. The ice never slowed her down and she played at that speed. She was a thoroughbred for us. She played any forward position, power play, penalty kill."
Smith coached the first three women's Olympic teams and won a gold (1998), silver (2002) and bronze (2006) medal; the last two Winter Games were with Darwitz. "She was a mainstay of that group," said Smith of the Eagan, Minn. native who played in three Olympics and eight world championships for Team USA.
Darwitz debuted with the U.S. national team as a 15-year-old in 1999, making her the youngest player ever selected to the team. Her first Olympic Winter Games came in 2002 in Salt Lake City. Darwitz had seven goals in the tournament, which tied for most among all players. Darwitz also won three world titles with Team USA, while finishing as world silver medalist five times.
"We could have won another gold," said Smith. "Natalie put a shot through the net in Halifax (in the gold medal game) in 2004. Everyone in the place saw it but the ref and there was no review. We came back the next year to win a gold in Sweden. But Natalie could shoot the daylights out of it for her size. She could fire the puck while at top speed."
Darwitz, now a 35-year-old, has been turning heads in hockey circles in Minnesota ever since she was in seventh grade and helped Eagan High School advance to the state championship game. By the time she was done with her prep career, she had amassed 487 points in 102 games.
She was a three-time Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award finalist and three-time All-American at the University of Minnesota, where she was a part of two national title teams (in 2004 and 2005). She is the school's all-time leader in points per game (2.48), ranks second in assists (144 – fifth most in WCHA history) and third in points scored with 246 (seventh in WCHA annals).
What is Natalie's favorite college hockey memory?
"Probably my sophomore year, the 2004 WCHA championship game," she said. "I was injured in the middle of the year at Duluth and was supposed to be out for the season. But I came back the last two weeks and we met Duluth in the finals. Ridder was packed. It was a great game that went back and forth. We had (Krissy) Wendell. They had (Caroline) Ouellette and (Jenny) Potter. It was a real rivalry. The teams didn't like each other and they had won the year before. It was a great game of back and forth. We ended up winning the championship and that catapulted us to the Frozen Four, which we won."
And Darwitz puts the Gophers' two national titles in a memory bank by itself.
"You can't top being number 1," she said. "The two national championships are all good for different reasons. The first one got the monkey off our back. We were the best team, but we had to prove it. We got three unanswered goals (and beat Harvard 6-2). The following year, to be No. 1 all season and to have a bullseye on our back and still win, it was a huge thing for the program."
Darwitz had the tie-breaking, game-winning goal with 68 seconds left in regulation in the 4-3 victory over Harvard. She was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player in her final college game. Then she was off to the Olympics in 2006, when Smith was the coach in Turin, Italy. Natalie was named the team captain at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, BC when current Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson was her coach. In between Olympic appearances, Darwitz led the IIHF World Tournament in scoring and was named the Best Forward in the tournament. She was also awarded the Bob Johnson Award in 2008 as the best male or female player representing the U.S. in international play.
"Natalie was not only a gifted athlete but she had a great mind for the game," said Smith. "She is demonstrating that now as a successful coach. It is not a surprise because she had a high hockey IQ. You can tell she is a daughter of a coach. She has the mental ability to study the game."
Darwitz's dad, Scott, is now one of her assistant coaches at Hamline, a Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) school where Natalie has posted a 43-31-7 record in three years. It was Scott who gave Natalie her first coaching gig – as an assistant coach at Eagan. Darwitz then returned to Minnesota for two years as an assistant coach to Brad Frost before becoming the head coach at Lakeville South. Can she herself coaching in 10 years when sons Joseph and Zachary will be 13 and 11?
"I do. I want to stay involved in the game," said Darwitz without hesitation. "I love the game. Now I am at the stage where I am giving back, educating, instructing and teaching the lessons I have learned. In 10 years, if I am still coaching D3, great. It allows me balance in my life. The game has improved immensely."
Darwitz has also done some television work in the Twin Cities and served as an analyst for NBC Sports at the Olympics in 2014 and for the WCHA on its Final Faceoff telecasts on FOX Sports North for the past three years. She has thoughts on how the women's game has changed over the years.
"There is certainly more depth," said Darwitz. "Teams play four lines now. When I played, it was the team's top two lines against each other and if you got a bad matchup, it was 'oh nooooo.' There are more good players today.
"But what I see missing from today's game is the explosive player. I haven't seen anyone since (Amanda) Kessel or (Hannah) Brandt take over a game. The game needs a superstar to go end-to-end. I watched the Final Faceoff last year and I saw great passing, but it was conservative hockey. The game needs to be exciting. Teams are too passive with a lot of trapping."
Not only has Darwitz had trouble accepting the title Hall of Famer. She kind of shakes her head when today's players call her one of the pioneers of the women's game.
"That hasn't totally sunk in," said Darwitz. "Pioneers are more like grandmas. But I guess it shows how quickly women's hockey has changed. If I had a hand in making the game better and impacted some young players, I feel grateful. I was fortunate to come in the infancy stage of women's hockey and got an opportunity to play a great game and it has opened doors for me."
About the WCHA 20th Anniversary Team
As it celebrates 20 Years of Excellence during the 2018-19 season, the Women's League of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) will honor the 20 alumnae named to the WCHA 20th Anniversary Team. The team will be revealed, one-by-one, in alphabetical order, one per week (except for the week of Dec. 24) through the week of March 4, prior to the 2019 WCHA Final Faceoff.
From an initial list of 120 nominations, representing each of the league's all-time eight schools, the WCHA 20th Anniversary Team Committee selected 41 finalists. To be nominated a player (forward, defenseman or goaltender) must have completed her collegiate eligibility at a WCHA institution (nominees did not have to play a full four seasons in the WCHA; however, current student-athletes were not eligible).
The WCHA 20th Anniversary team was determined by 1/3 fan vote, 1/3 WCHA alumnae vote and 1/3 Committee vote (consisting of two WCHA Office staff, one former and two current head coaches and three alumnae).