By Bill Brophy, special to WCHA.com
MADISON, Wis. – Daryl Watts is a one-of-a-kind hockey player. She is the only freshman to ever be named the winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award which, for the last 22 years, has been presented to the top female college hockey player in the United States.
That was two years ago when Watts scored 42 goals and 82 points and helped Boston College to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Frozen Four. She followed that season up with 22 goals 48 points and then decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal and change schools.
She is now playing left wing on the top line for Wisconsin, the defending national champion.
Think of this way: if Kyler Murray decided not to sign a National Football League contract and transferred to Clemson, do you think that would be a big story? How about Zion Williamson turning down the National Basketball Association's big bucks and transferring from Duke to Michigan State?
This isn't on the same scale as trending on the internet or twitter, but Watts to Wisconsin is a big deal.
Heading into this weekend's Western Collegiate Hockey Association season-opening series at Ohio State, Watts has 11 points and leads the NCAA in scoring. In four games, she has five goals and six assists. In her first weekend at LaBahn Arena, playing before a full house, Watts had a seven-point weekend against Penn State with three goals and four assists. She is just the sixth player in the 20-year history of the UW program to score goals in each of her first four games.
She looked good in the alternate Badger red jersey, said many of the 2,273 fans who packed LaBahn last weekend. Watts found out why the Badgers are 75-2-4 at home in the last five years. Part of it is the crazy atmosphere and part of it that she plays with the talented Abby Roque, the WCHA's coaches' choice for pre-season player of the year, and Sophie Shirley, last year's WCHA rookie of the year.
"Abby and Sophie both have unbelievable vision and they can both finish," said Watts. "It is probably the best line I have played on."
And the environment at the rink while the Badgers swept Penn State 7-0 and 3-0?
"It was amazing, just electric," said Watts. "I had so much fun."
So how did Watts get from Chestnut Hill in Boston to Bascom Hill in Madison?
"I felt like college hockey-wise, I wasn't happy," said Watts who didn't have to sit out a year because the NCAA allows a player to transfer from one conference to another. The WCHA mandates a player has to sit out a year if transferring within the conference. "I felt like I deserved to be happy. So with two years left in college and if I should go on and play for Team Canada after college. I should make those years the best I possibly can. So I decided to come to Wisconsin and couldn't be happier."
Watts also investigated transferring to Minnesota and said "both programs are amazing – good schools, great hockey programs and coaches."
"But the Wisconsin hockey atmosphere … there is nothing like it. The coaches here are great with Mark Johnson. I am so grateful I can learn from him. It should be fun to play for such a great team and compete for a national championship."
Johnson watched the Badgers' fifth national championship banner raised to the rafters at LaBahn last weekend. Part of his team's success over the year has been great team defense and solid goaltending. All-American goalie Kirsten Campbell now has 26 career shutouts after last weekend, But it never hurts to add a sniper like Watts who has fit in so well with Roque (three goals, seven assists and 10 points ) and Shirley (three goals, six assists, nine points). The power play, which features Watts, Roque and Shirley on its first unit, has clicked on seven of 14 chances, and the unbeaten Badgers are the top-ranked team in the country in both polls published this week.
"Everything has been positive for her since she got to campus," said Johnson who needs two more victories to be the first women's coach to ever win 500 games behind the bench. "She had a lot of changes, adjusting to a new school, new roommates, a new city and a new system on the ice. But she has adjusted well and been accepted by her teammates, She continues to grow and develop.
With all of his coaching success, many people may have forgotten Johnson was a pretty fair player in his own right. He led the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team in 1980 in scoring, had 125 goals in three seasons while playing for his dad, Badger Bob Johnson, at Wisconsin and played in the All Star Game during an 11-year National Hockey League career. He knows a sniper when he sees one and he likes what he sees from Watts who can shoot and pass the puck.
"She has gifts and in different part of her game," said Johnson. "Not a lot players have the scoring ability that she possesses. Her freshman year, when she won the Patty Kazmaier, she showed that.
"She is aware when on the ice, very good on the power play and has the ability to create things. She has an accurate shot and shown an ability to pass the pucks and sees the ice very well. She has a great IQ for the game and has put together some great stats."
Try these numbers on: Watts has scored 69 goals in 81 collegiate games.
Johnson recognized Christmas came early when Watts arrived on campus. Watts' quick start as a Badger came against non-conference opponents, Lindenwood and Penn State. Johnson knows the points are tougher to come by when the WCHA play starts this weekend at Columbus, Ohio.
"She has a lot of adjustments so far and now she has to adjust to the league," said Johnson who expects a test from an Ohio State team that were eliminated by the Badgers in the WCHA Final Faceoff last March in Minneapolis. "A lot of people have learned over the years, there are not a lot of easy nights in our league."
After her first home game, Watts acted like a newbie, not a former Patty Kazmaier winner. She chose to speak little of her past and appreciated her success at BC, but it happy to be in new surroundings as, undoubtedly a unique story in women's hockey. She looks forward to experiencing life in the WCHA.
"I have two years of NCAA experience, but there are still experiences that are new, like playing in front of that crowd (at LaBahn) is something," said Watts. "You experience it for first time and it's incredible, like nothing else.
"I wanted to develop as a hockey player. I needed a change. I couldn't be happier to be here and, at the end of day, the thing I want and our team wants is to win a national championship."