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‘It’s Everything:’ Darwitz on Community-Based Hockey

By Jessi Pierce, 02/21/23, 12:00PM CST


The name Natalie Darwitz is synonymous with hockey in Minnesota. It’s all over the record books — high school, University of Minnesota, NCAA, USA Hockey, and so on.

It’s easy to call Darwitz a legend – even if she’s too humble to do so. Suiting up for her hometown Eagan Wildcats still holds a special place in her heart.

We caught up with Darwitz, now associate head coach at the University of Minnesota, to talk about the growth of the girls’ game, memories of her three state tournament runs, and much more.

Minnesota Hockey: Best memories from your three state tourney runs?

Natalie Darwitz: I grew up watching the Boys’ State Tournament, and it was just a big deal. Walking around in school and having it on the TVs. My dad getting us out to go to the Expo. It was just a big deal. So, when I started in girls’ hockey and it became a possibility of playing for the high school team and going to the state tournament, I had those expectations and thoughts of ‘this is going to be the coolest thing.’ And we made it happen. All the memories of staying in a hotel on the riverside. We’d get the papers in the morning, and we’d be on the front page. It was just a big deal.

I remember driving back to Eagan after the state tournament, and the local Dairy Queen had ‘Good Luck Girls’ Hockey!’ on their sign. Just the community feel and the band and being able to play your competitors, who were your friends to play with in the summer, it was just a lot of fun. Quite honestly, I hold a lot of those high school memories, State memories, really near and dear to my heart, and they are some of my favorite memories of just having your whole school there.

It's the culmination of your hard work over the season, as players and as coaches, to get to that spot.

MH: You came up when girls’ hockey was really just getting going at the high school level and even in youth. How much have the tournament and game changed over the years?

Darwitz: I think you really see different communities that get a crack at going to the state tournament. When I was growing up, it was the same few powerhouses, and it didn’t really change. But now there’s a ton of parity, and every February you’re seeing different sections get a crack at being a top-eight team in the state tournament.

For me growing up, it was always watching the boys on TV, but to now have the girls’ tournament televised is a huge step, too. So, it’s growing in a good way and in a positive way and deserves all the exposure it can get because we have so much talent here, and the sport itself will only benefit from that.

MH: What fuels Minnesota’s ability to continuously develop elite girls’/women’s players?

Darwitz: I think you’re a product of your environment, and we value girls’ hockey here. I think there are the resources in Minnesota to become the best. You grow up immersed in the soil of what Minnesota is, and that’s something we embody: that we’re a hockey community and a hockey state. So naturally, I think we’re going to churn out really great talents. I just think we have such a great foundation here that allows for us to build success.

MH: What else has changed?

Darwitz: Being on the ice with Division I athletes and Olympians of recent time, they can skate faster, shoot harder, stick handle better. I think the resources are there for them. I will always kind of push back and remind kids that we still need the pond hockey mentality too. There’s such value in the freedom of being a kid and just going and figuring it out on the outdoor rinks and ponds with no officiating and no parents. So, to find a bit of that balance with the elite skills these girls are learning at various camps, clinics, and what not, would be great.

But yeah, it’s grown. The depth of the game and the parity of the game at the high school and college level. It’s not just one dominant player or team. Any team can beat any team on any given night. You’re rarely seeing blowouts because of the strength of the teams and strength of the players. I think it’s tremendous.

MH: Just how much has the community-based model contributed to the success of girls’ and women’s hockey in Minnesota?

Darwitz: It’s everything. Everyone always asks about our community-based programs and why they’re so successful. And again, it’s not only that we want to stay in our community and play, but there’s not the draw of AAA because we have something so special here in the community-based model. Playing with your friends that you also see in high school and getting to high school and having played with them through all periods, all levels, everything – it makes it so much more fun.

MH: The high school state tourney is awesome, but the Minnesota Hockey State Tournaments for youth and girls are hugely popular.

Darwitz: Minnesota Hockey is always ahead of the curve on what to do for our sport. I have to give hats off for giving these players a tremendous experience and providing that.

When we were growing up, you just went to the District tournament and then you were done. It just didn’t feel like the right conclusion. Now, Minnesota Hockey has done a really great job to improve it to where there are multiple groups at the same venue. It’s bigger, and it’s more of an event than just a tournament. That's something so special for the players that they'll remember it forever. I love it.

MH: What improvements or changes would you like to see in girls’ and women’s hockey to keep it growing?

Darwitz: I think it’s important that the resources that the guys get, whether it’s sponsors or whatever, also take part in the girls’ tournament. But at the end of the day, it’s going to take the credible resources to get behind our sport.

At the University of Minnesota, we still haven’t gotten many games on TV, and to me, it’s just a reminder that if you build it, they will come. Likewise, if you show it and expose it, they will watch. I think it’s just going to take credible resources and people to give it that push to get to that spot. It’s going to take people in leadership spots, which are still a male-dominated landscape, but I’m confident we will get there.