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Why Minnesota Is a Girls’ Hockey Hotbed

By Jessi Pierce, 10/03/23, 7:00AM CDT


It’s crazy to think that more than three decades ago, it would have been a rare sight to see a ponytail peeking out from underneath a hockey helmet at any given local rink.

“Now you walk into a rink and there’s ponytails everywhere,” said Natalie Darwitz, Minnesota hockey legend and general manager of the newly formed Professional Women’s Hockey League Minnesota Team. “It’s heartwarming to see that, and to see that the girls are really making a mark on the game here in Minnesota.”

Darwitz knows a thing or two about making a mark on the game. A three-time Olympic medalist, three-time All-American, two-time NCAA national champion, and longstanding record holder for a slew of high school and college records, the name Darwitz is synonymous with hockey.

The State of Hockey is living up to its own reputation, too.

“Minnesota is making a name for itself not just on the boys’ and men’s side, but the girls’ and women’s side, too,” said Darwitz, who has coached girls’ and women’s hockey at the high school, Division III and Division I levels before taking on her latest role at the professional level. “There’s been players who have paved the way, from playing with the boys to making sure local teams have girls’ programs.

“It’s all about the opportunities provided to girls and having those opportunities as much as the boys. Minnesota is a leader of that.”

Community is No. 1

It only takes a quick glance at some of the numbers to realize that Minnesota indeed does reign supreme when it comes to females in hockey:

In 2022-23

•Minnesota led the U.S. with 13,390 registered girls’ hockey players, including 5,196 8U skaters (20% of all 8U).

•Minnesota produced 222 out of 1,074 total Division I hockey players (21%). One out of every three American D-I players came from Minnesota (33%).

•Minnesota led the nation in Division III hockey players with 327. Massachusetts was second with 259, and New York was third with 184.

•11 Minnesotans were selected at the inaugural PWHL Draft on Sept. 18, which makes up 12% of all players drafted and 38% of all Americans drafted.

And like their male counterparts, the numbers are not only encouraging but a reminder of how the community-based model in Minnesota is instrumental in the success of player development and success.

“I think a lot of players look back on the highlights of their careers, and so often it’s those crosstown rivalries and playing for your community,” said Darwitz. “It’s a unique experience you don’t get anywhere else. If you play for a AAA team, you’re traveling every weekend and playing at different venues. There’s no connection to the city. In Minnesota, we take such pride, and growing up wearing that jersey, you idolize those who are in high school, those who wore the same jersey. Someone you can emulate.”

“There’s an investment there, and I think that’s so important in getting more girls to play.”

Full Circle

Affordability, publicly-funded ice rink availability, competition level and excellent coaching make playing in Minnesota even more special.

“It’s really starting to come full circle,” Darwitz said. “You have the great players who grew up here and who kind of paved the way who are now starting to have kids or are starting coaching careers of their own.

“Keith Ballard (former Gopher and longtime NHLer) came up to me with his daughters and asked for my autograph a few months ago, and it’s like, ‘wow, but you’re an NHLer’ so even guys with daughters are starting to give back and become invested in girls’ hockey. That’s how you get people involved in the girls’ gamehaving credible people involved and who want to be a part of it.”

Final Thoughts

The sky’s the limit. And while there are still glass ceilings to break in the world of women’s sports, Darwitz anticipates Minnesota will continue to be the trendsetter for decades to come.

“There’s a reason we’re called the State of Hockey,” she said. “And the way our state has really embraced the girls’ game just further embodies that. It’s a really great thing to see.”