Natalie Darwitz always wanted the chance to make a living as a professional hockey player. Years after hanging up her uniform, the former Gophers star will get to do the next best thing: serve as general manager of a new women's pro hockey team in her home state.
Darwitz was named Friday to lead Minnesota's franchise in the Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL). She got a nice welcome gift as well, when her team won the lottery for the first pick in the league's inaugural draft. Her work begins immediately, with a 10-day free agency period that opened at noon Friday.
The PWHL announced Tuesday that teams in Minnesota, Toronto, Boston, New York, Ottawa and Montreal will play a 24-game season beginning in January. Though team names and home arenas have not been announced yet, the six teams can begin building rosters by signing as many as three free agents before the Sept. 18 draft.
A longtime women's hockey coach, Darwitz had just made a job change in June, when she left her position as associate head coach of the Gophers to become co-head coach at Hill-Murray. But she said she "had to pursue" the GM job after PWHL officials approached her a month ago to gauge her interest.
"This thing came about really fast," said Darwitz, an Eagan native. "I don't think I've slept for a good month, just because of the excitement and how special this is to me.
"We didn't have this opportunity [before]. So to now be a part of it, in a different route than we dreamed about as little girls, I could not pass it up. I'm super grateful and excited that I get to lead the Minnesota team."
With much work to do to assemble a roster and hire coaches and support staff, Darwitz said she will not be able to continue coaching at Hill-Murray. She was named co-head coach with Jake Bobrowski on June 7.
It was announced June 30 that Mark Walter, a financier and co-owner of several major league sports teams, would bankroll a new women's pro hockey league. The PWHL is expected to attract top players from around the world. It already has a collective bargaining agreement with its players association, with average annual salaries of $55,000, and league officials say it will offer a "major league environment" for players.
Other general managers announced Friday are Danielle Marmer (Boston), Danièle Sauvageau (Montreal), Pascal Daoust (New York), Michael Hirshfeld (Ottawa) and Gina Kingsbury (Toronto).
During her playing career, Darwitz earned medals at three Olympic Games and helped the U.S. to gold at three world championships. A member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, she starred for the Gophers from 2002-05 and is the program's third-leading career scorer with 246 points in 99 games. She was associate head coach for the Gophers for the past two seasons, after leading Hamline to two appearances in the NCAA Division III Frozen Four.
Darwitz said she will create the best possible roster, though she expects it to have a Minnesota flavor. She believes that having well-known players from the state will help draw attention to the team in a market Darwitz said "is already set up for success." Following the free-agent period, she will add 15 players via the draft.