Natalie Darwitz started her job with a blueprint in her hands. When she applied to become a general manager in the Professional Women's Hockey League, the three-time Olympic medalist created a PowerPoint presentation for league executives, detailing her plan to build a franchise from scratch in 4½ months.

That helped her win the job. But as the rookie GM of a new Minnesota team in a fledgling league, she knew she couldn't plan for everything. Like the day a delivery truck pulled up in front of Tria Rink, on a busy street in downtown St. Paul, packed full of equipment to unload. Right away. With no one but Darwitz and a few staff members around.

"We knew the rink guys had this pallet thing, a pallet jack," Darwitz recalled. "So we were like, 'Where is it? How do you operate it?' We were out there on Wabasha Street, figuring it out.

"We've had to do that a lot. Every day, we roll up our sleeves and just get things done."

Those four words — just get things done — sum up the first-year mission of the PWHL's six general managers. For decades, elite women hockey players longed for a league that would pay and treat them as true professionals. Now that it's arrived, Darwitz is bringing their aspirations to life, with a whatever-it-takes attitude.

The PWHL has assembled the best collection of pro talent in women's hockey history. Billie Jean King is its godmother, financier Mark Walter is bankrolling it to the tune of millions of dollars and Olympians such as Hilary Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin are lighting up its arenas.

The league launched on June 30 and began play Jan. 1, requiring a massive effort to get franchises off the ground in Boston, New York, Minnesota, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. The inaugural season moves into the playoff stage this week, starting Wednesday when Minnesota begins a best-of-five series at Toronto.

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Darwitz has dived into all the usual GM duties: drafting players, negotiating contracts, completing trades, signing leases, hiring staff. She's also shopped for couches to furnish the makeshift players' lounge and tidied up the buffet line at post-practice meals. As one league executive put it, the six general managers are building the airplane as they're flying it, tightening the bolts with one hand and writing the flight plan with the other.

In Darwitz, the league got a leader who is synonymous with women's hockey in Minnesota. The Gophers legend, Eagan native and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer brought instant credibility to the franchise, as well as access to a network of Minnesota hockey power brokers. Darwitz helped secure deals to practice at Tria Rink and play at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild's home facilities, and she's already working on a project to build the team its own space at Tria.

"Natalie is a pretty strong-willed person with a lot of conviction," said her former agent, Brant Feldman. "When she was a player, she would do anything to help her team win. This is no different. And she's not going to be outworked."

That explains why Darwitz didn't have a day off during her first few months on the job. And why her friends kept telling her she looked like she wasn't getting any sleep.

She wasn't. But the work of team-building, for all its demands, gives her as much energy as it takes.

"A GM sweeping the floor is not normal," said Darwitz, 40. "A GM unpacking boxes is not normal. Someday, we're going to look back on this and remember how crazy it was.

"Would it have been the easier route to wait a year before we started playing, to have more time? 100 percent. But we didn't want these players to have to wait. And sometimes, when your back is against the wall, you can do some miraculous things."

PWHL General Manager Natalie Darwitz is synonymous with women's hockey in Minnesota. The U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer starred at Eagan High School and went on to win medals with fellow Olympians such as Cammi Granato (21) on Team USA. Photos by Jerry Holt and Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune.

Prepared from the start

Darwitz does have an office in the Treasure Island Center, the building that houses Tria Rink. It's easy to miss.

The cramped, windowless room, adjacent to a workout facility on the third floor, has no nameplate on the door. Not that it matters. Darwitz is never in there anyway, preferring to spend her time at the rink where players can see and talk to her.

She wants to be accessible, in the same way she was during her coaching career. Last summer, Darwitz had just returned to the high school ranks, as co-head coach at Hill-Murray following stints with the Gophers and Hamline. She had no intention of switching gears until Feldman called her in late July.

The PWHL hadn't even decided which cities would get teams, but Feldman heard Minnesota was in the mix. So he posed a question: would she be interested in running a franchise?

"The way I looked at it, she was already a general manager," Feldman said. "She ran a D-III program, doing budgets and recruiting. She's been around all facets of hockey. Why couldn't she run a team in this league?"

As the general manager for PWHL Minnesota, Natalie Darwitz wants to be accessible in the same way she was during her coaching career, which included stints with the Gophers, Hamline and at the high school level with Eagan and Hill-Murray. Photo by Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune.

Two days later, Darwitz was on a Zoom with the agency overseeing the hiring process. She wasn't sure what kind of impression she made; she had a black eye, courtesy of a wayward hockey stick, and a raspy voice.

It was good enough to earn a second interview, and a challenge. Darwitz was given 24 hours to put together the PowerPoint presentation, outlining plans for her first 30, 60, 90 and 120 days on the job. She saw it as a measure of how quickly she could think and act, a critical skill for a league that had just four months to construct six functioning teams.

The job offer came shortly after, as Darwitz was walking into Braemar Arena to coach a charity game. She responded in typical Darwitz style, by getting to work just minutes after saying yes.

"I go into the rink, and there were a ton of players who were going to be in [the PWHL]," she said. "It took on a whole new meaning. It wasn't just a charity game now. I was going to scout, to observe. Right then, it was full steam ahead."

Natalie Darwitz pats PWHL Minnesota assistant coach Jake Bobrowski on the back as they load up the team's gear after a Jan. 24 game in St. Paul. Darwitz has taken on many roles with the new team, from getting a lease at Tria Rink and signing players to unpacking boxes and sweeping floors. Photo by Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune.

Emptying garbage, sweeping floors

Darwitz understood she didn't have a minute to lose. She was hired only four weeks before the PWHL's first player draft, and about 12 weeks before training camp opened.

When she started, nothing was in place. No players had been signed. The team didn't have a practice facility or game venue, or a staff, or a schedule. Though fans talked mostly about the lack of team nicknames and logos, Darwitz was scrambling to assemble the most fundamental assets.

The PWHL wanted to aim high with facilities, getting into NHL arenas where it could. That was a problem in some markets, because the league's late start meant the best buildings were fully booked. Minnesota was the only team to lock in an NHL rink for all but one of its home games, aided by Darwitz's assertiveness and her local hockey networks.

"If she's not leading that team, maybe that doesn't happen," said Jayna Hefford, the PWHL's senior vice president of hockey operations. "Natalie has great connections and relationships in that market. People there have such appreciation for who she is and what she means to Minnesota hockey. That counts for a lot."

The setup at Tria reflects the hasty nature of the PWHL's launch. The team occupies a new fifth-floor locker room the Wild built to accommodate extra players during training camp, offered by Wild General Manager Bill Guerin when Darwitz asked about using the rink.

It's neither large nor luxurious, though it's nicer than the rest of the team's space, which has all the charm of an unfinished basement. The place looked like a warehouse on Nov. 14, the day before players arrived for training camp. The lease at Tria Rink had just been finalized, leaving one day to unpack 150 boxes and set everything up for 28 players.

Darwitz already was being pulled in a dozen directions. In between the lease negotiations, the draft and early player signings, there were caterers to interview. Supplies to order. Sponsors to court. Staff to hire. Community events to attend and hands to shake.

All of that fell to Darwitz at first, until the first few staff members came on board. Even with a little help, every day felt like a frantic race against the clock.

"It was such a whirlwind," she said. "I kept reminding the staff that for a while, we're all going to have to take out the garbage, lift heavy equipment, unpack boxes. We had to be ready."

On the first morning of training camp, Darwitz swept the locker-room floor, putting a final shine on the players' new home. They could see their GM's commitment to giving them a major league environment, even if they didn't know how chaotic things had been.

"Natalie never got the chance to play in a league like this," forward Kendall Coyne Schofield said. "But she's making sure the opportunity that's here today is as good as it can be for this generation of players. That means so much."

Natalie Darwitz, left, talks with PWHL Minnesota's Grace Zumwinkle after a game on Jan. 24. Darwitz targeted players for the roster who have high character and work ethic. Photo by Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune.

Picking the right players

Within days of accepting the job, Darwitz started thinking about the roster. Each of the six franchises set its foundation by signing three free agents, players who would earn guaranteed three-year contracts with salaries of at least $80,000.

Darwitz zeroed in on Coyne Schofield and two other U.S. national team stalwarts, former Gophers Kelly Pannek and Lee Stecklein. Though she hadn't negotiated pro contracts before, they came together quickly. It helped that Feldman, her former agent, represented Pannek.

Feldman said Darwitz was one of the most intimidating clients he ever had, so competitive that he hid it from her when he began representing an archrival from the Canadian national team. He found her less fearsome in her first turn at the bargaining table.

"We know each other's styles, and she was good to work with," Feldman said. "I was able to get something done within 15 minutes of knowing Natalie wanted Kelly."

The early signees established the baseline for the team's identity. Darwitz targeted players with high character and work ethic, two key ingredients for a new league looking to prove itself. She valued speed and selflessness, and she understood the marketing value of Minnesota and Olympic connections.

Darwitz had spent the previous four years on the Gophers' coaching staff, giving her a firsthand look at many recent college players. She put a premium on alumni from schools like Wisconsin and Ohio State, knowing they were developed by the best coaches in the country.

She tapped into her network to get intel on older players. Darwitz called several veterans who didn't plan to play in the league, such as former Gopher and Olympian Amanda Kessel, to get candid opinions on who would be a good fit.

"Amanda and the others had great insights," she said. "They could tell me things like, 'This player scores a lot, but I'm not sure she's there for the team.' I was lucky to have those relationships to call on. They trusted me, and I trusted them."

Minnesota won a lottery for the No. 1 pick in September's 15-round draft, allowing Darwitz to land former Gophers star Taylor Heise. The final group of 23 players and three reserves included 20 Americans, with a dozen of those from Minnesota.

Though playing at an 18,000-seat arena was something of a risk, Darwitz believed women's hockey was ready for the big stage, especially in her home state. A crowd of 13,316 rewarded her faith at the home opener, a day she described as "pretty darn emotional.''

Natalie Darwitz hauls out empty carts at Tria Rink, where the team shares practice space with the Wild. The women's team occupies a new fifth-floor locker room the Wild had built to accommodate extra players during training camp. Photo by Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune.

Gameday starts before dawn

Scott Darwitz used to talk to his daughter every day. "Now, it might take her a couple of days to get back to me," he said, while sitting in an Xcel Energy Center suite. "She's really busy."

Darwitz's parents, Scott and Nancy, are among the tight circle Natalie has leaned on for advice and support. In Bill Guerin, she has a seasoned pro-sports executive to answer questions. Longtime coaching associate Jake Bobrowski is a confidante and ace talent evaluator. Former teammates and longtime friends outside of hockey act as sounding boards, truth-tellers, guideposts and cheerleaders.

Family is part of her gameday routine. Darwitz's mom and dad join her in the team's suite at home games; while she watches silently, Scott and Nancy are more exuberant, taking the cheerleader job seriously. The perks for sons Joseph, 8, and Zack, 6, include tacos and soft serve ice cream in Xcel's media dining room, and Zamboni rides at intermission.

Natalie Darwitz looks to her cheering mother Nancy during a Jan. 24 game against Montreal at Xcel Energy Center. Darwitz helped secure deals to practice at Tria Rink and play at Xcel, the Wild's home facilities. Photo by Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune.

Before a January game against Montreal, Darwitz went to the dining room to meet a potential donor for the Tria construction project, talking business over meatballs and mashed potatoes. Her day had started with a grubbier chore.

Darwitz and equipment manager Sis Paulsen arrived at Tria around 5 a.m., packing the team's gear into a truck for the six-block move to Xcel. After a 2-1 loss, Darwitz headed back to the arena's lower level to load up for the return trip.

Rolling the carts to the truck wasn't so bad; it gave her a chance to chat with all the behind-the-scenes employees at Xcel, people she knows by name. The real suffering came when she got to the locker room and unzipped a player's bag.

"Holy moly, it stinks!" Darwitz said. "I forgot how ripe this stuff is after a game."

In the ultimate display of how far she's willing to go for her team, she scrunched up her nose and soldiered on. The GM put every elbow pad, helmet and glove in its proper place, ensuring each locker was neat before she headed home to Prior Lake at midnight.

Natalie Darwitz chose to become an executive to give her a bigger role in shaping the future of the women's game. "It's important for us to do things with consideration and heart," she said. "Yes, hockey is a business for us now, but you can't lose that human element." Photo by Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune.

A coach turned GM

In her first nine months on the job, Darwitz already has faced some of a general manager's most stressful situations. She had to replace head coach Charlie Burggraf when he resigned before her team had played a game. In February, she made the first trade in PWHL history, sending forward Susanna Tapani and defender Abby Cook to Boston for defender Sophie Jaques.

"Remember, these things aren't just new to her," Feldman said. "No one in women's hockey has made a trade or put a player on long-term injured reserve. But she's a fast study."

Some things, like marketing and finances, drew on her past experience of running her own camps and clinics. Others have been more challenging.

Darwitz is continuing to expand her network, meeting with influential business executives and mingling at their events. It's unfamiliar territory, but she recognizes it's essential to making the PWHL a serious player in the local and North American sports markets. And it's already paying dividends: she's fielded inquiries for everything from naming rights to dasher-board ads to buying the team.

Perhaps the toughest adjustment has been the shift from coach to executive. After much deliberation, Darwitz chose the latter because it gave her a bigger role in shaping the future of the women's game. She misses teaching and bonding with players, but her coaching philosophy — grounded in good communication, empathy and trust — applies just as well to her new job.

"It's important for us to do things with consideration and heart," she said. "Yes, hockey is a business for us now, but you can't lose that human element."

Heise has seen both sides of Darwitz, playing for her in the PWHL after being coached by her with the Gophers. She's happy to report nothing has changed.

"You want someone who is going to hold you accountable and still be your friend," Heise said. "I think that's exactly what I'm going to get with her. She's going to bring that intensity, but she also keeps everything fun."

Which is just what Darwitz is aiming for. At its heart, the PWHL is simply women playing hockey, and nothing is more fun than that. At the same time, it's a high-stakes game, with the resources finally in place to create the pro league of their dreams.

Learning how to use a pallet jack wasn't in the plan, but it's all about getting things done.

"We're pushing the needle forward on our game, and we want to push this forward in the right way," Darwitz said. "We could have taken the route that was safer and easier. We definitely chose the route where we had to remove some debris and cut down some trees.

"We've gotten scraped and bloody. We've had some sleepless nights. But I think everyone will tell you it's been worth it."