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Pioneers Wendell, Darwitz Blaze Trail for Girls Ice Hockey

By Tim Leighton on November 13, 2019 hst Print

It was billed as “The Showdown.” Decades later, it still carries that tag.

On a cold mid-November Monday night in 1999, the Eagan Civic Center in suburban St. Paul was the site of an epiphany of sorts for girls ice hockey in Minnesota; many would argue for the nation as well.

It was a nonconference game to open the season between visiting Park Center High School and host Eagan High School. Park Center featured senior scoring wizard Krissy Wendell, who was coming off a debut season when she scored a national-record 109 goals.

Eagan countered with sophomore Natalie Darwitz, perhaps the fastest skater and playmaker on the fly that would be witnessed in girls ice hockey – and women’s hockey across the nation for that matter.

The game was expected to be a showdown between the two best girls ice hockey players in Minnesota. It was expected to be a preview of the 2000 Minnesota State High School League’s state tournament a few months down the road when certainly they would meet again. During the 1999 MSHSL state tournament, undefeated Park Center was upset by South St. Paul in the quarterfinals while Eagan didn’t qualify.

Instead, this marque matchup would be the only time they would play against one another.

“It was an incredible atmosphere, something that girls hockey had never seen before,” Darwitz said. “The place was packed; media were in attendance and you could sense an energy that something bigger was taking place.”

Wendell remembers looking Darwitz in the eye seconds before the puck was to drop for the opening faceoff.

“When we looked at each other, you could tell that we had the same mindset: “Alright, this is going to be a whole lot of fun,’” Wendell said. “Neither one of us felt that it was me versus her.”

In a game that featured dazzling offense and end-to-end rushes, Park Center posted a 10-4 victory. Neither Wendell or Darwitz could recall how they did individually, nor do they care.

“I’m glad it was one and done,” Darwitz said with a smile. “That’s what makes it so special and memorable.”

Perhaps the biggest victory was what was happening off the ice.

“People came to the game with one vision of girls hockey, and then left with a totally different perspective,” Wendell said.

“You could see through the glass that fans were amazed at how girls hockey was growing,” Darwitz said. “Jaws were dropping, and people were high-fiving. Guys that played hockey and dads of guys that played hockey were smiling, and I think, became believers in our sport.”

At that point, girls ice hockey in Minnesota was still in its infancy. The Minnesota State High School League became the first state association to sanction the sport as an activity. The first state tournament was in 1995 when four teams qualified. The state tournament is now a two-class format with 16 teams qualifying, eight in each class.

The sport had some growing pains in the early seasons, in part, by building rosters of the participating schools that included figure skaters and ice ringette.

“My assistant coach pulled me aside one day, and said, this is what you are doing for the sport,” Darwitz said. “What you are doing is bigger than you. That game me goosebumps.”

To watch superstars like Wendell and Darwitz gave fans snapshots of what was in store as the game continued its growth. In 2000, Wendell capped her two-year varsity career with a single- season national record 110 goals and a state championship. It would be the final prep season for Darwitz as well. She answered the call of the U.S. women’s national team as a 15-year-old and began a standout international career.

Wendell and Darwitz fast became best friends while playing for Team USA and the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team. Success followed both in the form of Olympic medals, national collegiate championships and legacies that won’t be rivaled. The NFHS record book is littered with more than a dozen entries that include Wendell and Darwitz.

During the 2018-19 winter season, the Minnesota State High School League celebrated the 25th year of girls ice hockey. Wendell was declared the top player of all time and Darwitz was No. 2. In 2017, Wendell was the first girls ice hockey player to be inducted into the MSHSL’s Hall of Fame. Darwitz followed her this past month when she was inducted.

Darwitz and Wendell have now moved into coaching roles, as well as raising families. They get together often, but conversations gravitate toward their children as opposed to reliving on-ice heroics.

“For me, I fondly cherish the memories,” Darwitz said. “From seventh grade to sophomore year, I loved my high school years. Having the community get behind you was incredible. I can look back on my career with a smile on my face. Those glory days, I wish I could go back.”

Said Wendell: “When you look back, and I think Natalie will agree, we are grateful for the opportunity to play girls hockey and be a part of the growth of something wonderful.”