GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — In the lead-up to this week’s 25th Girls State High School Hockey Tournament, both the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press together respective lists of the best all-time female players to play in the tournament. On both lists, Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell (Pohl) were numbers one and two.
Whenever people (mostly guys) argue about the best-ever in any sport, they are usually comparing players from different eras but in the case of Darwitz and Wendell, the two were not only were contemporaries they were also teammates (and linemates at times) at the University of Minnesota and on Team USA.
I wrote the following story in April of last year, but with the renewed debate about which was the best-ever I wanted to post it again because this story not only settles the debate... it makes it unnecessary.
It is the story of two women who not only played the sport of hockey at a level few have obtained, they did it while supporting each other, forming a bond and sisterhood that lasts to this day. It gives us all something to learn from and aspire to.
Minnesota’s Best-Ever. A Sister Story.
The story you’re about to read isn’t the one I set out to write.
This was supposed to be a story about Natalie Darwitz, child hockey prodigy, high school superstar, college All-American, back-to-back national champion, team USA player and Captain, winner of multiple Olympic and World Championship medals, who then follows in her father’s footsteps to become a hockey coach.
Then (with her dad as her assistant) the married mother of two leads perennial doormat Hamline University to the MIAC Tournament title, a third place finish at the national tournament, and is named the Division III women’s coach of the year in just her third year on the job.
You gotta admit, that’s a great freaking story, right?
I thought so.
But while interviewing Ms. Darwitz for that aforementioned story I casually mentioned that I had seen her former U of M and Team USA teammate Krissy Wendell-Pohl on TV during the state tournament. I also mentioned that years ago someone associated with the U told me that when they played on the Gophers, the team locker room was split with Natalie on one side and Krissy, (a player with elite talent on par with Darwitz) on the other.
Let’s just say that I didn’t touch a nerve... I ruptured an aorta.
“Somebody said that?” asked Darwitz. “That’s the kind of stuff people always wanted to believe, but nothing could have been further from the truth.”
I attempted to go back to the subject at-hand but Darwitz wasn’t having it.
“I started playing with her when I was 15 and all the way to when it ended, and I couldn’t have imagined it without Krissy. If people thought we didn’t get along they couldn’t have been more wrong,” Darwitz insisted.
“We were so young,” Wendell reflected in a separate conversation. “We were the new faces after the ’98 Olympics. We made Team USA for the 4-Nations International Tournament in Finland (1999, when Darwitz was just 15 years-old, Wendell 17) and we met at the airport. The Darwitz family traveled more than my family was able to, and they just took me under their wing. And you know how it is when you just connect with somebody? That’s how it was with Natalie.”
Already periodic teammates for Team USA, the two finally played together on a full-time basis at the U of M, where both achieved All-American status. It's also the place where in 2005 Wendell edged Darwitz to become the first player from Minnesota (and from the WCHA) to win the Patty Kazmaier Award, given out each year to the nation’s outstanding women’s college hockey player.
“It didn’t bother me, I was happy for her,” said Darwitz, “I think we both know that we were able to accomplish the things we did because we had each other. But, I think the thing that I’m so proud of is that we won back-to-back National Championships, and we couldn’t have done that without each other.”
“We were roommates on the road by choice,” said Wendell. "And while we always got along, in many ways we couldn’t have been more different. On game days Natalie had her routine, and that included taking a pre-game nap. I wasn’t much of a napper, my thing was shopping. I wouldn’t really buy anything, but I couldn’t just sit in the room, so I just walked around and window-shopped, mostly.”
This is where one could insert a sexist joke about women and shopping, but as it turns out shopping DOES have a role in this story of sisterhood, only because it was a shopping trip that led the two greatest female hockey players Minnesota has ever produced to reunite on the ice this winter.
Only this time the shopper was Darwitz.
“I was shopping at Lulu Lemon when somebody recognized me and asked me if they could take a picture with me,” Natalie recalled. “The store manager heard and told me that Lulu Lemon wanted to sponsor a team in the U.S Pond Hockey Championships and that they would provide uniforms and whatever else we needed. They just wanted to have a team and asked if I would be interested in putting one together, and I told her I would try.”
“The first person I called was Krissy, and she said, ”Yeah, let’s do this.”
As Wendell remembers it, the proposition wasn’t quite that simple.
“Probably the only person who could convince me to play is Natalie. I said 'I’ll play if you’ll play' because that’s what we always do, every time the U asks us to take part in some event.”
Darwitz assembled a team of seven skaters, including former Gopher (and another name you have to throw in the “best ever” conversation when it comes to women’s hockey in Minnesota), Roseville’s Winny Brodt.
“Winny has done as much as anybody in this state to grow the game,” says Wendell. “Without Winny Brodt there wouldn’t be nearly as many opportunities for girls in hockey, put that in there.”
Also receiving the pond hockey call were former Gopher teammates Erica McKenzie and Becky Kortum, and former Badger Angie Keseley from St. Louis Park.
Keep in mind that all this is happening just weeks before the event, both Darwitz and Wendell are now married and busy mothers, and neither has played competitively in about a decade. So Darwitz put her coaching skills to work.
“I recruited two kids, Sadie Lundquist from Bemidji State and Kate Mason from UW-River Falls for speed,” said Darwitz, “because I knew we were going to need some wheels.”
“We knew we weren’t going to have the legs,” added Wendell.
Not that they were going to need them. After all, Team LuLu Lemon, playing in the women’s division, was just in it for a good time, right? Well, at least that’s how it started.
“Let’s face it, we’re jerks if we go out there and we try really hard and we’re jerks if we don’t,” said Darwitz.
Both women agree, what started out as an opportunity to get together with friends and have a good time changed along the way. Where Darwitz and Wendell differ is exactly how it happened.
“We ran into two college teams that were treating it like the Stanley Cup,” recalled Darwitz. “I think they had video and had scouted us while we were just trying to have a good time. Then, they got a little chippy and that’s when Krissy said, ‘OK, if you want to do this, let’s do this!’ She just can’t turn off the competitive juices.”
Wendell remembers it a bit differently.
“It wasn’t me! Competitive Natalie came out and she put a girl over the boards. They definitely made the wrong person mad. I love when I see it, but I would never tell anybody to poke the bear.”
However it happened, when two of the best hockey players this state has produced are properly motivated, age becomes a non-issue and the outcome was never in doubt. Team LuLu Lemon skated off with the coveted golden shovel.
“When you get to be our age they say the first thing to go are the hands”, says Natalie. “But we would just watch Krissy and say, ‘How are you still doing that?’”
“That’s ‘cuz I can’t skate like her," Wendell insisted. "Seriously, even now if you gave her six months Natalie would make the next Olympic team.”
Not that it will happen. Both women agree their Olympic days are safely behind them.
Wendell coached girls high school hockey for years with her husband, former Gopher and NHL’er Johnny Pohl, but these days Krissy is content to watch her three young daughters play the game.
Darwitz is happy at Hamline because A.D. Jason Verduga was smart enough to make her position “family friendly”, making it clear that he’s more interested in results than in how much time the mother of two young boys spends at the rink.
“It’s ideal for me and I enjoy that he gives me the freedom to build this program in my own way,” says Darwitz. “It’s been a great gig for me and my family.”
Says Wendell, “I could have predicted this. She’s so driven but she really cares about people. And I’m happy ‘cuz she’s happy, that’s all you want, and I can just tell that she’s really happy.”
So,what about next year? Will these lifelong friends and hockey icons once again lead team LuLu Lemon onto the ice, this time in defense of their golden shovel? That depends on who you ask.
“I think so,” Say Darwitz. “It was just so much fun to be out there, I’d really like to do it again.”
“No,” says Krissy definitively, “Natalie still has it, I couldn’t walk for a week (after the tourney). "Yeah... no.”