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Mixed Feelings

Some PWHL Minnesota fans made their opinions known at the Draft after team, GM Darwitz ‘parted ways.’

Tina Frederickson (foreground) and Lisa Fulton held up their handmade signs at the 2024 PWHL Draft at Roy Wilkins Auditorium. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

It’s been less than two weeks since PWHL Minnesota completed its remarkable run to the inaugural Walter Cup Championship. Hockey fans had about a week to revel in the championship following a celebration at Xcel Energy Center before learning that Natalie Darwitz was out as general manager of PWHL Minnesota.

Instead of Darwitz sitting at the PWHL Minnesota table during Monday’s PWHL Draft, it was head coach Ken Klee and other staff members, including assistant coach Mira Jalosuo and manager of sports performance Sam Hanson, making the team’s selections in the seven-round draft at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul.

Fans have made their displeasure with the GM situation known via social media over the past few days. But two women in particular used homemade posters to share their thoughts. Tina Frederickson and Lisa Fulton held up their signs throughout the night while sitting in the fan section in the balcony of the auditorium. Their signs read: “Bring Back Darwitz,” “Klee Is Not Ken-ough!” and “Currently In My Bring Back Natalie Darwitz Era.”

The women had already planned on attending the PWHL Draft, even before the GM dismissal.

“I said to her, ‘do you feel like making a poster?’” Frederickson said, with a laugh. “We’re both very spirited people.”

They weren’t the only ones at the Draft being vocal with their feelings. Boos were heard in the auditorium as Klee stepped on stage for the announcement of Minnesota’s first-round pick, defenseman Claire Thompson.

Before the team’s second-round pick, PWHL host Clay Matvick mentioned on the YouTube broadcast (also shown on screens in the auditorium) that the league and Darwitz had “parted ways,” which was met with more vocal fan angst, including someone shouting out: “We pick Darwitz back as our GM.”

Of PWHL Minnesota’s seven selections, none were Minnesota natives. That included Abby Boreen, who scored four goals and two assists in 14 regular-season and playoff games with Minnesota this season. But she was a reserve player and needed to declare for this year’s draft. Montreal selected Boreen two picks after Minnesota selected Klára Hymlárová in the third round.

PWHL Minnesota head coach Ken Klee speaks with the media following the PWHL Draft on June 10, 2024 at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

Following the draft, Klee said Minnesota was “just trying to pick the best players available” when asked if he had anything to say to Minnesota fans regarding the animosity from some fans at the draft, or regarding the events surrounding the team in recent days.

“I certainly didn’t want anything else to be a distraction,” Klee said. “I wouldn’t want anything to take away from any of those [drafted] players’ experience. It’s unfortunate a little bit at the beginning. But again, it’s OK. People are entitled to their opinion.”

Frederickson said “there are so many people here today” who provided “thumbs up” reactions to their posterboard signs, and they were frustrated about the decision regarding the Darwitz situation.

Darwitz out, ‘optics are horrid’
The Athletic first broke the story about Darwitz being out as the GM late Thursday night. The PWHL released a statement Saturday afternoon, stating that Darwitz and PWHL Minnesota “have parted ways, effective immediately.”

“We appreciate all that Natalie has done for PWHL Minnesota in the league’s inaugural season and her contributions to the team’s championship success. We wish her the best moving forward,” said Jayna Hefford, Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations, PWHL.

The league added that there is no immediate timeline for the naming of the next PWHL Minnesota GM.

Sunday evening, Darwitz released a statement to reporters: “I would like to thank the State of Hockey for their support of PWHL Minnesota. As the General Manager of PWHL Minnesota, I gave my heart and soul to provide a first-class experience to the players, staff and fans. My goal was to grow the game of women’s hockey and to show young girls their dream could become a reality.

“I am very proud of the team and organization that was built and the championship we brought home to this great State of Hockey. At this time, I am not able to provide any details regarding my departure.”

Any other details surrounding the personnel move haven’t been officially released, leaving more questions than answers, especially for fans like Frederickson and Fulton.

“It’s not a good look,” Frederickson said. “The optics are horrid. They are horrid.

“No one seems to know anything. So, we’re all frustrated.”

Last year when the PWHL formed and Darwitz was named general manager of PWHL Minnesota, Frederickson said she “immediately signed up” to become a season ticket subscriber. Frederickson, who remembers Darwitz as a student in her public speaking class at the University of Minnesota 20 years ago, said she wanted to support this league for Darwitz, “because it was her dream back then” to have women’s professional hockey.

The roller coaster continues
For Darwitz “to be let go” after assembling the first PWHL championship team and putting in all the hard work this season, Frederickson said, as a fan, “it’s a huge disrespect.”

“And I’m not alone in that sentiment,” Frederickson said. “There are a lot of people who are pissed off in this state about it.”

 Frederickson and Fulton mentioned that the 72 hours prior to the Draft were a roller coaster, with Frederickson noting a lack of transparency with the league and its decisions.

“I just wonder, does the leadership understand the Minnesota market at all?” Frederickson said. “Do they want it to fail? Do they want to take this team and put it somewhere else?”

It’s another chapter in the roller-coaster saga for PWHL Minnesota’s inaugural season. About a week before the season started, head coach Charlie Burggraf stepped away from the team for personal reasons. Klee, who had gone through the interview processes for general manager and head coach, was given the job as head coach of Minnesota.

The team started strong, setting an attendance record for its home opener in January at Xcel Energy Center. A 5-0 record in March gave way to a 0-5 swoon following the International Break, and Minnesota, after barely making the playoffs, was down 0-2 in its semifinal series versus Toronto. Then they stormed back for three straight wins before defeating Boston in a five-game series to win the Walter Cup.

Frederickson and Fulton were “super hyped up” and excited to attend the Draft in St. Paul, but they got there early on Monday evening with mixed feelings.

“We’ve been diehard fans since day one,” Fulton said. “And we’re sitting here, and we’re talking about the pros and cons. The pros of staying… the cons of staying. The pros of leaving, and rescinding our season tickets.

“There’s so many women and little girls and other people that are in positions of power that we want to support. And so, if we back out, we’re no longer supporting all of those people. … We keep talking about, ‘well, if we do stay, how can we continue to let our voice be heard? So that we continue to be part of the solution, part of bringing the program forward?’

“We don’t have answers. We don’t know. We just know the joy that it brought to us.”

Heather's love for watching hockey started when the Minnesota Wild came to town in 2000. Before that, she caught a few Minnesota Moose games as a youngster, and more recently she's kept up with the Austin Bruins and Fargo Force. She's a writer, freelance journalist and blogger who previously worked as a news reporter in Austin and Fergus Falls, Minn. She enjoys watching sports and closely follows the Wild, Minnesota Twins, IndyCar Series, tennis and prep sports. Heather keeps up her sports blog Thoughts from the Stands. You can follow her on Twitter/X @hlrule or Instagram @hlrule.

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