PWHL: Klee Comes In
Minnesota’s PWHL team opens its inaugural season this week with a new coach.
For the second time this season, a professional Minnesota hockey team underwent a head coaching change. Except this time, PWHL Minnesota hadn’t even played a game yet.
Following the holiday break, Charlie Burggraf stepped away from the team. In his place, former NHL defenseman Ken Klee stepped into the head coach role. Coming from Denver, Klee hopped in the car and made his way to Minnesota last week to get started with his new team.
“The drive was a little sketchy with the blizzard in Nebraska and all that,” Klee said. “But I made it through. It said ‘road closed,’ but I just kept going.”
Klee made it to Minnesota in time for the team’s first post-Christmas practice on Dec. 27, only a week before the team was set to open its inaugural season. Bringing in a new coach at this juncture might present a challenge, right? Well, yes and no, Klee said. As a former national team coach, he’s used to having a week of practice and then jumping in to play for a gold medal right away.
“I’m used to that kind of dynamic and pressure and getting everyone up to speed in a hurry,” Klee said.
Klee, 52, went through the initial interview process for the general manager and head coach positions with PWHL Minnesota. He played 934 games across 14 NHL seasons, nine with the Washington Capitals. He was also the head coach of the USA Women’s National Team, leading them to gold in 2015 and 2016 at the world championships. His coaching experience ranges from coaching kids to the pros.
He already has familiarity with a few of the players. He coached Kendall Coyne Schofield, Lee Stecklein and Nicole Hensley, along with Kelly Pannek on the women’s national teams. Stecklein said Klee is incredible and “one of the most genuine coaches” she’s ever had.
“If anyone’s built to take on a task like this, it’s him,” Stecklein said. “The girls, we know our job is to show up here and take care of what we need to take care of, and that doesn’t change.”
PWHL Minnesota opens its season on Wednesday evening (6 p.m. Central) in Boston. Bally Sports North will broadcast all of Minnesota’s games, or catch them on the league’s YouTube channel. Minnesota’s home opener is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.
“We’re going to be a hard-working team who’s fast and who can make plays and compete every day,” Klee said. “We’ll do that, we’ll be able to fix the Xs and Os and any mistakes that happen.”
Coyne Schofield is a player whom Klee said he’s kept in touch with over the years. In her mind, there’s no doubt that Klee is a good hockey coach, but she said his biggest strength comes in who he is as a person. She added that Klee respects the women as hockey players and people, treating them like professionals. Part of that means that every player will have a role on the team.
“Everyone’s role is important to ensure the success of the team,” Coyne Schofield said. “And he will bring that out in every single player.”
Plenty of Minnesota natives are part of the new PWHL
The Minnesota roster includes 12 natives of the state, including Stecklein and Lake City’s Taylor Heise, the first overall pick in the PWHL’s inaugural draft last summer. Former Gophers forward Grace Zumwinkle is another familiar name on the list.
PWHL Minnesota has talked about playing fast and free as they’ve come together as a group over the past few weeks of training camp and preseason games. As Stecklein noted, the team is a group mixed with hockey veterans – Stecklein and Coyne Schofield, plus goaltender Amanda Leveille were on the NWHL Isobel Cup-winning team in 2019 with the Minnesota Whitecaps, for example – and then other players who are a bit younger and fresh out of college, like Heise and Zumwinkle.
“You’re seeing a ton of skill combined with all of that experience and getting to learn from each other and push each other at practice, and I think that’ll translate well with fans,” Stecklein said.
When training camp opened in mid-November, players talked about how this new league was a long time coming to get to this point. And while this week marks the first games played in the PWHL, don’t mistake them for the first games in women’s professional hockey. That would be leaving out leagues of the past like the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’s Hockey League (later the Premier Hockey Federation).
“There’s been iterations of women’s professional hockey that won’t be forgotten,” Coyne Schofield said. “Those iterations helped get us to where we are today.”
As the puck dropped in Toronto on New Year’s Day to start the inaugural PWHL season, Coyne Schofield hopes that all the players who have come before this league’s players know that they’ve had a hand in the PWHL as well.
For Coyne Schofield, it’s those behind-the-scenes elements that are so important to the product on the ice. That includes having access to a weight room and being provided with nutritional meals. For so long, players juggled so many different things at once, with playing hockey being one of them. Having the resources, nutritional support, medical support and “everything that encompasses being a professional athlete” in place is a big deal, Coyne Schofield said.
“I think that’s what’s been lacking in women’s hockey, is the ability to prepare as a professional,” Coyne Schofield said. “To eat the right way, to train the right way, to have a strength coach, to have an equipment manager, to have multiple athletic trainers, to have a doctor if you need it.
“To have the resources to allow you to be the best that you can be. And I think we’re going to see that in the product this year.”
PWHL Minnesota roster (with hometowns listed for Minnesota natives)
Claire Butorac (Andover, Minn.)
Sophia Kunin (Wayzata, Minn.)
Kelly Pannek (Plymouth, Minn.)
Grace Zumwinkle (Excelsior, Minn.)
Liz Schepers (Mound, Minn.)
Taylor Heise (Lake City, Minn.)
*Sydney Brodt (North Oaks, Minn.) Brodt starts the season on long-term IR with a broken foot.
Lee Stecklein (Roseville, Minn)
Nikki Nightengale (Bloomington, Minn)
Maggie Flaherty (Lakeville, Minn)
Lauren Bench (Eagan, Minn)
Maddie Rooney (Andover, Minn)