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‘The Game Deserved This’

New Professional Women’s Hockey League opens training camp this month.

PWHL Minnesota general manager Natalie Darwitz and head coach Charlie Burggraf meet with the media Nov. 15 at the start of training camp. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

Last week, Roseville native Lee Stecklein stepped into the same rink where she scored a championship-clinching goal more than four years ago. Her overtime winner helped the Minnesota Whitecaps defeat the Buffalo Beauts to win the 2019 Isobel Cup.

Now, the Whitecaps and its professional league are memories for Stecklein and hockey fans. The new women’s league – the Professional Women’s Hockey League – is off and skating to prepare for its inaugural season in 2024.

“It feels a little surreal,” Stecklein said while meeting with the media last week. “It’s been a long road to get here.”

The new six-team league was announced this summer led by Mark and Kimbra Walter, Billie Jean King and Premier Hockey Federation Governors Johanna and John Boynton. The league acquired the PHF and spent months negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.

“The game has deserved this for a very long time,” said Kendall Coyne Schofield. “You look at a lot of the players who came before all of us who are walking into TRIA today who didn’t have the opportunity that we’re going to have moving forward.

“And I think even with the opportunity that we do have moving forward, we’re going to want to push for more. We’re going to strive for more.”

Taylor Heise, the PWHL first overall draft pick, meets with the media at TRIA Rink. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

While Stecklein and Coyne Schofield, along with some of their teammates, are professional-playing veterans, others like Taylor Heise get to start their professional careers with the new PWHL. They’re all signed to play for Minnesota’s team.

“My agent actually texted me this morning… ‘hey, happy first day of school,’ and I didn’t even think about it that way. But it makes sense,” Heise said.

First days often include introductions aplenty. Heise said she introduced herself to half of her teammates on day one.

Heise, the 23-year-old native of Lake City, Minn. and graduate of Red Wing High School, made history as the first overall pick in the inaugural PWHL Draft in September. In six years with Red Wing, she scored 180 goals and 316 points in 149 regular-season games. She then spent five seasons with the Gophers, scoring 97 goals and 227 points in 173 games.

Minnesota general manager Natalie Darwitz said there wasn’t much need for discussion for who Minnesota would select with its top lottery pick at the draft, held in Toronto.

“I have told everyone, I kind of blacked out when my name was said, especially since Billie Jean King was the one that said it,” Heise said.

Along with Heise and Stecklein, there are plenty of Minnesota natives on Team Minnesota, like forwards Kelly Pannek, Maggie Flaherty and Grace Zumwinkle. Susanna Tapani is from Finland, Coyne Schofield is from Palos Heights, Ill. and goaltender Nicole Hensley is from Colorado. As of early this week, these players are all signed to a standard player agreement.

A ‘fresh start’ for everyone
Minnesota welcomed 28 total players to training camp. Darwitz and head coach Charlie Burggraf will look for competition from these players and what they could provide for the team. While a player’s draft status and previous hockey resume are important, Minnesota wants to give every player a “start-from- scratch feel,” Darwitz said.

“Everyone’s at the same starting point,” Darwitz said. “You’re here to show us what you can do on the ice and hopefully for this organization and hopefully a consistent spot in the lineup.”

Minnesota will be led behind the bench by Roseau native and former University of North Dakota player Charlie Burggraf. He’s had a few stops in his coaching career, most notably and recently at Bethel University where he was an assistant men’s hockey coach from 2002-04, head women’s coach from 2006-10 and then the head men’s hockey coach starting in 2010. He was also an assistant for the Gophers women’s team from 2004-06.

Burggraf said they’re looking for strong locker-room players who are skilled and can skate fast, along with having great goaltending.

“We like to play a fast, aggressive style of hockey, and they’ll play different roles,” Burggraf said. “So, there’s going to be variation in the type of player that we have depending on where they fall.

“Speed kills is what we say in hockey. Because if you’re fast and quick and smart, you’re difficult to play against. That’s what we’re looking for in our players.”

Camp officially started Nov. 15. They’ll have a lot of meetings over the first couple of weeks to get on the same page, Darwitz said.

All six PWHL teams – Boston, Minnesota, Montreal, New York, Ottawa and Toronto – will meet Dec. 3-7 at the Utica University Nexus Center in New York for a pre-season evaluation camp. The days will be filled with training sessions, practices and scrimmages to help prepare for the inaugural season. Minnesota is scheduled to scrimmage against Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

The league announced earlier this month that TRIA Rink, also home to the Minnesota Wild, will be Team Minnesota’s practice facility. Regular season games start in January.  

Lee Stecklein meets with the media Nov. 15, 2023 at TRIA Rink as PWHL training camp opens. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

Minnesota needs to trim its roster to 27 players by the last week of November before the Utica trip. After those scrimmages, Minnesota will get down to its active roster of 23 players and two reserve players.

“This is new for everyone,” Darwitz said. “They’re coming from different colleges. Some have the luxury of this pro league started when they graduated college, and they don’t know anything else. Some of them, the last few years, they had to rough it. They were playing in men’s leagues, they were working out on their own.”

No logos, nicknames for 1st season
For this first season, there will be no team-specific logos or nicknames, although purple will be one of Minnesota’s team colors. Darwitz supports the league’s move to take its time and get these decisions right.

“I know people want names, they want jerseys,” Darwitz said. “They want all that stuff, they want apparel. I think it’s really important to do things the right way. … Our jerseys year one are inaugural jerseys. You won’t see these same jerseys year two.

“Years two and on, it’s going to be up to every market, I think, to establish their own identity.”

Whatever that new identity will be for Team Minnesota, the players hope to attract new fans to the new league. Heise has high expectations when it comes to support from “the best fans in the league” in Minnesota.

But the women’s hockey history already runs so deep in the land of 10,000 lakes. That shouldn’t be overlooked, Stecklein said.

“The Whitecaps were trailblazers for a really long time,” Stecklein said. “And I’m so grateful for what they did. Because we would not be here without them.”

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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