By John Gillis
A cursory review of the girls ice hockey section of the National Federation of State High School Associations’ online multimedia National High School Sports Record Book reveals that it is dominated by two extraordinary Minnesota players ‑ Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell.
Darwitz and Wendell, who completed their respective high school careers in 2000, are collectively listed 20 times in the Record Book. Darwitz holds the national career records for goals (316), assists (152) and points (468), while Wendell holds the top spots for goals in a season (110), goals in a game (8), points in a season (165) and points in a game (11).
Darwitz played hockey for Eagan (Minnesota) High School, while Wendell played for Brooklyn Park (Minnesota) Park Center High School ‑ both suburban Minneapolis schools. Despite their relatively close proximity, the two met just once in high school in their teams’ opening game of the 1999-2000 season at the Eagan Civic Arena.
In that watershed mid-November contest that was touted as the showdown between the north suburban star (Wendell) and the south suburban star (Darwitz), Wendell scored seven goals to help lead her Park Center team to a 10-4 victory over Eagan. Darwitz, who was nursing an injured hip, scored twice for Eagan. Played before a packed house, the game lived up to the hype as the two star players played fast-paced and physical games against each other.
“I don't think many people know that we actually played against each other in high school,” Wendell said. “It was very early in the season, and it was played in a packed arena with lots of excitement. I do remember thinking it was weird because we had already been teammates on the U.S. team and we hadn't played against each other before. I think that’s the only time we have ever been on opposing teams.
“I also think the media hyped up the rivalry far more than Natalie and I thought of it as a rivalry. We enjoyed playing on the same team far more than we did playing against each other ‑ at least I did. We are very different-style players, and thankfully we played with each other more than against each other.”
“If you ask Krissy and me, it was just another game,” Darwitz said. “The communities were excited, the rink was packed and it was fun. We’re competitors, but also good friends who played on the same U.S. national ream. I knew it was going to be a fun game, although we ended up losing. The best thing about it is it was great for girls hockey – it got a lot of newspaper and television coverage. People who didn’t normally come out to watch a girls hockey game came out and watched that game. We put a good product on the ice.”
Both Darwitz and Wendell grew up playing hockey with boys. In addition, Wendell played in the 1994 Little League World Series as the only female on the Brooklyn Center team and the first female starting catcher in Little League World Series history.
The duo came along at exactly the right time, as the Minnesota State High School League’s (MSHSL) Representative Assembly approved adding girls ice hockey in March 1994 and it became a League-sponsored activity with the 1994-95 school year. During that inaugural season, more than 1,000 Minnesota high school girls competed in ice hockey on 24 varsity and 12 junior varsity teams. The first MSHSL girls ice hockey tournament, which was held February 24-25, 1995 at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood, Minnesota, drew 6,155 spectators.
Both players helped lead their respective high school programs to great state tournament success. Darwitz played in three MSHSL state tournaments with the best finish a runner-up placement to Hibbing/Chisholm High School. Wendell led Park Center to the MSHSL state tournament twice, including a 6-0 win in the title game over Anoka High School as a senior. For both of them, playing in the state tournament was a memorable experience.
“Playing in the state tournament is what every Minnesota kid dreams about when they think of high school hockey,” Wendell said. “It's such a fun tournament with so much history and tradition. I think there’s something special about having your entire school supporting you and bringing so much school pride. Just playing in the state tournament is great, but being able to end your high school career with a state championship is really special and such a special memory.”
“Growing up in Minnesota, watching the boys hockey state tournament on television every March instilled in me how great it is and what a special moment it is to be in the tournament,” Darwitz said. “Although we never won the girls state hockey title, for my high school to go the state tournament three times in four years was a tremendous experience.”
In recognition of their many accomplishments during their storied high school careers, both players received numerous accolades. In separate seasons, both were named Metro Player of the Year by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Wendell was chosen Minnesota’s Ms. Hockey following her senior year.
Following high school, Darwitz and Wendell both played for the University of Minnesota women’s ice hockey team. They teamed to lead the Golden Gophers to back-to-back NCAA women’s ice hockey national championships in 2004 and 2005.
Wendell, a 5-foot-6 forward who shoots left-handed, was a co-captain of the Gophers team and scored the game-winning goal in the 2005 Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship game against the University of Wisconsin. She followed that with a hat trick against Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference champion Harvard, and was the NCAA scoring runner-up to Gophers teammate Darwitz.
Similar to high school, Wendell’s and Darwitz’ names also appear several times in the NCAA Record Book. During the 2004-05 season, Wendell set the NCAA single-season record for short-handed goals with seven, and had the career record for short-handed goals of 16 when she graduated. Wendell currently ranks seventh in career points with 237. In 2005, she became the first player from Minnesota and the first from the WCHA to win the Patty Kazmaier Award, which recognizes the nation’s top Division I women’s ice hockey player.
Darwitz, a 5-3 center/wing who shoots right-handed, began skating at the tender age of five. She currently holds the NCAA records for most points scored in a season (114) and for most assists in a season (72), and ranks third in career assists with 144. Her career points total of 246 ranks fifth all time, and her career average of 2.49 points per game ranks second. In 2005, she led the nation as she averaged 2.85 points per game.
During her three years at Minnesota, Darwitz helped lead the Gophers to back-to-back national championships, scored the winning goal in her final game with 1:08 to play versus Harvard (4-3), won the Most Outstanding Player of the 2004 NCAA Women's Ice Hockey Championship Frozen Four, and was named U.S. Women’s Player of the Year.
|John and Krissy Pohl with daughters Emily, Anna and Lucy
Both have played extensively at the international level. Wendell started with the U.S. National Team at the Three Nations Cup in 1998, and in 2005, led all players in scoring with nine points as the United States won its first gold medal at the Women’s World Ice Hockey Championships. She was a member of the silver medal-winning U.S. team at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, and played on the bronze-medal squad at Turin in 2006.
Darwitz was on the same Olympic squads with Wendell in 2002 and 2006, and also was a member of the silver-medal team in 2010 in Vancouver. She earned medals at eight Women’s World Championships and at 10 Women’s Four Nations Cup competitions.
Today, Wendell is married to Red Wing (Minnesota) native and former University of Minnesota men’s ice hockey star John Pohl, and they are parents of three young daughters. John is head girls ice hockey coach at St. Paul (Minnesota) Cretin-Derham Hall High School and Krissy assists him.
Darwitz is the head girls ice hockey coach at Lakeville (Minnesota) South High School and a private skating instructor. She enjoys boating on the lakes in her native Minnesota, but also likes to surf in Southern California and Mexico with her boyfriend.
Although both successfully played ice hockey at the highest possible levels, their high school experiences still hold a special place.
“I think there is something special about representing the town in which you grow up in and playing with teammates you've known almost your entire life,” Wendell said. “At the high school level, the sport is still very pure. Every level that you climb, the competition gets even tougher and at times can be more stressful and the emphasis to win gets greater. In high school, you can just enjoy the experience without all of the pressure to always win. And, of course, it's nice to be able to play in front of all your family and friends.”
“Playing at the high school level is definitely special,” Darwitz said. “I tell the girls I coach to not look past today playing high school hockey. I tell them it’s one of the best experiences of their lives. There’s nothing better than representing your school and your community, and there’s nothing quite like cross-town rivalries. We are very fortunate in Minnesota to have that experience and to have that great tradition in hockey. If I could do it, it would be awesome to be able to go back to play it again.”
John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at firstname.lastname@example.org