University of Minnesota
In Natalie Darwitz’s final game as a Golden Gopher, she scored the winning goal with just over a minute remaining against Harvard in the Frozen Four championship game. Darwitz was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament and finished the season with an NCAA-record 114 points.
Photo: courtesy University Athletics
Former Gopher star and current Team USA captain Natalie Darwitz talks hockey and the Olympics
By Rick Moore
Natalie Darwitz has been a hockey prodigy since she was old enough to first lace up skates.
After playing with boys teams till she was 13, she switched to the girls game as an eighth grader at Eagan High School, and scored a whopping 487 points (312 goals and 175 assists) in 102 games.
In three years at the University of Minnesota, Darwitz became the career Western Collegiate Hockey Association leader in points (246) and assists (144) and helped lead the Gophers win back-to-back national championships in 2004 and 2005.
Now Darwitz has taken her game to the next level… again. She has captained the U.S. Women’s National Team to consecutive world championships, and her teammates voted her to be the captain of the 2010 Olympic team that, along with Canada, is considered a favorite for the gold medal.
It’s hard to fathom that Darwitz grew up a shy kid, clinging to her mom’s and dad’s hips and preferring shoulder shrugs to spoken sentences. She came out of her shell, she says, about five years ago.
Make no mistake, Darwitz is no longer shy. She’s at ease with the media, delightfully sarcastic, and quick with a hearty laugh.
On a snowy day in late January, the day before she would hop on a plane for the start of her five-week Great Olympic Adventure, Darwitz entertained a visitor at her figurative home ice—the Eagan Civic Arena—and answered questions about her life in hockey both as a Golden Gopher and now the captain of Team USA.
Q: You’re a veteran now, but what was it like playing in the Olympics the first time in 2002 in Salt Lake City, representing the United States?
A: There were two times when it kind of hit me. When we got to the rink and we skated, there were the Olympic rings on the ice. One of my older teammates, who was in the ’98 games, came up to me and said, “How does it feel to skate over the rings?” That’s when it was like, “I can’t believe this. How many people would love this opportunity right now to be in my skates doing this?”
Then, obviously, the opening ceremonies are another time when you’re like, “Seriously, am I here right now?” You gotta pinch yourself.
Q: What’s your schedule like in between games at the Olympics? Is there much free time?
A: When Coach [Mark] Johnson was in the Olympics in 1980, he said it was about the experience. He walked across the rink and watched [Eric] Heiden win five gold medals. He said, “That was a huge experience for me, seeing other athletes compete, and I want the same thing for you guys.”
For a couple of hours each day that we have off, I’m sure we’ll probably go out and do the spectator stuff, and hopefully see other events that are easy to get to. But on game days, none of that. We’re pretty honed in.
Q: Aside from Canada (the other powerhouse in women’s hockey), are there teams you’re especially concerned about in Vancouver?
A: The two countries I worry about are Finland and Sweden. If those guys are hot, they can easily steal a game from you, and they have in the last couple of years, both from us and from Canada. So you’ve gotta be playing your best hockey. You can’t take any game lightly, especially in the Olympics, because you can’t get those games back. … We have to take care of business.
Q: What’s the best line you’ve ever skated on in terms of ability or chemistry?
A: The Kelly Stephens and Krissy Wendell (her teammates at the U from 2003-05) line by far. No question. To skate with those two and to be in sync as we were and to pretty much have a blindfold on and know where each other was going to be. … I was pretty fortunate, and now looking back on it, I’m like, “Can I just have those two come back for one more year, one more month?”
Gopher red, white, and blue
Darwitz is one of a half dozen women’s hockey players in the Olympics with University of Minnesota connections. Gigi Marvin finished her Gopher career in 2009, and Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux played at the U last year as freshmen before leaving the program. Angela Ruggiero is a graduate student at the U in kinesiology. And Gopher goaltender Noora Räty will be playing for her home country of Finland in Vancouver.
Q: When you were at the U, what team did you consider to be your biggest rival, Wisconsin or UMD?
A: Wisconsin was tough, but I think we had the most passion against Duluth. [UMD was] a team where you just don’t agree with what they do on and off the ice. You find joy and excitement—a lot of it—in beating them and seeing their faces at the end of the game. There was just not a lot of love for each other on the ice. You did one extra fist pump when you scored against those guys. (Laughs.)
Q: What would you rank as your top three moments in hockey to date?
A: For number three I’d go with the 2002 Olympics. Because it was in the United States, a lot of family and friends went, and it was my first Olympics.
My two other moments were probably in 2004 winning the national championship [for the Gophers], and then ’05 is my number one—back-to-back titles. Obviously, the first national championship was huge to win. … That was the first time I got to throw the gloves up and hog-pile on the goalie. … To get that in ’04 was amazing, but then to win back-to-back [titles] I think is one of the hardest things in sport to do. You have the bull’s-eye on your back all year long.
Q: If you were to win the gold medal in Vancouver, where would that fit in on the list?
A: It’d probably be pretty close to number one. The last two years I’ve been fortunate enough to win world championships with the U.S. national team, but ask anybody two years down the road, three years down the road, who won the world championships, and no one’s going to know.
I haven’t played hockey the last four or five years every day to train for silver or bronze. It’s obviously to get the gold. When you asked me about the top three, the Olympics is amazing to get to, but the reason I picked number one and number two is because we won.
The person who said winning doesn’t mean anything must not have won anything. Because there’s nothing quite like winning, you know?
The U.S. hockey team swept its first four games (over China, Russia, Finland, and Sweden) by a combined score of 40-2. In the 6-0 win over Finland, Darwitz netted a goal and two assists to give her 11 points in the 2010 Olympics--a new U.S. team record. The United States will face Canada in the gold medal game on Thursday, February 25, at 5:30 p.m. CST. It will be broadcast on MSNBC. For more information visit the USA hockey Web site.