Inside Natalie Darwitz’s ousting from PWHL Minnesota: Rift with the coach, players taking sides


Around Christmas time, Ken Klee got a call that changed the course of PWHL Minnesota’s season.

And, it turns out, their future.

Klee, 53, was at his home in Castle Rock, Colo., when he was told that Charlie Burggraf — the coach picked to lead the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey League team in Minnesota — had decided to step aside a week before the season for personal reasons.

Klee had interviewed for the position over the summer, as well as for the general manager job, which was eventually given to Minnesota hockey icon and IIHF Hall of Famer Natalie Darwitz. He wanted to be both. He got neither … initially.

But with Burggraf stepping aside, the league felt it was easiest to see if the former successful U.S. women’s national team coach was willing to step in. Klee had already been vetted and background-checked by the PWHL.

“When do you want me there?” he asked.

“Today.” 

So Klee checked with his wife, then packed a bunch of suits and other clothes and made the 13-hour drive to Minnesota for the start of a season that would end with a Walter Cup championship.

The celebration was barely a week old, however, when the league decided to make a major and unexpected change at the top.

According to multiple team and league sources, on Tuesday the PWHL — which owns all six teams — informed Darwitz that she would no longer be the GM of the franchise.

On Thursday morning, during a meeting with league officials, Darwitz was offered multiple options, per the sources: Take a position in the PWHL hockey operations department, issue a joint statement in which she would announce she had achieved everything she wanted in the first year of the franchise and was moving on to a new challenge or sit at Minnesota’s table for Monday’s PWHL draft but with no authority.

Effectively, that would have allowed both parties to delay her departure until they could have come up with an exit strategy.

The Athletic reported that Darwitz was out as GM on Thursday night. On Friday, the league and Darwitz both declined to comment.

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Natalie Darwitz out as GM of PWHL Minnesota: Sources

The news of her departure — which came just days before St. Paul will host the league’s draft  — was felt around the league and the championship-starved state, which has supported and celebrated the new franchise.

Her departure was, according to league and team sources, the result of a rift with Klee, with a handful of veteran players like Kendall Coyne Schofield in Klee’s camp and others in Darwitz’s.

The league used a consulting firm to advise on how to handle the delicate situation, per league sources. According to one source, the firm said, “This isn’t the first time there’s a GM-coach power struggle in a sports organization, and we can mediate it and figure it out.”

In the end, though, the league felt there was a need for a change.

Klee, who said he could not discuss the situation when reached by The Athletic on Friday, will run PWHL Minnesota’s draft table Monday with the help of his coaching staff, league sources said. He is likely to return next season as head coach, per sources, while the league holds a search for the next GM.

All coaches and GMs, including Darwitz, worked the inaugural PWHL season on one-year contracts that are set to expire June 30 unless renewed.

No players reached by The Athletic were willing to comment on the record on the situation.

“Natalie was a pillar for me during a really tough season,” one PWHL Minnesota player told The Athletic on the condition of anonymity. “When I felt I was spoken to inappropriately or I witnessed behavior and language that was way out of pocket, Natalie listened emphatically and always encouraged me both on and off the ice. This is a big hit to our team and I know several girls can attest to that. I’m extremely shocked and confused that she was let go.”

Coyne Schofield, who is largely responsible for the league coming together, was the captain of Minnesota’s championship team. She and fellow leaders Kelly Pannek and Lee Stecklein played for Klee on the U.S. national team and are big fans of his coaching style and ability.

Coyne Schofield didn’t respond to a request for comment but was effusive in her praise of Klee last week after the championship.

“He did a phenomenal job,” Coyne Schofield said. “I said this after the game, but you look at the league awards. The MVP award. The best forward. The best defenseman. The best goaltender. The best coach. We don’t have any of those. We have the best team. It starts at the top. The way (Klee) brought this group together, the way he makes every player feel valued — their role matters.

“Everyone knew what they needed to do to help this team be successful. And it was different for everybody. But every single role mattered in order for us to get to the Walter Cup and then to win it. I’ve been lucky to play with him before coming here with the U.S. team, and I will say everywhere I’ve played with him, we’ve won. It’s been pretty special. We’ve been very lucky to have him this year, and I will say some of the most fun years I’ve had playing hockey have been under his leadership.

“It’s fun to come to the rink. It’s fun to work. It’s fun to be challenged. He’s going to push you to be better. But you’re going to be because of it. A better person and a better player.”

When asked if she was pushing for Klee to return as coach, Coyne Schofield said, “That would be great. I don’t make those decisions. That’s pro sports. We play for who they tell us we play for. But after that season, I couldn’t imagine him not being back if that’s a decision that he wants.”

It’s unclear when the league will announce Darwitz’s departure, but on Monday, the reality will be obvious when the person who ran last year’s draft is not in attendance.

Inside the office assembled by Darwitz, staffers are upset and befuddled.

“It’s all Minnesota people, and if you’re from Minnesota and you watch hockey and women’s sports, Darwitz is the first name you obviously know,” a team source said. “If you met her, you like her even more because of the person she is. She treats her staff like gold. People are shocked, pissed and sad.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

From the roster to the Prince homage, how Natalie Darwitz is building a PWHL team in Minnesota ‘from scratch

(Photos of Ken Klee on the PWHL Minnesota bench and Natalie Darwitz: Mark Stockwell / Associated Press and courtesy of the University of Minnesota)



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