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Unable to play professionally, Darwitz realizes women’s hockey dream as one of PWHLs 6 GMs

Three-time U.S. Olympian Natalie Darwitz never realized her dream of playing professional hockey. At 39, Darwitz will enjoy the next best thing in making that a reality for others — and in her home state of Minnesota.

The former U.S. national team captain will oversee the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s yet-to-be-named franchise in Minneapolis-St. Paul after being named one of the newly established league’s six general managers on Friday.

“This is just a huge moment for the players, the front office, the league, little girls to dream,” Darwitz said.

“I get to help build a team with the best players in the world. How exciting is that?,” she added. “It was a long time coming. It would have been fun to have this when we were still in our skates and playing. But now, here we are, and we’re going to make the most of it, and we’re going to be here for a long, long time.”

Two prominent Canadians were tabbed for GM roles in a league that will bring together a majority of the world’s top players.

Daniele Sauvageau, who coached Canada to its first women’s Olympic gold medal in 2002, will be working in her familiar surroundings of Montreal. That’s where she established Canada’s only recognized high-performance women’s hockey training center. Gina Kingsbury is leaving her post at Hockey Canada as GM of women’s national team programs to take over the PWHL’s franchise in Toronto.

Rounding out the list are former NHL Coaches’ Association executive director Michael Hirshfeld (Ottawa), Danielle Marmer (Boston) and Pascal Daoust (New York).

Marmer is from Vermont and spent last year as the NHL Bruins player development and scouting assistant — the team’s first woman to hold an on-ice role. Daoust spent the past eight years serving as GM of the QMJHL’s team in Val-d’Or, and previously worked with Sauvageau as an assistant coach with the University of Montreal’s women’s hockey team.

The six become the first employees of the league-controlled franchises. Their hiring comes on the day the PWHL opens a 10-day free-agent period in which teams are allowed to sign three players, and followed by a 15-round draft on Sept. 18.

The PWHL revealed its draft lottery results in determining the order of selection with Minnesota landing the No. 1 pick followed by Toronto, Boston, New York, Ottawa and Montreal. The teams will then select in the reverse order in each succeeding round.

The GMs will be responsible for hiring their coaching and support staffs, with training camps set to open in November. The league will launch in January with a 24-game schedule, and each team will have a 23-player roster.

The privately backed league’s primary financial investor is Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter, with Billie Jean King as a board member.

“We have an incredible amount of confidence in this group that they are going to hit the ground running,” said PWHL senior vice president of hockey operations Jayna Hefford, who oversaw the hiring process that featured as many as 60 candidates. “I don’t want to lose sight fo the fact that this is going to be an incredible moment for our players to be a part of something like this where they will have general managers reaching out to them and trying to secure them.”

Though four of the six positions were filled by women, Hefford said hiring the most qualified people took priority over gender. Nationalities weren’t a factor, either, though Hefford — a former Team Canada captain — looked forward to seeing Darwitz and Kingsbury renew their one-time on-ice rivalry at the executive level.

“I think it’s already happened,” said Hefford, who played with Kingsbury and against Darwitz. “I think we’re going to hold them back to some extent.”

Darwitz was amused in noting how she is now “locking arms” with Hefford, a former rival while at the same time acknowledging her U.S. background might make it difficult to lure Canadian players during the pre-draft signing period.

While Darwitz expects to draw on her home state’s wealth of talent, she isn’t going to ignore players from other U.S. regions and Canada, especially when it comes to the draft.

From Eagan, Minnesota, Darwitz is regarded among the state’s most high-profile players. She spent the past two seasons as associate head coach of the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team. As a player, she won three Olympic medals (two silver and one bronze) and three world championship gold medals representing the U.S., and was a two-time NCAA champion playing for Minnesota.

Kingsbury expects to face a similar challenge in attracting U.S. players, because of her ties to Hockey Canada.

“Well, that rivalry never dies,” said Kingsbury, while noting she intends to reach out to players on both sides of the border in her approach to fill Toronto’s three initial free-agent roster spots.

“I want to introduce myself as Gina Kingsbury, the GM of Toronto, and share my vision with what our plans are,” she said.

Hockey Canada announced senior VP of hockey operations Scott Salmond will assume Kingsbury’s role in overseeing the national women’s program.

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