A U.S. women’s national hockey team member at age 15, Olympic medalist at 18 and game-changing college coach at 31, Natalie Darwitz accomplished so much at such a young age.
But never, ever has she faced something as daunting as this: Speak 10 minutes uninterrupted about herself, as she will Wednesday night in Nashville, where she’ll become just the fifth woman — and first from Minnesota — inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I’m pretty quiet by nature,” Darwitz said.
She’ll join former Olympic teammates Cammi Granato, Karyn Bye Dietz and Angela Ruggiero, all of whom are enshrined in the American hall of fame in Eveleth, Minn.
Darwitz, 35, enters with a class including Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile, former NHL player/longtime University of Michigan coach Red Berenson, former NHL referee Paul Stewart and Hago Harrington, who in the 1920s helped popularize hockey in Massachusetts and died in 1959.
“I’m in really great company,” said Darwitz, a three-time Olympic medal winner and two-time NCAA champion, “and it’s really humbling.”
She said she purposely hadn’t given her induction speech much thought until she recently watched former NHL star Martin St. Louis’ thankful address when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto last month.
“That’s when I started to get really nervous,” she said. “To ask me to speak for 10 minutes and talk about what it means to be in the Hall of Fame and most importantly thank a lot of people, that’s a lot of weight. I’m a shoot-from-the-hip kind of person. I want to speak from the heart, so I don’t want it to be too rehearsed. But obviously, I don’t want to get up there and be a goon, either.”
Daughter of a lifetime hockey coach and sister of an older hockey-playing brother, the self-described “rink rat” did her talking on the ice. It was her home, from playing with neighbor boys on Eagan’s outdoor rinks as far back as she can remember to a place with U.S. women’s teammates twice her age on her sport’s grandest stages.
Over Christmas vacations, her father, Scott, lit a neighborhood rink with his car headlights so his kids could keep playing well after 9 p.m. closing time. In the summer, as a grade-schooler faster on foot or blade and more coordinated — you should see her juggle — than any girl or boy her age, she played traveling squirts against and with a kid named Zach Parise.
“She was always our best player, yes, she was,” Parise said 25 years later. “I liked playing on a line with her. She was stronger than all of us, good athlete, good skater. She was just faster, just a better player than everybody.”
Parise achieved a long, lucrative NHL career. Darwitz became a prodigy for international women’s hockey and then one of its most acclaimed players. She won two silver medals and a bronze — but no gold — in three Olympics, and consecutive NCAA titles with the Gophers between them.
Darwitz still calls that second NCAA title with the Gophers in 2005 the most memorable moment of her career. It surpassed even the three Olympics for a simple reason: “Because we won.”
“The average person doesn’t understand the sacrifices you make to be the best,” Darwitz said. “There’s no better feeling than throwing your gloves in the air and being No. 1 at the end of the season. That second year — back-to-back when we were ranked No. 1 all year long, just the pressure we faced — it’s even harder with that bull’s-eye on your back.”
She keeps her Olympic medals tucked away. The last time she brought them out, she showed them during an elementary school visit. She admits she might admire them more if Canada hadn’t defeated her U.S. team in Salt Lake City in 2002.
“That one still stings,” Darwitz said. “I’ll be honest with you, if there was a gold medal, I might look at that a little bit more. I’m obviously proud of them, but it’s one of those things that I haven’t yet realized what I’ve done just because I’ve been busy with life.”
Now married with two boys, ages 3 and 1, she is in her fourth season as coach of the Hamline women’s team. She skates with the team during practices and still shows some of the speed that once defined her game.
“Give her two months and she’d be ready for another Olympics,” Scott Darwitz said.
In those four seasons at Hamline, Darwitz has taken a team that went 6-17-2 before she arrived to the Division III Final Four and a third-place national finish last season.
“It’s pretty remarkable what she has done,” said Hamline athletic director Jason Verdugo, who texted Darwitz in 2015 asking if she’d have coffee but uncertain if he could hire her as the MIAC college’s next coach. “Not many former talented players turn into really good coaches. I admire that most. I’ve watched her interact with student-athletes, and I’m really impressed by her ability to teach.”
Hamline has started this season 8-1-1, which is as many games as her team won in her first season as coach. Senior forward Becca Zarembinski kept a photo from childhood that shows Darwitz signing a photo for her. She calls Darwitz’s presence one reason she now plays hockey.
“Now that I’m older, it’s pretty cool when people tell me, ‘I took my daughter to a game of yours and she played because of you,’ ’’ Darwitz said. “Or the fun one is when I run into a guy my own age who says, ‘I played against you. I remember there was a girl on the Eagan team, and we wanted to run you through the boards.’ ”
At least one boy back then glared at Darwitz before a faceoff and told her that he’d get her good. She told him he’d have to catch her.
She skated on, all the way to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Look closely at her Eagan High School jersey that hangs in her hometown arena and you’ll see black tape marks near the waist where opponents unsuccessfully tried to slow her down with their stick blades.
Her parents, husband Chris Arseneau, sons Joseph and Zachary, uncle, grandpa, high school coach Merlin Ravndalen (also her Hamline goalie coach) and his wife all will attend the ceremony to hear a speech that will be more about them than herself.
“She is very humble,” said Bye Dietz, who was inducted in Minneapolis in 2014. “I don’t think Natalie knows how good a player she really was. She’ll do well up there [at the podium]. She won’t talk about herself. She’ll talk about others, all the great coaches she has had. I’m so happy and so proud of her. It’s a huge honor and it’s an incredible experience.”
It took USA Hockey several calls to reach her with the news last July because summer is family time at her home on Prior Lake. It took a bit longer yet to tell her parents.
“We’re all sitting around the lake and her husband Chris asks, ‘Hey, are going to tell your folks?’ ’’ Scott Darwitz said. “And she says, ‘Oh, yeah, by the way, I made the USA Hockey Hall of Fame,’ and walked away.
“That’s her, though.”