More than a decade has passed since what might have been the greatest single night in Minnesota girls’ high school hockey history. The 1999-2000 season opened in mid-November with a showcase game at Eagan Civic Arena. The two stars from that game – and that era – look back now and remember it as if it had happened yesterday.
Scenes like that one, with an overflow crowd, tons of pregame talk and an historical sense of anticipation, don’t come around often.
The singular sensations, the players everybody came to see, were Eagan sophomore Natalie Darwitz and Park Center senior Krissy Wendell. Darwitz had been named the Metro Player of the Year by the Minneapolis Star Tribune two years earlier as an eighth-grader and Wendell had won the honor as a junior. At the end of the 1999-2000 season Wendell would be named Minnesota’s Ms. Hockey, and the duo would soon become teammates on U.S. national and Olympic teams as well as at the University of Minnesota. On this November night, however, they were opponents.
“I remember the hype leading up to that game,” Darwitz said. “We had good visibility in the media, and it was the north suburban phenom vs. the south suburban phenom. The stands were jammed and there was a lot of buzz, a lot of good energy for that game. The fun part of it was it wasn’t for a girls’ game, it was for a hockey game.”
The game lived up to expectations. Wendell scored seven goals as Park Center recorded a 10-4 victory and Darwitz, playing with an injured hip, scored twice for Eagan. The pair raced up and down the ice all evening, played physically against each other and put on a show that people still talk about today.
Darwitz is now 27 years old and Wendell is 29. Their hockey careers include national championships at the University of Minnesota – where they hold or share most of the scoring records -- and Olympic medals. Some of their favorite hockey memories, however, go all the way back to their high school days.
“Oh, that was a lot of fun,” said Wendell, who is married to former University of Minnesota men’s hockey star Johnny Pohl and is the mother of two young daughters. “Obviously when you’re on a winning team everything seems to be more fun. There were a lot of good friendships, and I still keep in touch with some of the girls on our team. High school goes by so fast.”
Darwitz said, “There’s nothing like playing for your community, playing with your friends and growing up together. When I look back, I have a smile on my face. At times I wish I could snap my fingers and be back in high school and to have that opportunity again.”
Darwitz played in state tournaments as a seventh-grader, eighth-grader and sophomore, with Eagan’s best finish coming in 1997 when the Wildcats were runners-up to Hibbing/Chisholm. After her sophomore year, Darwitz skipped high school hockey while training with the U.S. national team and completing her high school education via distance learning.
Wendell (pictured at left) was a member of the Park Center girls’ hockey team as a junior and senior and played in the state tournament both years. The Pirates were one-class state champs in 2000, defeating Anoka 6-0 in the title game.
Their names are peppered throughout the state tournament record book, with scoring marks that may never be eclipsed. Wendell, for example, scored six goals in one game during the 1999 tournament and Darwitz recorded seven points in a single period during the 2000 tourney.
The girls’ state hockey tournament was only in its sixth year when the high school careers of Darwitz and Wendell ended in 2000. The early tournaments were held at the State Fair Coliseum, and both players remember the energy inside the small arena.
“There were great crowds, lots of high-caliber girls and a great atmosphere,” Wendell said.
“Playing at the Fairgrounds was fun,” Darwirz said. “It was such a great atmosphere, with the bands and the student sections and kids painting their faces.”
Both Wendell and Darwitz grew up playing hockey with boys; Wendell also 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. Wendell played with the Park Center boys’ hockey team through her sophomore year.
“Honestly, I think it was such a great advantage because boys are naturally more intense and that elevated my game,” Wendell said. “There weren’t any other options at the time. I played with good guys, too, and the same group all the way up. I was really lucky in that aspect. And when you start so young, they don’t even think of you as the girl on the team. It was normal for them.”
Both players have travelled the world as hockey players, and Wendell has done the same as a hockey spouse. Pohl spent several years in the NHL before playing in Switzerland and Sweden. Wendell ended her playing career at the world championships in April 2007, she and Pohl were married later that year and their first child, Emily, was born in June 2008. The family expanded when Anna was born in 2010. They live in Woodbury and Pohl is a teacher and coach at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul.
Wendell does some teaching at clinics and camps, and Darwitz (above) remains heavily involved in hockey, as well. They know that in addition to being historical figures in the hockey world, they also are seen as role models. And that’s a role they are happy to accept.
“I would hope that Krissy and I have some responsibility,” Darwitz said. “We like to be in the community and be good role models and to show kids how we got to where we are, and to teach them and guide them along. And also to show them that we’re stand-up people and have our morals and passions in life that are good ones. You don’t ask for that, but I think with talent comes responsibility and you’re held to a higher standard.”
Wendell said. “I think Natalie and I are probably names that people remember because we played beyond high school and college. And obviously with the Olympics, that’s kind of a big deal. Before us there were Amber Fryklund, the Curtins, Winny Brodt, lots of pioneers. John (Pohl) has said how it’s kind of cool now, ‘You paved the way and it’s come full circle,’ with two daughters and one of them is starting to skate.
“To see how far the game has come is pretty cool.”
John Millea is the media specialist for the Minnesota State High School League.