Talented duo scoring points with new teammates

by Brett Angel

Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz first met at hockey camp when they were barely teenagers.

Until then, they had only heard of each other as the other girl who played hockey on the boys team, but they would hear (and see) a lot more of each other over the next seven years.

Wendell, now 21, and Darwitz, 19, are part of a nationally-renowned freshman class that is hoping to bring a national championship to the Minnesota women’s hockey program. But even as rookies among such a talented peer group, Wendell and Darwitz are a cut above.

Both played high school hockey in the Twin Cities area – Wendell at Park Center in Brooklyn Park, and Darwitz at Eagan.

As a senior, Wendell led her team to a state championship in 2000, averaging a ridiculous 4.21 goals per game in 27 contests.

Darwitz played with the Eagan High School team as a seventh grader, then left after her sophomore year and became the youngest player (15) ever to join the U.S. National Team. She missed her final two years of high school, but graduated by completing her coursework via the Internet.

“It was definitely interesting,” Darwitz said of the decision. “I missed out on a lot of things. But when it comes down to it, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It all worked out well.”

Darwitz gained an unexpected linemate when Wendell joined the National team in 2000 after concluding a legendary prep career. In addition to winning a state title, Wendell set a new single-season record of 110 goals and was named Minnesota’s Player of the Year by several publications before graduating.

The two went on to earn silver medals with Team USA at the 2002 Olympic games in Salt Lake City.

Darwitz led the team in goals scored with eight and was named to the all-tournament team for her efforts. Wendell contributed six points in five games.

“I was just excited,” Wendell said of her Olympic experience. “It was just amazing to see the process, watch the team play on TV and then all of a sudden it becomes a reality.”

After making their names known on a national stage, Wendell and Darwitz have now traded in their red, white and blue jerseys for the ones trimmed in maroon and gold.

Minnesota, already a national title contender after two straight WCHA titles and four Frozen Four appearances in five years, has welcomed them back with open arms.

But because so much of the Gophers’ success last year was attributed to team chemistry, some people outside the team questioned whether players of Wendell and Darwitz’s caliber would be a good fit for an already-talented Minnesota team.

So far this season, the young phenoms have shown only a positive influence on the team.

Darwitz recorded seven points in her opening series last weekend against the University of Findlay, Ohio, including a hat trick in the second game. For her efforts, she was recognized as the WCHA Rookie of the Week.

Wendell added three goals and an assist in her opening weekend as a Gopher.

“It seems to be a very positive situation with (returning players) knowing that we just got better because we have them on our team,” head coach Laura Halldorson said.

The misconception that a player’s talent often leads to selfishness is something that former Gopher Courtney Kennedy can lay to rest when it comes to these two.

Kennedy, who played on Minnesota’s national championship team in 2000, was a teammate of Wendell and Darwitz on last year’s Olympic team.

“If you want to see raw talent, it’s them,” Kennedy said of her younger teammates. “But they’re going to draw a lot of people to (Minnesota’s) program regardless of their talent. They’re people you can just sit in a room with and have fun. I mean they’re talented, but you can’t overlook the fact that they’re great people.”

After sharing so many experiences, Wendell and Darwitz now look forward to sharing a few more together on the newly-laid ice in Ridder Arena.

Wendell stopped short of describing their relationship as that of sisters.

But just barely.

Brett Angel covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]