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Generations of Gophers unite on PWHL Minnesota

PWHL Minnesota’s upcoming matchup against PWHL Toronto at 3M Arena at Mariucci will feature the return of several Gophers women’s hockey alumni.
Image by PWHL Minnesota (courtesy)
Former Gopher Grace Zumwinkle leads PWHL Minnesota in both goals and points.

Eight former Gophers will return to the University of Minnesota campus on Feb. 27 when PWHL Minnesota hosts PWHL Toronto at 3M Arena at Mariucci. 

Lauren Bench, Abigail Boreen, Taylor Heise, Amanda Leveille, Kelly Pannek, Lee Stecklein and Grace Zumwinkle represent PWHL Minnesota and were all members of the Gophers. Olivia Knowles is the lone former Gopher on PWHL Toronto. 

Pannek, the Gophers’ captain during the 2018-19 season, said she enjoyed reconnecting with her Gopher teammates on PWHL Minnesota. Pannek played with every former Gopher on PWHL Minnesota except for Bench. 

2019 was Pannek’s final season with the Gophers and Heise and Boreen’s first year. Heise, Boreen and Zumwinkle did not play with Leveille and Stecklein at the University as their final years were 2016 and 2017.

“I feel like I’m in that unique age group where I’ve played with a lot of those players on both sides of it,” Pannek said.

Current Gophers forward Abbey Murphy said she and other players in her generation are inspired by the players currently playing in the PWHL’s inaugural season.

“My time has not come yet to go there but it will eventually,” Murphy said. “It’s crazy where they’ve gotten with it.”

Gopher captain Peyton Hemp said before the PWHL players coming into college only had college hockey and the Olympics as options.

“It’s just really awesome that the next group of girls can play as well and make a living off of it,” Hemp said. 

Junior defender Emily Zumwinkle, Grace’s younger sister, said she’s enjoyed watching Grace succeed in PWHL. Grace is fifth in the PWHL in points with nine points in 12 games.

“It’s been really fun to watch her and I hope I get to play with her again,” Emily said.

PWHL Minnesota general manager Natalie Darwitz was an assistant coach for the Gophers last season and was a player from 2002 to 2005. She said before a stable professional women’s hockey option, playing in college was her version of playing in the NHL.

“When I was done with college, it was like ‘Now what?’” Darwitz said. 

Darwitz said the PWHL has drastically changed the trajectory of players. She said many players’ careers ended at 25 or 26 years old. 

“There was just no opportunity,” Darwitz said. “If you wanted to continue, there was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of dollars spent to do that.”

Pannek and Darwitz said the PWHL provides players like Murphy, Hemp and junior forward Ella Huber with options to continue their hockey careers.

Pannek added her first two years with the Gophers were special because of how well the team connected and held each other accountable. She said the team was able to balance their lives as hockey players with existing outside of the rink. 

“I think that was instilled in us as Gophers that we’ve all taken with us,” Pannek said.

Darwitz said the PWHL game at 3M Arena was initially supposed to be at Ridder Arena but was moved because of PWHL Minnesota’s ticket sale success.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Darwitz said. 

Pannek said playing at 3M Arena will bring back a lot of memories because she attended Gopher men’s and women’s hockey games growing up.

“To be able to come back and bring two worlds together will be really special,” Pannek said.

Darwitz said young girls are looking up to and aspiring to be like professional players such as Heise, the first overall pick in the PWHL. She added it was a “no-brainer” to draft Heise with the first overall pick in the PWHL draft and her background and values aligned with the culture she wanted to build.

“Not only does your franchise need a face but your sport needs a face,” Darwitz said. “And right now, that’s Taylor Heise. I think she’s the brightest up-and-coming star.”

Having the face of a sport is important to draw young fans to their market, according to Darwitz.

“That’s how you grow the game,” Darwitz said. “That’s how you grow the sport.”

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