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Natalie Darwitz is out as GM of Minnesota after building PWHL’s first championship team

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It wasn’t one person but the input of many over the past five-plus months that led to the Professional Women’s Hockey League removing Natalie Darwitz as Minnesota’s general manager a mere week after winning the league’s inaugural championship.

In announcing the move on Saturday, PWHL vice president of hockey operations Jayna Hefford said the results of a lengthy internal and external review, which included Minnesota players and staff, left the league little choice to make what she called a difficult but necessary decision.

“The feedback to us was pretty direct and pretty clear that there wasn’t a path forward with the current personnel in place,” Hefford said during a Zoom interview with select members of the media. “It was with the work we did throughout the year, and it was clear that a change needed to be made.”

Without discussing the exact findings, Hefford said the review took into account numerous factors, including Charlie Burggraf’s decision to step down as coach — he cited family reasons — a week before the season began in late December.

Hefford wouldn’t confirm there being a rift between Darwitz and Burggraf’s successor, former NHL defenseman Ken Klee, and several players, including captain Kendall Coyne Schofield. Hefford instead said “a ton of factors” came into play as a result of what she called a “really deep dive into what was going on the market.”

Klee declined comment, and Darwitz did not return several messages left by The Associated Press.

Klee will, for now, maintain his role as coach, while the league conducts a GM search. Klee and his staff will oversee the draft being held in Minnesota on Monday, and would also oversee free-agency decisions if a GM isn’t in place when the signing period opens on June 21.

“The easy thing would be to look and say, `This team won a championship. Everything’s perfect,’” Hefford said. “The harder thing to do is, I think, look at the broader picture and everything that’s occurred. … So when you put all of it together, it unfortunately led us to this decision.”

It was a stunning one, nonetheless, for its timing and significance for a league that was established a mere 11 months ago and coming off a season that exceeded expectations in breaking attendance records and for merchandise sales, and produced a competitive product featuring a majority of the world’s top players.

Hired in September, Darwitz built a team steeped in homegrown talent and celebrated its Walter Cup championship following a 3-0 win over Boston in a decisive Game 5 on May 29. Despite faltering down the stretch in clinching the fourth and final playoff berth, Minnesota rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat Toronto in a first-round best-of-five semifinal series.

The 40-year-old Darwitz is one of the more recognized faces of Minnesota hockey. From St. Paul, she’s a three-time U.S. Olympian, three-time world champion and was part of a University of Minnesota team that won consecutive NCAA titles in 2004 and ’05.

Last month, she stayed to be with her PWHL team rather than travel to Europe to attend her induction into the International Ice Hockey Federation’s hall of fame.

“We completely recognize the iconic status of Natalie Darwitz in the state of Minnesota. Her incredible contributions, to the PWHL, to building a championship team,” Hefford said. “Certainly, this was the last thing we wanted to happen. But our job is to also do what’s right for the league, and so that’s where we’re at today.”

Hefford said there have been discussions of offering Darwitz another role within the PWHL, without revealing where those talks stand.

The decision to part ways with Darwitz is solely the PWHL’s because it operates all six franchises and employs its GMs and coaches, each of whom were hired to one-year contracts.

Hefford said the PWHL’s internal review was conducted by its human resources department. The external review involving league stakeholders and partners in the Minnesota market was conducted by a firm the league has previously used.

She said the review was still ongoing and no decision had been reached to remove Darwitz until after Minnesota celebrated its championship.

“It’s not something that was premeditated or we knew it was going to happen. It’s just timing is never perfect,” Hefford said. “We went though this process and got to a point where we just had to make a decision. And it was a difficult one.”

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AP Women’s Hockey: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-hockey

By JOHN WAWROW
AP Hockey Writer

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