As a three-time United States Olympian, three-time All-American and two-time NCAA national champion at the University of Minnesota, Natalie Darwitz was already legendary as a player. Now she’s adding to her legacy in the world of coaching.
Raised in Eagan, Minnesota, Darwitz just completed her third year as head coach of the Hamline University women’s hockey program. She has helped the team to improve from near the bottom of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) to a third-place finish in this year’s NCAA Division III tournament. That performance led to her being named national Division III women’s coach of the year by U.S. College Hockey Online.
We recently talked with Darwitz about her work with the Pipers.
USA Hockey: What was your reaction to winning the USCHO award?
Natalie Darwitz: Obviously, any time you can be recognized with outside accolades, it almost signifies you were the team of the year. The team performed well, the coach gets noticed. It’s the end result of us having a really good year. It’s a huge honor.
USA Hockey: Did you expect this year to be as successful as it turned out to be?
Darwitz: At the beginning of the year, on paper, we were looking forward to the season. It was a matter of leadership and putting all the pieces together. Being with the team the past two years, it was good to get our feet wet and know what to do to compete in the MIAC. We were encouraged that we could get over the hump and no longer be known as a bottom-tier team and competing with the big dogs like Gustavus.
USA Hockey: You said recently you wanted to put an emphasis on players and their experience. How do you do that?
Darwitz: It sounds really corny, but it’s about the process. It’s about every day and having that culture. It’s a kids’ game. You want to make the game fun and make it all about growing as individuals. If you concentrate on the experience and the journey, growing as people and a team, I think you’re going to squeeze so much more out of the players. If you focus on the process, the results become easier. For us, it’s about the people and our relationships.
USA Hockey: How have you changed the culture with players at Hamline?
Darwitz: I think a lot of it is about how we carried ourselves at the rink. For us, it was changing the culture and making it fun. It hadn’t been fun for them. It’s about breaking the game down and enjoying it. The first year was all about skill development and different ways you can develop. You can work on skating and it can be boring, but you can play a small-area game and make it fun. For us, it was all about that mentality. Let’s go out there and have fun and have a standard of what to expect.
USA Hockey: How did the players react to your initial plan?
Darwitz: The girls were really hungry for a change. It had kind of got stagnant, like not having winning seasons was OK. I think they were hungry for more. During our first year there, they were sponges. They soaked up everything we did. Then we had our players coming in and having the same vision we did. A lot of people look at the win-loss column and rightfully so. We do too. At the same time, if you’re not doing the right things Monday through Thursday, then on Friday and Saturday, the column is going to go in the wrong direction.
USA Hockey: How important is having a cohesive coaching staff?
Darwitz: The people you surround yourself with is an important thing. It’s important to have great support staff and great people around the program. It brings credibility to the program. It’s not a Natalie Darwitz show, it’s an army. I think it brings credibility. To have character, great staff and a lot of people in our program.
USA Hockey: How do you go about connecting with your players as people?
Darwitz: At the rink, we try to check in with the players as much as possible. When you’re away from the rink, it goes a long way if the players can see that you’re human. They see you do the same things they do and enjoy the same things they enjoy. It’s being approachable and having them experience you authentically. The biggest thing is they’ve seen me with my family. They see a different side of me. They see me kissing my kids. They might see me at the rink as a coach or leader, but they get to see all facets of me. They get to understand me, at the same time I have to understand them. We want it to be genuine and casual. That’s what our coaching staff tries to do.
USA Hockey: Who are some former coaches that have made an impact on your own personal style?
Darwitz: I think it’s just all the experiences that I’ve been through. I think of those coaches I wanted to go through the boards for. They knew me as a person, they checked on me and understood what made me more competitive as a person. I’ve learned from those experiences. I know I don’t know it all. It’s all about adapting and learning. Each year, I feel like I learn more about being a better coach and being better at reaching players. I’m fortunate to take different chunks of coaching from those I’ve enjoyed being coached by. I take those characteristics and blend them together. That’s what you’re seeing as far as my coaching.