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Will PWHL Minnesota drama overshadow league’s future?

PWHL Draft Hockey
Minnesota head coach Ken Klee, left, talks with second-round draft pick Britta Curl, right, after Curl was drafted during the PWHL hockey draft in St. Paul on Monday.
Renée Jones Schneider | Star Tribune via AP

In the span of two weeks, Minnesota’s Professional Women’s Hockey League team won the inaugural Walter Cup championship, dismissed its general manager and drafted seven new players — one of whom is already upsetting fans because she supports apparent transphobic content online.

Controversial draft selection

Minnesota’s second pick, 10th overall, in Monday night’s draft was Wisconsin Badgers Captain Britta Curl. While being a solid player and leader on the ice, she’s stirred up controversy by posting in favor of excluding transgender women from sports.

That “is what makes the decision surrounding her so difficult,” Ian Kennedy, who covers women’s hockey and social issues for Canadian-based sports publication The Hockey News, told MPR News on Wednesday. “And the idea that the league needs to choose if they’re going to be a fully inclusive league looking forward or if they’re going to follow more of an NHL pathway.”

Curl has followed the mentorship of former Team USA hockey champions and twins Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux, who staunchly and publicly believe transgender women have no place in sports, Kennedy said.

“She’s really picked up that torch,” Kennedy explained. “So she’s become a flashpoint because there are so many LGBTQ+ fans, athletes, supporters that follow this league that have built this league to be what it is and that are just a major portion of the fanbase that are now feeling very threatened and excluded.”

Leadership, too, of the PWHL features prominent queer athletes. Tennis legend Billie Jean King serves as an adviser and made frequent appearances with her wife Ilana Kloss at games during the inaugural season.

During the 2024 draft, it wasn’t Minnesota head coach Ken Klee who announced Curl’s selection, but assistant coach Mira Jalosuo, who is married to a woman. Kennedy reported PWHL Minnesota staff were confused, worried and embarrassed on Monday night. But Curl’s future is complicated because the league owns all six teams, making them “the exact same two entities.”

Before the draft, several teams considered Curl but with the caveat of required media training for the 24-year-old, Kennedy said. He expects Minnesota to do the same, “and to really find ways to make sure that those personal views of hers no longer impact or come out. I know that doesn’t solve the issue. And to me, that’s not a great solution. Otherwise, it’s a great privilege to be a professional athlete and to hold that powerful spot as a role model.”

Departure of general manager Natalie Darwitz

Expectedly, but to the outrage and literal boos of fans, Natalie Darwitz wasn’t present at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul. The former general manager was fired by the league a few days after helping Minnesota clinch the first-ever Walter Cup championship. MPR News has reached out to Darwitz’s talent management for comment but received no response.

PWHL vice president of hockey operations Jayna Hefford told the AP on Saturday “the feedback to us was pretty direct and pretty clear that there wasn’t a path forward with the current personnel in place… It was with the work we did throughout the year, and it was clear that a change needed to be made.”

Natalie Darwitz
Three-time Olympic medalist Natalie Darwitz answers questions before being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, on Dec. 12, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey | AP File

Coach Klee and Darwitz’s professional relationship got off to a rocky start. At the team’s conception, Darwitz had to choose between ex-NHL player and Team USA coach Ken Klee and her former college coach Charlie Burggraf. Darwitz went with the familiar, but Klee — who has the support of team captain Kendall Coyne Schofield — stepped in when Burggraf pulled out days before game one, citing family issues. Klee initially applied to be both GM and head coach without success.

“As the season went on, according to sources, there was a clash of some sort of power struggle for who was actually in charge and who got to make the decisions,” Kennedy said. “According to everything that we can make out, it came to a head this last couple of weeks where, you know, the pressure from inside PWHL Minnesota to the league to remove Natalie Darwitz and move forward without her became a kind of ‘pick one side or else’ situation — and they picked the Ken Klee side.”

There’s no word yet on a timeline for signing a new GM.

The league’s future

All season long, the PWHL leaned into marketing messages of breaking down barriers for women athletes, subverting stigma and inclusively inspiring the next generation of hockey players. These recent controversies have the potential to cast a major shadow on the team and the entire fledging professional sports league’s future.

“It’s an incredible issue that they need to deal with. And public relations-wise, they need to really start making strong statements…and answering questions to fans,” Kennedy said. “Rarely do you hear a championship team who’s picking a first and second-round pick getting booed and having fans yelling things from the stands negatively towards that team 10 days after a championship.”