PWHL Minnesota stirs up controversy with draft pick, recent leadership changes

A referee holds his hands out wide.
A referee waves off a goal during a PWHL Minnesota playoff game.
Ben Garvin for MPR News

Last night, St. Paul hosted the second-ever Professional Women’s Hockey League draft.

Along metal rails outside of Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul, a dozen or so girls stood holding signs and sharpies, seeking autographs and photos with PWHL draft picks.

A woman signs a jersey
A hockey player signs a fan jersey on their way into the Professional Women's Hockey League draft Monday night in St. Paul.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Other fans — mostly PWHL Minnesota supporters — made their way inside, where players walked in on a purple carpet, surrounded by fans and photo seekers.

Bev Williams of Minneapolis showed up to the draft wearing a team Finland hockey jersey. They've been a longtime fan of women's hockey.

“I’m just trying to see what the future of the PWHL has to hold. This last season was really great. I got to see some of my favorite players play. Susanna Tapani, Sarah Nurse, and a few others,” Williams said. “And so just seeing the future and seeing a second draft, I think is really cool. And it being in Minnesota I thought was really cool as well. So I wanted to show up and show my face and show my support.”

This is the first draft since league play started. The six league teams each had seven picks through the evening. Tennis legend and league adviser Billie Jean King announced the first overall draft pick of the night: New York’s pick of Sarah Fillier, a Canadian player who just finished up her collegiate career at Princeton.

She was the consensus number one draft pick coming into the night, and New York wasted no time taking her with their pick.

With the third pick in the draft, Minnesota selected Claire Thompson, who plays defense. Thompson, who also played at Princeton, won an Olympic gold medal with team Canada in 2022 and is in medical school at New York University, which she’ll take a break from to play for Minnesota. She spoke to the press by Zoom after the draft.

“It was a very difficult decision. I love medical school. It’s been a longtime dream of mine to become a doctor. But my sights have been set on continuing to play professional hockey during this period of my life, so my goal had been to be able to do both,” Thompson said.

Minnesota came into the night under some controversy.

minnesota pwhl celebration 08
PWHL Minnesota general manager Natalie Darwitz speaks during an event at the Xcel Energy Center on May 31.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

The team parted ways with General Manager Natalie Darwitz last week, which was a bit shocking after the team won the first ever PWHL championship.

The details of the split aren’t totally clear yet, but fans at the draft let the team hear their anger that Darwitz, one of the most prominent faces in Minnesota women’s hockey, was let go.

The controversy did not stop there. Minnesota’s second pick overall brought a lot of criticism online.

The team picked Britta Curl, a University of Wisconsin graduate and a strong forward who brings a scoring threat. On social media accounts, she seemed to show support for a boycott of Target for carrying products for the transgender community and other tweets that have anti-transgender messages.

Many people online were highly critical of Minnesota’s pick, as the team has hosted pride nights and the league has several players who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Three women stand on stage
Ilana Kloss, Sarah Fillier and Billie Jean King stand on stage at Roy Wilkins Auditorium after Fillier was selected number one overall in Monday night's Professional Women's Hockey League Draft. King is an adviser to the league.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Several Minnesotans were picked throughout the evening, including University of Minnesota alum and PWHL Minnesota reserve player Abby Boreen, who was taken in the third round by Montreal.

“You know, it’s bittersweet for me. It’s hard to leave you know, a program that you gave your heart and soul for, but I’m really excited for this opportunity,” Boreen said.

Earlier in the evening, a large contingent of players from the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota stood inside, cheering as draft picks walked in.

Julie Johnson, 60, said she started playing hockey 20 years ago. She was excited to get to see the fanfare for the PWHL draft.

“It’s great for you know, not only the little girls, but the adult girls, you know, to see that actually happen in our lifetime. I mean, it’s about time,” Johnson said.

The next season is expected to start later this year.