University of Minnesota Alumni Association


She's Got Game

Gophers Women's Hockey turns 25

Photo courtesy of Gopher Athletics

Before a recent game at Ridder Arena, members of the Blaine girls’ U10 (under 10) A hockey team, all wearing their blue jerseys, focused on hometown hero and Gophers captain Emily Brown, who stood on the blue line during the national anthem. Brown’s gaze slipped beyond the stars and stripes to the mural of Golden Gopher Olympians, 15 alumnae who’ve represented three countries.

“It’s a crazy tradition, Gopher women’s hockey [for] 25 years. . . how deep it runs,” Brown says later. “It’s awesome to be a part of that, thinking [former Gopher standouts] Krissy Wendell-Pohl, Natalie Darwitz, and all those others were once in our skates, on this ice.”

Indeed. To the left of the Olympian mural Brown notes is an impressive résumé under the declaration “This is Gopher Hockey”: 7 national championships; 10 WCHA conference championships, 41 All-Americans, 21 NCAA tournament appearances; 7 WCHA tournament championships, and 2 Patty Kazmaier winners, an annual award given to the best player of the year (Wendell-Pohl won in 2005, and Amanda Kessel [B.S. ‘16] in 2013).

Gophers women’s hockey has accomplished all of that in a mere quarter century, giving the University’s most successful program plenty to celebrate in this, its silver anniversary season.

But the heart of the program transcends the numbers. It’s about the girls becoming women and living the dream. Since Brown first put on skates at age 5 and started playing hockey and attending games at Ridder, she had wished for this: to play here, on this team. “For me it’s a dream come true,” she says. “To think I was one of those girls, 5 years old in the stands watching them, and now I’m one of those on the ice who they’re looking up to.”

Former coach Laura Halldorson (left) and star player Natalie Darwitz (right)

Natalie Darwitz (B.S. ’07) was born in 1983, more than a decade after the passage of Title IX. The Friday night family ritual for Darwitz—who would eventually win two national championships at the University, three Olympic medals, and be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame—was eating pizza and watching the Gophers men’s team on TV in her Eagan home, especially her favorite player Mike Crowley (she picked his No. 20 to wear).

As far back as 1918, women had played hockey at the University as a club sport on an outdoor rink behind the Armory against teams from Duluth, the Iron Range, and Carleton College. Club hockey was revived in 1974 with a team that traveled to play varsity teams out East. But it wasn’t until November 1997 that the U of M played its inaugural varsity women’s hockey game, becoming the first women’s Division I college hockey program west of Ithaca, New York.

“It was monumental,” says Laura Halldorson, the Gophers coach at the time. She had once been teased for playing “a boys’ game” in the 1970s—but would later win three national championships with the Minnesota Checkers, an independent team. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, our sport has come a long way.’ It was really special. We got on the map that year.”

Two years later, in 1999, the Gophers solidified their place in the hockey world with a national championship. It was the first women’s sport at the University to win a national title and marked the culmination of opportunities sparked by Title IX: a record number of girls playing hockey in Minnesota—far more than any other state—from youth associations to high school girls’ teams.

The women, who had been playing home games at Mariucci, got a place of their own in 2002 with Ridder Arena, named after Kathleen and Bob Ridder, who had been instrumental in starting the program. It was the first arena in the country built specifically for collegiate women’s hockey.

Darwitz, a member of the 2002-03 team that opened the arena, created plenty of memories there. The most special was when the Gophers repeated as national champions in 2005, the year she set the NCAA singleseason scoring record with 114 points (42 goals, 72 assists). She calls that “my fondest memory in hockey,” not just because of the difficulty of winning back-to-back titles, but because of the closeness she felt with her teammates.

Players rejoice after a win against Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy of Gopher Athletics

“It’s fun to throw your gloves in the air,” says Darwitz, now a Gophers assistant coach. “What outsiders don’t see is us being goofy in the locker room, being part of a sorority with 20 other sisters. We created a bond that is really special.”

Halldorson retired after 10 seasons, three national championships, and a 278-67-22 record. Brad Frost, an assistant under Halldorson for six years, took over in 2007 and continued the tradition of success. Through the 2020-21 season, his teams were 413-84-35 over 14 years and won four national championships. The team has never had a losing season. Indeed, its the only NCAA Division I team in the country, men’s or women’s, to have an undefeated season (2012-13) amidst a 62-game winning streak that spanned three seasons.

The streak almost ended in the quarterfinal of the NCAA playoffs on March 26, 2013, at Ridder against the University of North Dakota. By that point, the Gophers had won 46 consecutive games. Down 2-1, Amanda Kessel tied the game with a powerplay goal in the second, but the score remained 2-2 through regulation, a 20-minute overtime period, and another and almost another, until the Gophers scored at the 18:51 mark of the third overtime—having played almost two complete games. “There were definitely some nerves in that one,” Frost says. The team ultimately defeated Boston University.

More than national championships, Frost says, what distinguishes the Gophers program is its culture. “We want to win as many hockey games and national championships as we can, but we stress our core values of being tough, grateful, disciplined, and devoted. We want to mold these young people into champions for life.”

John Rosengren is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.

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