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Hockey star Natalie Darwitz takes on new coaching challenge

With an assist from coaching veteran Tom Osiecki, the former Olympian finds smooth skating at high school level.

Natalie Darwitz

Her timing might not be the greatest, but when is there an optimal time to take a risk?

That’s what Natalie Darwitz, the three-time Olympian and former University of Minnesota women’s hockey All-American, figured last August, when she left a secure assistant coaching position at the U to become head girls’ hockey coach at Lakeville South High School.

Darwitz probably could have stayed at Minnesota for as long as Coach Brad Frost ran the women’s program. The job paid a good salary with benefits. Darwitz’s name — she remains the school’s career scoring leader in women’s hockey — afforded her instant credibility on the recruiting trail. And she grew to love coaching after her father, Scott, talked her into becoming his assistant at Eagan High, her alma mater, for the 2007-08 season.

 “In the end,” she said, “I listened to my heart and my gut.”

 At heart, a homebody

Deep down, Darwitz is a homebody. She wanted off the road after more than a decade of criss-crossing the country and the world for the U.S. women’s national team. She loves working with kids on strategy and X’s and O’s, and figured she would be happiest in a teaching/coaching gig near her parents, where a half-hour bus ride constituted a long trip. 

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But Darwitz also aspires to be a college Division 1 head coach, preferably somewhere in Minnesota, and she needed practical experience. “She’s got to get her resume in order,” Scott Darwitz said. So her father urged her to take the Lakeville South job, instead of rejoining him on the Eagan bench. 

 “Why not challenge myself and really take a chance?” Darwitz said.

That’s what brought Darwitz to the Four Seasons Centre in Owatonna last Thursday, on the Steele County Fairgrounds, one of those frigid arenas where it always feels warmer walking out than walking in. Lakeville South faced Lakeville North, its crosstown — and South Suburban Conference — rival, for the Section 1AA championship and a trip to the state tournament.

Lakeville South’s youthful Cougars, with four eighth-graders (one the starting goaltender), four ninth-graders and only five seniors, played hard but lost to the top-seeded Panthers, 5-2. When it was over, Tom Osiecki, the longtime Burnsville High boys and girls coach whom Darwitz brought in as her assistant, hugged her on the bench. It was a tough scene. After both teams accepted their sectional medals, a couple of her players left the ice crying.

 Still, South finished 21-6-1 — a commendable season considering South lost most of its scoring from its state tournament team of the year before. Darwitz also split two conference games against her dad’s team, which was interesting, since she ran Eagan’s summer training program before taking over at South. (Eagan made it to state out of Section 3AA.)

Tom Osiecki
Tom Osiecki

“She’s incredible,” said Osiecki, who has known Darwitz and her father since he coached against them at Burnsville. “She was always an incredibly smart player. She knows the game inside and out. She was always a step or two ahead of everybody as the play was developing, and that gave her a tremendous advantage as a player. It’s the same as a coach. She has a great feel for what’s going on on the ice, and what needs to be done.”

When Osiecki coached Darwitz and the national team in the Blaine Residency Program in 2008-09, they joked about working together if she ever turned to coaching. Turned out Darwitz wasn’t kidding. Shortly after taking the South job she called Osiecki, who had hip replacement surgery one month before.

Lately, Osiecki has become the go-to guy for neophyte head coaches seeking an experienced hand. When Frost was named interim coach at Minnesota after Laura Halldorson resigned in August 2007, he brought in Osiecki to coach defensemen. Osiecki returned in 2009 while Darwitz took a year’s leave to prepare for the 2010 Olympics.

Osiecki by her side

“I wouldn’t have done this for anybody else,” Osiecki said. “I would not be coaching this year if not for Natalie Darwitz asking me to come on. All along I felt it would be fun to work with her, and it was just great.”

Although Darwitz mused about applying for the head coaching job at Minnesota in 10 or 15 years, she proceeds as if high school coaching will be her life’s work. She attends Concordia University in St. Paul full time to earn a teaching certificate in physical education and health. Before classes, she makes extra money teaching hockey skills to little kids. That means getting up at 5 a.m. Monday through Thursday.

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 “If she wanted to go back to the college game, I’m sure she would have plenty of opportunities to do that,” Frost said. “But I’m not sure it’s something she would ever want.”

Certainly, women’s college hockey needs more women head coaches. Shannon Miller of Minnesota Duluth is the only one in the eight-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which includes the Gophers. Hockey East has four out of eight, among them Darwitz’s former Olympic teammate Katie King Crowley at Boston College, and the Eastern College Athletic Conference four of 12. Of the 10 teams in the latest national poll, all are coached by men except for King Crowley at No. 4 B.C., and Katey Stone at No. 8 Harvard.

“She could be an ideal Division 1 college coach,” Osiecki said of Darwitz. “But she wants to be a coach and a high school teacher, and I don’t think she’ll move into a Division I college job.

“I’d love to have her there. It would be great for the game. We’re finally getting really top-notch players becoming coaches. But I think that she really likes this level, and I don’t think she likes the traveling part of it.”

For now, Darwitz worries that with so many school districts laying off teachers, she won’t find a job. That’s why she questioned her timing. The rest of it, she can handle.

“Every day I wake up, I’m excited to coach Lakeville South,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m excited about going back to school, but I’m excited about what it can bring. That’s kind of how you know you’re doing what you love.”