PWHL Minnesota savoring celebrations intimate and substantial in wake of Walter Cup triumph

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It wasn’t the “Cheers” bar, but when Minnesota’s players walked into the small establishment in suburban Boston on Wednesday night as newly crowned Professional Women’s Hockey League champions, everyone knew their names.

A large contingent of family and friends had made the trip in support, and, in their eyes, to ensure that their players, their team, wouldn’t have to celebrate alone.

“Our parents and friends had all done the third-grade tunnel that you run through after a game,” goaltender Nicole Hensley said. “So we did that into the bar.”

Once inside, team captain Kendall Coyne Schofield took the celebration to another level, climbing up on the bar to address the group. There were game pucks to be rewarded — Liz Schepers for her first goal of the season, which proved to be the game-winner, and Hensley for earning the shutout — and countless people to thank for being a part of history.

“It was the only way to get everyone’s attention,” Coyne Schofield said of what teammate Kelly Pannek said was surely the first time she had ever climbed up on a bar. “There was a lot of noise, no mic.”

And just the right time to let loose.

“It wasn’t super crazy or anything,” Hensley said of the celebration.  “When we got back to the hotel a bunch of us went to the meal room. I don’t think we even had music playing in there. We were just chanting different people’s names for a while. It’s the small stuff like that you’re going to remember.”

Hensley said she didn’t go to bed until 10 p.m. Thursday night; just too wired to sleep. When her roommate Lee Stecklein woke up Friday morning, they went out in the rain to get doughnuts for the team.

That team-first mentality was a key component in Minnesota’s remarkable turnaround to a season that was on the brink of a painful ending after losses in the last five regular-season games and the first two games of the semifinal series with Toronto.

“We had so many leaders in the locker room, and I think that showed in the playoffs,” Stecklein said. “Everyone had played playoff hockey before, and we knew what it took. That’s when I was most proud of our group, to be able to turn around a disappointing end to our regular season and get the momentum going in the right direction for the playoffs.

“I think that takes a lot, and we definitely couldn’t have done it without our incredible group.”

Credit goes to general manager Natalie Darwitz for putting that group together and to coach Ken Klee for getting the most out of it.

“At the end of the day, they didn’t want to lose,” Darwitz said of the dramatic turnaround. “They were sick of losing. When your back is against the wall and you’re sick and tired of something, I think something great came out of it.

“We played our best team hockey since Game 3 vs. Toronto.”

Hensley and others point to the performance of goaltender Maddie Rooney in a 1-0 loss to Toronto in Game 2 as the start of the turnaround.

“We lost that game, but it was kind of a lucky goal — they got a bounce off a skate,” Hensley said. “Maddie was spectacular, and that was the moment that gave our team a little bit of hope. And she was spectacular for the remainder of the series.

“If she doesn’t have those four games we’re probably not here right now.”

The Walter Cup is in Minnesota’s possession and will remain so through the June 10 draft, according to Darwitz. The team will then be given a replica of the cup, with the original to be on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

As has long been the custom with the Stanley Cup, each member of the winning team, staff included, is expected to have a day with the Walter Cup. Darwitz said she also anticipates the players will receive championship rings.

“Every emotion you can imagine I’ve experienced,” said Coyne Schofield, who was able to celebrate with her husband and young son. “From childbirth to the birth of this league, to moving my family to Minnesota. To be able to be part of this special group and to close out as the first Walter Cup champions.

“Being the first of something is special. It’s hard, it’s an honor, it’s a privilege. It will be the legacy of this team, this city, to be the first to do it. When I lifted that 37-pound trophy, all I could think of were the amount of people who helped lift that trophy.”

It’s a championship her team deserved, Darwitz said, and a championship “The State of Hockey” deserved. And, after going through exit meetings and speaking to the media Friday morning, it was on to Xcel Energy Center for a gathering with fans.

“So far we’ve been the only people who have gotten to touch Walter,” Hensley said, “so we’re hoping to get to share that with everybody.”

The PWHL champs, in a giving mood, promised not to stop there.

“Hopefully turn some of that mojo around for Minnesota sports,” Pannek said.

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