MInnesota PWHL: Klee says he’s not candidate to replace Darwitz

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The Professional Women’s Hockey League held its awards luncheon in downtown St. Paul on Tuesday, an event meant to put a bow on the inaugural season.

But one important bit of unfinished business hung over the festivities, just as it had the night before at the draft: answering the question of who is running Team Minnesota.

Coach Ken Klee made one thing clear on Tuesday — it won’t be him.

Klee met with PWHL officials Tuesday morning, and while he left the meeting set to continue in his current role, he said he is not interested in replacing Natalie Darwitz as general manager.

PWHL senior vice president of hockey operations Jayna Hefford turned down an interview request from the Pioneer Press on Tuesday to discuss the process and timeline for naming a general manager. The league did confirm that it has begun the search for Darwitz’s replacement.

It remains an unsettling situation for the league, and in particular for the team that won the championship. Darwitz is held in high regard in her hometown, so whomever lands the job will have that to contend with that. Bringing in an “outsider” risks upsetting even more members of the fan base.

In the meantime, with free agency about to begin, it’s unclear who is making the decisions on which of Minnesota’s players on one-year deals will be offered new contracts and which free agents, if any, Minnesota will pursue.

Minnesota was able to do more celebrating on Tuesday with Grace Zumwinkle being named rookie of the year. Zumwinkle was the only Minnesota player among the three finalists for the various individual awards.

She also was named to the all-rookie team and a second-team all-star. Minnesota defender Sophie Jaques also was named to the all-rookie team.

Center Taylor Heise was recognized for being named the most valuable player in the playoffs.

Not surprisingly, Toronto dominated the awards, which were based on regular-season performance. Toronto finished first but was upset by Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs.

Natalie Spooner was named most valuable player as well as forward of the year. Toronto’s Troy Ryan was named coach of the year, and Kristen Campbell goaltender of the year. Montreal’s Erin Ambrose was named defender of the year.

Campbell, Ambrose and Spooner earned first-team all-star honors, along with New York forward Alex Carpenter, New York defender Ella Shelton and Montreal forward Marie-Philip Poulin.

Zumwinkle made a smooth transition to the pro game after playing for the Gophers last season. The Excelsior native scored 11 goals, tied for second-most in the league. She also collected the first hat-trick in league history.

“I think just focusing on your strengths,” Zumwinkle said when asked what made it possible to be successful in the league right away. You hear players talk about what makes them special and so unique, and something I try to focus on is getting to the dirty areas in front of the net.

“I think that helped make me successful. I tried to score some goals, and I think when you just focus on the things you do very well, it helps you in the end.”

Zumwinkle also possesses a good shot, and she enjoys putting it to use.

“I do like to shoot the puck,” she said. “You look at the stats, if you average six to seven shots a game, hopefully one will go in here and there. No shot in hockey is a bad shot. So just try to focus on that and the process as a whole.”

There were times during the season that Klee had to implore some of his players to shoot more. Zumwinkle wasn’t one of them.

“Super proud of her,” Klee said. “She had an unbelievable year for us. Coming out as a rookie you never know how it is going to go. She started good — she had a lot of goals early, which was huge.

“Then, even down the stretch, even with her not contributing a lot offensively, she was still a factor in every game. The other team had to counteract her. So, for me, she played great all year.”

Zumwinkle seems to have what it takes to emerge as one of the league’s premier players in the years ahead.

“I told her, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to train because next year is going to be harder,’ ” Klee said. “The players coming in are going to be better.”

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