Five former and current Gophers women’s hockey players will dominate the roster of the 20-member U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team this month in Torino, Italy. The university boasts the greatest number of players on the Olympic team with the presence of Natalie Darwitz, Courtney Kennedy, Kelly Stephens, Lyndsay Wall and Krissy Wendell.
All the players except Stephens participated in the 2002 games.
Eagan native Darwitz said she wanted to play with the Gophers because they were close to home, even though she had already played at the highest level in women’s hockey after playing in the Olympics while in high school. “One of the biggest reasons I came was the people on the team,” she said. “When I think about the other teams I’ve been on the last two seasons, the people are what made the (Gophers) team.”
After three years at the university, Darwitz won’t return to play hockey next year. She signed an endorsement contract with Easton Sports, but will return to the university for a semester to finish her degree in sports studies.
The Gophers had to take a year off to play in the Olympics.
“It was a hard decision not to come back,” Darwitz said. “I want to go out on top and start a new chapter in my life.”
Wall, who took this academic year off to train for the Olympics, will return to the Gophers women’s hockey team next season.
“It’s gonna be hard adjusting since I took the whole year off of school,” she said. “I’m excited to come back and play college hockey.” She said she came to the university between the 2002 and 2006 Olympics because of the talent on the team.
“It was great being able to practice every day with Stephens, Darwitz and Wendell,” Wall said. “The competition isn’t there at other schools.”
Wall said Gophers head coach Laura Halldorson treated the former Olympians just like everyone else on the team.
“She expected a lot out of us,” Wall said. “She treated us just like any other players.”
Halldorson said the Gophers team lost a lot of talented players to the Olympics after last year, but this year’s team is young and energetic.
“I can’t imagine losing more talent,” she said. “This year we have new people in roles that are new to them, but it has to have helped them to be around players of that caliber.” Jenelle Philipczyk, a sophomore on the Gophers team, played with Darwitz in high school and last season with the Gophers.
“This year, it’s a different challenge,” she said. “We’ve looked to other people to step up.”
Andrea Nichols, Gophers team captain, said the team had to adjust at the beginning of the season, but “we came into our own.”
“We definitely miss them,” she said. “They were leaders on and off the ice.”
Darwitz said the former Gophers on the Olympic team are a credit to the university’s hockey program. “It’s a tribute to the program and how successful it is right now,” she said. “We’re all key players; we’re kind of looked upon to lead the team; that’s a tremendous compliment to us and Minnesota.”
Halldorson said the former Gophers are key to the Olympic team.
“(Wendell) and (Darwitz) are some of their best players,” she said. “They’re impact players.”
Wendell is serving as the team captain for the Olympic team.
“It speaks volumes that we’re the highest number on the team,” Darwitz said.
Halldorson said the Gophers hockey program has resources that helps bring top-notch recruits, like the former Olympians, to the university. “Ridder (Arena) is the only college hockey rink in the country made for a women’s team,” she said. The locker room and team lounge are also incentives for recruits.
Gigi Marvin, a first-year Gophers hockey player, said she came to the university in part because of the legacy of players like Darwitz, Stephens and Wendell. She hopes to continue the tradition by playing in the Olympics someday.
“This place has everything to get you to the highest level — strength trainers, the rink and the coaches,” she said.
The team begins Olympic play Saturday.