Latest accomplishment has only made former Gophers hockey star Taylor Heise hungrier

Monday was a long, whirlwind day for Taylor Heise. At about 1:30 p.m. ET, she was selected by her hometown team with the first overall pick in the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey League draft in Toronto.

Before the draft was even completed, she was in a car headed for the airport and by 7, she was on a plane headed back to Minnesota.

Asked if she took the day off on Tuesday, the former Gophers center said she was on the ice at Ridder Arena by 10 a.m.

“It’s what I love to do,” she said. “If I want to kick (butt) for the pro team in my home state, I’ve got to get to it.”

The 24-game PWHL season is scheduled to start sometime in early January, and training camp doesn’t start until Nov. 13. But Heise has plenty to do in the meantime, from working out with Gophers trainer Cal Dietz at her alma mater to skating with the U.S. program at the Super Rink in Blaine.

The alacrity with which Heise prepares is surely part of the reason she was chosen first overall by Minnesota general manager Natalie Darwitz, who saw it first hand as the Gophers’ forwards coach the past two seasons.

The fact that Heise played at the U, played high school hockey in Red Wing and hails from Lake City was a piece of what made her a no-brainer pick for Minnesota, but a relatively small part — even for a franchise that wants to build local interest by icing local stars.

Heise, still only 23, might easily have been the top pick for any of the PWHL’s other five teams. Minnesota just happened to win the draft lottery on Sept. 1.

“Taylor Heise is a franchise player,” Darwitz said Tuesday. “She’s the future face of women’s hockey in the world, and her best hockey is still ahead of her.”

Her rise has been meteoric. After scoring just seven goals and 16 points in 20 games as a junior — the COVID season of 2020-21 — Heise exploded for an NCAA-best 29 goals and 66 points, leading the Gophers back to the No. 1 ranking and NCAA tournament, and winning the Patty Kazmaier Award.

Last summer, Heise made her first senior U.S. international team and was named tournament MVP at the IIHF world championships after scoring seven goals among 18 points as the Americans won the silver medal. It was something of a revelation from a player who had been cut from the previous team.

It only made Heise hungrier.

“When I have pressure put on me, I tend to come out on the right side of it,” Heise said. “It’s what excites me. When I get new opportunities, I expect more from myself. It was a good revelation, but I’m still working to get better.”

As a fifth-year senior last season, Heise had an NCAA-high 30 goals and 67 points. She had five game-winning goals and won 62.5 percent of her faceoffs.

It’s impossible not to note that Heise’s renaissance came after Darwitz was hired as one of head coach Brad Frost’s assistants. Her contract was not renewed after the season, but Darwitz — a Gophers All-American and Olympic player who built Hamline into a national power in six seasons as the Pipers’ head coach — landed the perfect job running one of the PWHL’s Original Six.

Now she’s reunited with Heise, who will play for head coach Charlie Buggraf, Darwitz’s position coach for two seasons at Minnesota before he became the head coach for the women’s and men’s teams at Bethel.

“We were thrilled to get the No. 1 pick and keep Taylor where she belongs, in the State of Hockey,” Darwitz said.

For Heise, being the first pick in the first PWHL draft is yet another honor she has earned over the past two years. And like the other ones, it has made her more determined to improve.

“I think it finally set in after being on stage and doing some media and being with my parents again,” she said. “It’s such an exciting thing for women’s hockey, and while I’m on the younger side of it, it meant the world to me.

“You do see a lot of recognition for the work that I do and put in. It solidified it, really, and it’s exciting to think about what’s next.”

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