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Minnesota’s new PWHL franchise ready for new women’s hockey era

Minnesota's new Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL) team spent two months preparing for Wednesday's inaugural game against Boston.

Players went home for a brief holiday break and returned last week to find coach Charlie Burggraf suddenly had resigned, replaced in a matter of hours by former U.S. national women's team coach Ken Klee a week before their opener.

And here he is …

"We're in the wild world of professional sports," Minnesota General Manager Natalie Darwitz said. "It's the world and business we're in. These players are getting a taste, coming to the rink a week out from their first game and we have a coaching change."

Klee knows all about change himself, from his 14 years playing in the NHL as well as a long coaching career that includes time in the American Hockey League, with the women's national team, his three sons' youth teams and other development teams as well.

"I've been traded, I've been moved, I've been waived," he said. "Everything."

But this was the first time he was on the road in his pickup the same day he accepted an offer to coach, joining the Minnesota team for its first season. He has been reunited with Kendall Coyne Schofield, Lee Stecklein, Nicole Hensley and Kelly Pannek, whom he once coached on the U.S. women's national team.

"When you pack in a hurry, it's hard to be selective," Klee said. "So I was just throwing stuff into my pickup."

He said farewell to his son Mason, heading back to play at Ohio State, and son David, back to the USHL and bound for North Dakota next season. Son Garrett played at Northern Michigan. Klee also very temporarily said goodbye to his wife, Robin.

"Fortunately I'm an empty nester," said Klee, who is 52. "I can just pack up and go. My wife is used to it. Once we got the kids off, everything worked out and I was on the road."

Olympic talent

Klee interviewed for both the Minnesota coaching and general manager jobs in August, but hadn't met Darwitz in person until he was hired by her and the league. He drove into town last week.

Still, he was the logical first call when Burggraf, who turns 67 this month, suddenly resigned during the holiday break. In a team statement, he simply said he and his family decided stepping away was "the right move for us at this time."

"It's sad to see Charlie go," Darwitz said. "He did a lot for us the last two months and I consider him a friend."

Darwitz said it was "important" the league — which owns all six PWHL franchises — knew Klee from those August interviews.

"It was just a seamless transition that all those pieces came together at the moment we needed them," she said. "Ken not only has hockey experience, but women's hockey experience. Women's hockey is different."

When asked if Klee's hiring comes with an "interim coach" tag, Darwitz said: "Just call him head coach right now. I don't know if there's a specific title."

A TV analyst on Colorado Avalanche games, Klee inherits a roster that includes U.S. Olympians Coyne Schofield, Pannek , Stecklein, Hensley, Grace Zumwinkle and Maddie Rooney, as well as the PWHL's No. 1 overall pick, former Gophers star Taylor Heise.

He said he wants a fast team that controls the puck and competes.

"It's a great group of people, even if it's the first year in this league and on this team," said Stecklein, a former Gopher and three-time Olympic medalist. "It's still full of pros who know what to do and what we need."

Familiar voice

Stecklein calls Klee's arrival startling, but not surprising.

"I know he loves coaching," Stecklein said. "He has coached all over, at every level. He was an awesome coach for the national team. I'm really excited to have him here."

Klee coached the national team to consecutive IIHF world championships in 2015 and 2016 between Olympic cycles. Coyne Schofield played on both teams and has remained in touch with Klee through the years. She calls him a "phenomenal coach" whom she remembers most for one thing.

"Winning — we won a lot with him," Coyne Schofield said. "What's so special about Coach Klee is he cares about you as a player first and a hockey player second. It makes you want to come to the rink every day for him, for the team, for the city."

The Minnesota PHWL team had a week to adapt to its new coach and prepare to play its first league game Wednesday against a Boston team that includes four-time Olympian Hilary Knight and Minnesotans Gigi Marvin and Hannah Brandt.

"Change is hard; sometimes it takes a while to get used to," Darwitz said. "Sometimes everything works out for a reason. If we didn't have August to know each other, I'd probably feel differently. This is a resilient group, a drama-free group. I feel really good knowing we have seven days to come together. This might give them a little shot of adrenaline."