Advertisement

PWHL: Darwitz’s removal as GM came after monthslong evaluation

The PWHL said Saturday that the removal of Minnesota General Manager Natalie Darwitz was "a change that needed to be made" after internal and external reviews revealed issues that could not be resolved.

Jayna Hefford, the league's senior vice president of hockey operations, addressed Darwitz's departure in a video conference with the Star Tribune, the Athletic and the Associated Press. Her comments were the first issued by the league since news broke Friday that Darwitz was no longer with the team.

League sources said Darwitz was pushed out after a rift with coach Ken Klee, who has the backing of some of the team's key players.

Hefford would not address specifics of Darwitz's departure, saying it is an internal personnel matter. According to Hefford, the league had been examining the situation for a number of months. She said the decision was made after the PWHL received feedback from internal and external groups that was "pretty direct and pretty clear there wasn't a path forward" without a change.

Minnesota won the PWHL's first Walter Cup championship on May 29, defeating Boston in a five-game finals series. Darwitz, one of the state's most well-known and popular hockey personalities, built the franchise from scratch beginning last September.

"This isn't a decision we took lightly," Hefford said. "It's actually been incredibly difficult. But through the processes we took and the reviews that came back to us, we were tasked with doing what was best for the league. And that was making a change at the general manager level in this particular market.

"This team accomplished an incredible feat by winning a championship. But sometimes, you don't get to pick timing. This was a decision that had to be made, in the best interests of the league and the team."

Darwitz has declined to comment on the situation.

Hefford confirmed that Klee and other team staff will make Minnesota's picks at the PWHL draft Monday in St. Paul. She said he remains the team's coach and is not interim GM.

Hefford declined to say whether Klee is a candidate for the general manager's job, saying the league plans an extensive and thorough search for a new GM and hopes to fill the position in a number of weeks. She added that any other staff changes in the coming days would be made by the league rather than the team, though she said "things are evolving on a daily basis."

According to Hefford, the PWHL has been working with all six of its franchises throughout the season, ensuring they are operating according to the league's standards of professionalism. That included reviews with players, team staff and league employees. Hefford confirmed the reviews were conducted by human resources personnel and an outside consulting group.

She said the decision to remove Darwitz came after "a really deep dive into what was going on in the market." When she was asked whether that was prompted by a formal complaint or whether it was a scheduled review, Hefford said it was "a little of both."

Hefford declined to characterize the issue as a conflict between Darwitz, Klee and players, saying "a ton of factors" were involved. But she suggested Darwitz bore responsibility as the head of the organization.

"I think sometimes, as a leader and certainly as a GM that runs a program, a large part of that responsibility falls on them," Hefford said.

The consulting group also functioned as a "support network," Hefford said. Though it put time and resources into resolving the problems, she added, it became clear that wasn't going to happen.

Darwitz's connections and status in the Minnesota hockey community helped make the team a success in its first year. She was instrumental in securing Xcel Energy Center for games and Tria Rink for practices, as well as sponsorships and funding. Many fans expressed shock and dismay on social media at the news of her departure.

Hefford lauded Darwitz as someone with "iconic status," saying Darwitz had made incredible contributions to the PWHL and the league has "incredible respect" for her.

Asked whether she was concerned about how Minnesota's fans would react to Darwitz's ouster, Hefford acknowledged she was uncertain but said that did not change the fact that the job of PWHL officials is "to take care of the league and the team." She said it would be "wonderful and a great story" if the next GM is from Minnesota, but the league will hire the best person.

She also addressed the perception that the situation was a conflict between male and female leaders in a women's sports league, and the woman was the one who was pushed out. League officials pointed out the PWHL currently has three GMs who are women and several other women in leadership roles.

"You never like to hear that perception," Hefford said. "But I'm not concerned, based on the thorough work we did and the review process and the independent reviews. ... It's unfortunate if that's the narrative, but for us, it's about doing what's right and what's best for the league."