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PWHL draft hits St. Paul, where there’s anger over Darwitz’s ouster as GM

Tina Frederickson and Lisa Fulton made plans a while ago to attend the PWHL draft. The friends from Roseville, who have season tickets for PWHL Minnesota, arrived early Monday to grab good seats in the balcony of Roy Wilkins Auditorium.

They cheered for the new players chosen and the current players arriving on the purple carpet. But Fulton and Frederickson weren't going to let the evening go by without weighing in on another topic: the removal of Natalie Darwitz as Minnesota's general manager.

Each of them held a handmade sign in their laps. One said, "Klee is not Ken-ough." Another declared, "I'm currently in my Bring Back Natalie Darwitz era."

"I could not come here and not say anything," Frederickson said. "I'm mad. There's a Facebook group for PWHL Minnesota, and everyone is livid. The optics are not good."

While the league focused on the future at Monday's draft, Darwitz's departure still provoked some raw feelings. The Eagan native, former Gophers star and three-time Olympic medalist was pushed out as GM by league officials late last week, only days after the team won the PWHL's inaugural Walter Cup championship.

League sources said her ouster came after a rift with head coach Ken Klee, who ran Minnesota's draft table Monday and has the support of some of the team's most influential players.

Much of PWHL Minnesota's roster attended the draft, cheered by a gantlet of fans as they walked the purple carpet into the auditorium. Players repeatedly declined to comment on Darwitz's departure.

Frederickson and Fulton had plenty to say. When Klee took the stage for the announcement of Minnesota's first-round draft pick, defender Claire Thompson, he received some boos from the crowd. Frederickson and Fulton held their signs high, expressing themselves via poster board.

"Natalie is the one with deep connections in this community, and she's responsible for the success of this team on so many different levels," Frederickson said, her voice charged with emotion. "I've thought of nothing else for the last 48 hours.

"It's just sullied the whole season, which was so wonderful. It makes no sense."

Klee was asked about the boos, and whether he wanted to say anything to Minnesota fans upset at the events of the past few days.

"I didn't want anything else to be a distraction," Klee said. "I wouldn't want anything to take away from any of [the drafted] players' experience.

"It's unfortunate a little bit at the beginning. But it's OK. People are entitled to their opinion."

PWHL Minnesota players attending the draft included Lee Stecklein, Kelly Pannek, Nicole Hensley, Grace Zumwinkle, Liz Schepers and Sophie Jaques. Former Gophers forward Taylor Heise, whom Darwitz chose with the overall No. 1 pick in last year's draft, also was there.

Most players didn't want to make any comment about Darwitz. Heise, the MVP of the Walter Cup playoffs, declined to speak about the situation, but she gave a glowing review of her first PWHL season.

"I will say, I had an amazing year," Heise said. "I wish Natalie nothing but the best."

Klee, assistant coach Mira Jalosuo and manager of sports performance Sam Hanson made Minnesota's draft picks. Unlike Darwitz, who chose seven Minnesotans in last year's 15-round draft, Klee's group picked none. Minnesota's seven draftees include three from Canada and one each from North Dakota, California, New York and Czechia.

Abby Boreen, a former Gopher who performed well as a reserve player for Minnesota last season, was among the players drafted Monday. Klee said she was "100 percent part of our plan," but added that "it didn't get to the pick where we thought was the appropriate spot" for her. Boreen went to Montreal with the 17th overall pick.

Five Minnesotans, along with Boreen and former Gopher Amanda Kessel, were drafted Monday.

Jayna Hefford, the league's senior vice president of hockey operations, was asked Saturday by the Star Tribune whether she was concerned about how Minnesota fans would react to Darwitz's departure. Hefford said the Minnesota fan base is "incredible" and added "it's hard to say how they will feel."

Many fans answered that question when TV host Clay Matvick mentioned Darwitz was no longer with the team. The YouTube broadcast was being shown on large screens inside the auditorium, and the crowd responded with loud boos and catcalls.

Frederickson and Fulton were more specific.

"We don't want to pull our season tickets," Fulton said. "We want to support the league, and I don't think [Darwitz] would want it to fail. But our voices need to be heard. This is not OK. And we're not alone in thinking that."