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PWHL draft: Minnesota selects Taylor Heise with No. 1 overall pick

World champion Taylor Heise is the first-ever draft pick in PWHL history. (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)

The Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) has its first-ever draft pick, with Taylor Heise going to Minnesota with the first overall pick. 

Draft order was determined via lottery, with the Minnesota franchise receiving the first pick. The full first-round selections were as follows:

  1. Minnesota – Taylor Heise, F, United States
  2. Toronto – Jocelyne Larocque, D, Canada
  3. Boston – Alina Müller, F, Switzerland
  4. New York – Ella Shelton, D, Canada
  5. Ottawa – Savannah Harmon, D, United States
  6. Montreal – Erin Ambrose, D, Canada

A total of 268 players are eligible and have declared for the draft, with many believing that NCAA standout Heise would be the first overall pick. A Minnesota native who played for the Golden Gophers and was co-captain her senior year, it seems almost scripted for her to begin her professional career at home under the leadership of Minnesota legend and PWHL general manager Natalie Darwitz, who was her coach at Minnesota. 

“I’ve played in front of my Minnesota fans here for gosh, 15 years,” Heise told MPR News of the possibility of being drafted first overall to Minnesota. “Minnesota has the best fans in the nation. It’s the state of hockey for a reason. So it would mean a lot.”

And while Darwitz wouldn’t name names, she told the Associated Press that she already had a good idea of who she was going to select with the No. 1 overall pick. 

Heise is the winner of the 2022 Patty Kazmaier Award, which goes to the top player in women’s college hockey. She also stars for Team USA, helping them to gold at women’s world championships in April.

“Minnesota is my home. Everyone that I love is there and it’s the state of hockey,” Heise said on the broadcast. “I’m just really honored I am going to be able to play and be able to show the little girls that anything is possible if you keep working hard.”

While players aren’t automatically signed to teams as a result of the draft, Heise’s signing is all but a given. Teams will retain the rights of drafted players for two years. Players can then re-enter the draft, but they are only allowed to do so once. 

“Trailblazing is bold. It’s brave, and it can be very scary,” PWHL co-founder Billie Jean King said Monday before announcing Heise as the first PWHL pick. “It’s not about a single moment. It’s about a movement. Finally giving women professional hockey players the structure, the support and the platform they deserve. That hockey deserves.”

As the draft continues, Just Women’s Sports takes a look at who’s already signed with teams during the free agency period.

Minnesota

Heise rounds out what was a stout free agency period for Minnesota and Darwitz, which featured two of the team’s three signings hailing from the state. Kendall Coyne Schofield was the lone outsider, and even then she’s from Illinois. The USA Hockey star was joined by Kelly Pannek and Lee Stecklein, who both also captained the University of Minnesota.

Montreal

Having the final pick of the first round in the draft meant that Montreal and general manager Danielle Savageau needed to make a splash elsewhere, and they did. They signed Marie-Philip Poulin, arguably the top player in the women’s game and captain of Team Canada. She’ll be joined by Laura Stacey, whose versatility is overshadowed by Team Canada’s star power. In net, the team will have Ann-Renée Desbiens, automatically making them a contender in this league. 

Boston

Boston and general manager Danielle Marmer have the most balanced signings of any team, starting hot with Team USA captain and reigning world champion Hilary Knight at forward. Megan Keller, a three-time Patty Kazmaier Award finalist at Boston College, backs her up on defense, while Northeastern star, 2021 Patty Kazmaier Award winner and world champion Aerin Frankel will star in net for the Boston team. There’s a lot riding on this team, as Boston were three-time champions and two-time reigning champions in the PHF. 

New York

Pascal Daoust brought the present and future to New York with his signings, bringing in young star Abby Roque while adding decorated veteran Alex Carpenter to help guide Roque. Carpenter has a wealth of professional experience, and had nine points at the world championships this year en route to winning a gold medal with Team USA. Team Canada defender Mica Zandee-Hart is the heart of the defense, and the lone player to not sign with a team in her home country as a native of British Columbia.

Toronto

Gina Kingsbury started her tenure as general manager by signing a pair of star forwards in Sarah Nurse and Blayre Turnbull. She also added Renata Fast, one of just four defenders signed in the initial free agency period.

Ottawa

Three Team Canada veterans joined general manager Michael Hirshfeld’s squad in free agency: forwards Emily Clark and Brianne Jenner and goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

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