Daryl Watts is on a mission.
Despite being the NCAA’s leading active scorer on the nation’s top-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, the former Patty Kazmaier winner has a gnawing pain in her gut that won’t go away.
“I’ve been in college hockey for four years, I’ve never made it to a Four,” said Watts after a mid-week practice. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
Watts has been taking out her angst on WCHA opponents, her latest victim the Minnesota Gophers whom she lit up for three goals and six points last weekend. With the sweep, Wisconsin leapfrogged the Gophers as the No. 1 team atop the national polls. With the series hanging in the balance Saturday, Watts got some inspiration from the Badgers legendary coach Mark Johnson.
“Mark fired us up between the second and third periods,” said Watts. “It was 3-3, and we knew that it was now or never. We just had to go crazy, and that’s what we did.”
Going crazy translated to three unanswered goals, two by Watts. Her first, a 25-foot wrist shot, beat the Gophers’ Lauren Bench for the game-winner.
“Grace Bowlby made a beautiful drop pass,” said Watts. “I just tried to shoot it over the goalie’s glove, thankfully it went in. To score a goal that will put your team ahead — on top of that, a rivalry game — it just felt great.”
Watts’ wrist shot, one of the deadliest weapons in women’s hockey, is a product of nurture, not nature.
“Throughout my career, it’s something I worked on,” she said. “Ever since I was little I’ve done a lot of extra sessions with skill coaches in Toronto . . . gives me a good advantage out there.”
Despite her disquietude from having never won an NCAA tournament game, Watts has found joy in Madison after transferring from Boston College two years ago.
“Wisconsin’s such a special place,” said Watts. “Not only because of the sports-loving culture here at the school, but because of Mark Johnson and Jack and Dan , such unbelievable coaches. And on top of that, the fan base we have. During a normal season, the fans we get at a game are just unmatched in women’s hockey.”
All of Watt’s positive energy and supreme skills are now draped in Cardinal and White, a shining star that wants nothing more than to blend within a winning galaxy, to escape the black hole of NCAA tournament failure.
Watts misspoke when she claimed to have never been to a Frozen Four. She went to the women’s championships in Minneapolis in 2018 as a Boston College freshman. But she left her skates at home, attending in street clothes to collect the Patty Kazmaier Award. It was a surreal moment in her life, one that was bitter, not sweet.
“It felt so weird!” said Watts. “My team wasn’t with me. I was around Four teams that were competing for a national championship.”
Watts was then posed the following hypothetical: Would you trade the Patty Kaz for a Natty Champ? Her answer was instantaneous.
“Absolutely, 100 percent. Team success over individual success always. That’s literally why I’m at Wisconsin, why I transferred. To win, as a team. I really don’t care for individual awards anymore.”
After leading the Badgers to the WCHA regular-season title last season, Watts was convinced she would finally get to her first Frozen Four, but the opportunity was snatched away by COVID-19.
“Last year was heartbreaking, the way our season was canceled just days before the first game of the tournament,” said Watts, who is justifiably optimistic about getting back to the tournament this year. “With COVID, there’s new protocols that will allow it to happen, if girls get sick or whatnot, kind of adapt. This year, we’re all really excited to compete for a national championship.”
Watts gobbled up her final question as if it were a loose puck in the attacking zone.
“We are absolutely on a mission. It feels like a two-year mission.”
Tim Rappleye is the author of two books: Jack Parker's Wiseguys and Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review. You can find him on Twitter.