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Jack Goods | December 21, 2018

Women's hockey: Courtney Wittig becomes first DIII player taken in NWHL Draft

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UW-Eau Claire women's hockey's Courtney Wittig was stunned when her coach told her she made history.

"It didn't feel real at all... and it still doesn't," Wittig said in a text message to the Leader-Telegram on Thursday.

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Wittig, a forward with the Blugolds, was selected with the first pick in the third round, 11th overall, by the Metropolitan Riveters in the National Women's Hockey League Draft on Thursday.

She isn't just the first Eau Claire player to be selected into the NWHL, one of two major professional women's hockey leagues in North America. She's the first Division III player, period.

"Being a DIII player from Wisconsin, it gives players in the state hope that they could follow the same footsteps as me," said Wittig, who has 17 points in 12 games with the Blugolds this season.

Wittig is one of four players competing collegiately in Wisconsin that were selected in the 25-player draft. The other three, including first overall pick and fellow Riveters draftee Annie Pankowski, all play at the University of Wisconsin.

"She's the only DIII player who was drafted and I think that says a lot about Courtney as both a player and a person," said Hayley Moore, the NWHL's deputy commissioner and director of player development. "One of the things that really stood out about Courtney is not only is she a player that's producing and has a high strength of schedule within their league, she's also a player who has a very high hockey IQ. Those are some of the things you can't teach."

Moore works as a liaison between the league's teams and college programs, helping front offices identify weaknesses and connecting them with graduating seniors. With a five-team league, rosters often look like All-Star squads featuring numerous former Olympians. Moore said the league, now in its fourth season, is looking to find more under-the-radar players with potential.

"One of the great things about our league is that we not only find players who are at the top of their game right now and having a ton of success but also finding players who we know have an exponential amount of growth ahead of them," Moore said. "No player is going unnoticed. As we grow, we want to continue to find the players who are eager to develop and be able to contribute and elevate their game within our league."

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Blugolds head coach Erik Strand had been in contract with Moore, making a case for his players' worth at the next level. He had no clue if any were actually being considered. When Moore told him they'd be in contact again, he figured it would be for free agent opportunities.

"You obviously hope for the best for your players and want their dreams to come true," Strand said. "When you get a chance to see that actually happen and be a part of it, that's why you coach. ... It's like lightning striking. You don't know if it will ever happen again.

"When I got that email, I had to reread it 100 times. I was like, 'Is this real?'"

Wittig will join a Riveters squad coming off their first Isobel Cup Championship following the collegiate season. Metropolitan, the top seed in the playoffs, bested the Buffalo Beauts 1-0 in the 2017-18 title bout.

The Riveters are struggling to repeat that success so far in 2018-19, though. Metropolitan is currently last in the league with a 2-8-0 record, but is certainly capable of turning the season around considering all five teams in the league make the playoffs.

From an Eau Claire perspective, Strand said he hopes Wittig can succeed to help open the door for Blugolds in the future. Thursday saw the program stacked up against some of the best the sport has to offer.

"You just stop and smile," Strand said. "You see Badgers, Gophers. There's a graphic out on Twitter and you see these top level, historic prestigious Division I women's hockey programs and then to see the Eau Claire 'E' paired up next to them, quite frankly it's a dream."

The NWHL, founded in 2015, consists of the four original franchises, the Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale, Buffalo and Metropolitan, and the Minnesota Whitecaps, which were added this season.

"It's still shocking that I got drafted to the NWHL but sure is a dream come true," Wittig said. 

This article is written by Jack Goods from The Leader-Telegram and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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