In a year of multiple firsts for the Blugold women’s hockey team, like the first WIAC conference championship and the first berth in the NCAA Division III tourney, yet another impressive first has come along.
This time, however, it’s a national first for DIII women’s hockey.
In December, senior criminal justice major Courtney Wittig became the first ever DIII player to be drafted by the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), picked up in round three by the Metropolitan Riveters of Newark, New Jersey.
In a recent interview for the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, a spokesperson for the league had the following remarks about Wittig’s historic selection:
“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 who is producing, she’s also a player who has a very high hockey IQ. That is something you can’t teach.”
Wittig, a forward from Green Bay, had an impressive set of career stats to grab the attention of the league. In 72 games, she has scored 42 goals and 27 assists for 69 points, putting her fifth in all-time points, second in all-time goals and ninth in all-time assists in program history.
Unlike men’s hockey players, dreams of playing professionally were not part of Wittig’s youth, since the women’s league was not created until 2015. It did then become something she casually considered, but never saw as a possibility for her, since all the players came from DI schools.
“My coach asked if I’d be interested in playing at that level, and if so he’d let the league know about me. Of course I was, but it was just a dream, nothing I thought could ever happen,” Wittig said.
Wittig had trouble believing it when her coach told her she went in the third round, something she says “still doesn’t feel real.”
“I think Courtney being drafted gives all DIII players hope and motivation,” said Blugold women’s head coach Erik Strand. “It proves to them that playing professional hockey in the NWHL is possible.”
Wittig and coach Strand are both a bit uncertain of next steps, since no one associated with Blugold hockey has gone through this process. All they know so far is that NCAA rules stipulate no contact between drafted players and NWHL teams until the current DIII season is complete.
“Once our season is done, we will find out what’s next, and whether it’s what I really want to do,” she said. “There are a lot of options to consider.”
It’s a big decision, after all, and not something that Wittig had planned on contemplating as she prepared to move on from college to her ultimate career goal of becoming a police officer.
Although she admits that it’s still difficult to absorb the whole thing, she is quick to give credit to her coaches and teammates in helping make her draft possible.
“Obviously my coaches played the biggest role, but my teammates and line mates were equally important. We all work together for every goal. Coach calls it ‘hunting together,’ so together we make it happen,” she said.
Strand recalls the moment he told the team about the draft, and what it meant for all of them.
“When I shared the news with our team, I could see their excitement for Courtney, and I know that a lot of them are thinking ‘If Courtney can do this, what can I do to become the next one?’” he said.
A hockey player since she was 5 or 6 years old, Wittig is an all-conference player who has always balanced academics and athletics. That balance, however, becomes a bit tougher at the collegiate level. Wittig found tremendous support in that struggle from her advisor, Dr. Justin Patchin, professor of criminal justice.
“He’s just really easy to talk to; I can talk to him about hockey or academics, my future goals, just anything,” she said.
UW-Eau Claire faculty advisors play a key role supporting students in their major, and balancing classroom and external expectations and goals. As a hockey fan, supporting and encouraging Wittig along her student-athlete journey has been a role Patchin has enjoyed.
“Yes, we’re very proud of Courtney. My son is a hockey player and we’ve gone to a few games this year and enjoy cheering for her and the rest of the team,” he said.
“It isn’t easy balancing being a student and an athlete, but Courtney navigates it well. I’m sure she has made a lot of personal sacrifices to excel at hockey while also continuing to perform well in the classroom,” Patchin said. “She has a level of grit that has served her well in sport and school that will continue to pay dividends beyond her hockey career.”
Coach Strand points to the big picture for current and future players, stating, “Courtney being drafted demonstrates to all of our current and future Blugolds that we are advocates for our players. We want to develop them both on and off the ice, to help them achieve their dreams; we will do everything we can to help them have success beyond college.”
For Courtney and the seven other seniors on the team, the focus on hunting together includes leading their younger teammates to a second consecutive conference title and a return trip to the national tournament. Cheering on their friend in the pros will have to wait just a while — she's not quite done scoring for the Blugolds.