Daryl Watts knew what she was about to hear. Foresight didn't make it any easier.
Watts was getting cut from Hockey Canada's process to select a team for the World Championships and next year's Olympics. It happened on a Zoom call in April, but she had a good sense days earlier that things were heading that direction.
She had been used sparsely in a selection camp game, a development that came on the heels of a story that, to her, suggested that Canada's brass saw her best chance at an Olympic team was in 2026.
Instead of chasing the Olympics, Watts is back with the top-ranked University of Wisconsin women's hockey team to pursue another NCAA title. And she's not holding back about her experience with Hockey Canada.
In short, she's done playing for her country. Watts has one year of NCAA hockey left then she's planning on calling it quits.
"Ever since I was a kid I did dream and aspire to be on the Olympic team," Watts said in an interview this week leading up to Friday's UW season opener at Lindenwood. "But as I matured and as I grew up and as I was exposed to Hockey Canada and the environments and the way you're treated and the experience of the tournaments and the camps, I realized that it's not really something that truly made me happy.
"It wasn't an atmosphere where I felt like they fostered a successful result or performance for me. So Hockey Canada, as I got older, like the past four years, I'd say, it hasn't meant as much to me as it did when I was a kid. But I never would have said that because I would have been cut if I said that. Now that I'm done with them, I'm an open book and I'm not going to hide my feelings about them because there's no reason to."
In the context of her time with the Badgers, however, Watts talked about how engaged she is with the opportunity to run back a season that finally provided the championship she sought.
Watts scored the overtime goal last March that gave UW its sixth NCAA title, a conclusion of an unusual season played under the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic. She got two weeks in Madison to enjoy the celebration with her teammates but then she left to return home to Canada in preparation for the selection camp.
That fortnight was enough to provide the fuel for this season.
"I want another national championship," Watts said. "Because that was the best experience of my life — winning, celebrating with my teammates, with the coaches, with the staff. They're all such phenomenal people. I am so happy in this place. So all I want is to win another championship and end my hockey career on the highest possible note I could think of."
'Let it go'
Watts wasn't the only former Patty Kazmaier Award winner who was let go by Canada instead of being included in the season-long Olympic tryout. Former Clarkson players Loren Gabel and Élizabeth Giguère had the same fate even as three other forwards who played in NCAA hockey last season were kept on.
Badgers teammate Sophie Shirley didn't make the cut, either.
"You take a couple of weeks just for yourself and to think everything over," said Shirley, who's starting her fourth season with the Badgers. "But after a while you've just got to let it go and get excited for this year. I think we're both really excited to hopefully be able to bring a championship back here, and in the end that's all we want to do."
Watts was blunt and emphatic in declaring over her time competing for a spot on Hockey Canada senior teams. The Toronto native was a part of under-18 national teams before she enrolled at Boston College in 2017 but never made it to the top level internationally.
She thought her play in college provided enough of a resume to warrant more of a look from Hockey Canada. So did Badgers coach Mark Johnson, who sounded critical of a decision that sent one of college hockey's most prolific scorers back to his team this season.
"Put her in a uniform, give her a chance to play and let her dictate whether she's good enough or not," Johnson said. "Don't sit in a conference room and say she's not good enough. Because she played on the under-18 team and it was successful. She's won a Patty Kazmaier. You look at their roster and her statistics, whether it was at BC or Wisconsin, I mean, they're off the charts."
Watts enters her fifth college season tied for 15th in all-time NCAA goal-scoring with UW's Meghan Duggan and Minnesota's Amanda Kessel at 108. She's 49 shy of Meghan Agosta's record set at Mercyhurst from 2006 to 2011, although anything approaching the mark by Watts would come in far more games because of the bonus season of eligibility allowed by the NCAA.
She has led NCAA hockey in goals in two of the past four seasons and ranked in the top 10 in the other two.
The last score of the 2020-21 season was one of the most unusual of Watts' total. Not because she was the one who put the puck in the net to deliver the Badgers an overtime victory against Northeastern in the Frozen Four championship game but because she didn't have to use her vaunted shooting skills in the typical manner.
Watts was looking at a lot of open net, but she was on the wrong side of it. From behind the goal, she banked the puck in off a Huskies defender to bring the season to a stunning conclusion.
"I would say one of the strengths of my game is being creative," Watts said. "And in practice I love to try weird things like flipping the puck up in the air, flipping it over the net. I just like to try new things."
It wasn't the first time she's scored from behind the cage. Another happened in high school, but that one didn't lead directly to a trophy presentation, fire truck parade, summer of celebration and ring.
"I've watched it a couple times," she said. "And every time I watch it, it's just the net is like staring at me. ... It just made sense, that's all I can say. It was the right thing to do."
Top scorers return
The Badgers return their top three scorers from last season — Watts, Shirley and Brette Pettet — as they go in search of a record-tying third straight NCAA championship. But the depth has been thinned by the absence of four players who are in competition for spots on the U.S. Olympic roster.
Still, UW was the Western Collegiate Hockey Association coaches' pick to win another regular-season title and starts the campaign atop the national rankings.
Watts has a chance to add an exclamation point to her career this season, Badgers assistant coach Jackie Crum said. The left wing has a Patty Kazmaier Award from her freshman year at Boston College and a national championship already to her credit. Anything else could be seen as a bonus.
"She had a great summer of training and she's motivated," Crum said. "Once you win the championship, you have that taste in your mouth and you know what it's like and you want it again. So I think that's there for her and she's excited about it."
Watts feels invigorated by a summer of strength and conditioning workouts in Toronto with Bryan Marshall, the director of applied sport science for the NHL's Vancouver Canucks.
She's excited about a future in school that she hopes includes a spot in UW's highly ranked commercial real estate graduate program.
She's in love with a chocolate and white puppy that she named Charlie. The Aussiedoodle is back at home with her parents, however, so video calls are needed to take the edge off not being together, Watts said.
And she barely was able to contain her excitement for the start of another season with the Badgers, her third since transferring from Boston College. Watts said many of the bonds that were established in building UW's championship team last season are back.
"I love my teammates so much," Watts said. "I love this team. And now that I know what it's like to win, I just want it again."