How 2018 Patty Kazmaier winner Daryl Watts reinvigorated her hockey passion at Wisconsin

Daryl Watts said transferring from Boston College was "the hardest decision of my life," but she has found success and happiness at Wisconsin. Kai Martin

It's sparse inside Daryl Watts' bedroom, with only a flat-screen and a store-bought picture of a sunset on the wall. Walk through the Madison, Wisconsin, apartment that the Badgers junior calls home and you might find a few reads -- a Mind Gym book on mental toughness and another, "Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable," to name two. She finished both over holiday break.

What is nowhere in sight: the Patty Kazmaier Award that Watts won two years ago when she played for Boston College.

That accolade -- women's hockey's version of the Heisman -- is back in her hometown, Toronto. While college athletes don't lug all their hardware around, this is no routine award. Watts is the lone player in the 22-year history of the Patty Kazmaier to win it as a freshman, accomplished after compiling a monster season that included NCAA bests in goals, assists and points.

"You don't see shots like hers all the time. It's not only the coaching staff who notice. You see the players on the bench twist their heads a little bit like, 'That was pretty special.'" Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson

"It never crossed my mind to bring it," said Watts, who's in the mix to become the only second-time recipient of the award as a junior transfer at Wisconsin. "I didn't really want or need to bring an individual award with me to Madison."

Not that Watts isn't humbled by the honor, named for the former Princeton great who died from a rare blood disease at age 28. Admittedly, flying to the 2018 Frozen Four in Minneapolis for the ceremony felt a little weird with her teammates 1,400 miles away. The Eagles had been upset in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. Watts decided to transfer a year later when it wasn't just her numbers that declined. For the first time in her life, she wasn't finding joy on the ice.

"It was the hardest decision of my life," said the 5-foot-6 forward. "I had great friendships. It's an amazing school in an amazing city. But for me, it wasn't what I thought it would be. As a hockey player, I wasn't developing. To put your name in the transfer portal is a tough realization, but it was what it was. I felt like I lost my love for hockey at BC. You don't realize how important hockey is to you and your happiness until it becomes bad."

She hadn't considered Wisconsin initially. Though only one school in the Northeast (Clarkson) has won a national title, Midwestern schools weren't on her radar. Staying reasonably close to Toronto was a priority, but she didn't know much about how recruiting worked.

"Being in Toronto, the NCAA ... I didn't know anything about it," she said. "In Grade 9, I got my first offer from Princeton and it was an eye-opening moment. It was like, 'Wow. I can get into one of the best universities in the world for hockey.'"

This time, Wisconsin intrigued her. The Badgers, who have advanced to 12 Frozen Fours in the past 14 years, won their fifth NCAA title last season. Watts already had a friend there in Sophie Shirley, one of eight Canadians on the roster. Former Wisconsin great Mark Johnson, part of the storied Miracle on Ice team who went on to have an 11-year NHL career, is the sport's winningest coach.

With the graduation of three-time Patty Kazmaier finalist Annie Pankowski and Olympian Emily Clark, Watts is a much-needed offensive weapon.

"Her skill set, her ability to understand the game and have good hockey sense sticks out quickly," Johnson said. "When you watch her in practice, some of the shots she's able to do or passes she makes, you don't see from other players. When you see that vision, it sticks out. But then in games, she's able to do the same thing. She scored a couple goals early on here that just catch your attention, and it's like, 'Oh, wow!' It's like when you watch ESPN Top 10. You don't see shots like hers all the time. It's not only the coaching staff who notice. You see the players on the bench twist their heads a little bit like, 'That was pretty special.'"

Walking into captains practice that very first day as a Badger, Watts knew she was in the right place.

"It was a red vs. white scrimmage; there were no coaches," she said. "The way my teammates competed against each other and their speed and skill, I was amazed. I remember calling my dad after and I was like, 'I'm going to become such a better hockey player because of the culture that this team has, the way they work.'"

Watts doesn't recall learning to skate at 2 years old, but by 4 she had to be prodded to come inside from the rink her dad built in the backyard, even on the chilliest nights. Quickly, Watts graduated to street hockey, where undoubtedly a parent would arrive, helmet in hand.

"That was always the battle," she said. "Me being young, my parents wanted me to wear a helmet. But I'd eventually just take it off."

Her baptism in competitive hockey came on the Humber Valley Sharks, a youth team that starred her older brother by two years, Jackson. Michael Watts was something of a parent manager on the bench, and having to keep track of Daryl as well was a handful. So when a player from Jackson's team quit, he asked if Daryl could lace up.

"As a 4-year-old, my daughter started playing on her brother's team, and the rest is history," he said. "The kids could score three goals and then they couldn't score more. They had to pass. Daryl would score three almost immediately."

One of her most cherished memories dates back to 2010, when Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics. With her face painted red, Watts is a speck in the frenzied crowd that watched Canada defeat the United States for gold in women's hockey.

"After we won, we were all singing 'O Canada,'" Watts said. "The amount of people in the arena was such a crazy atmosphere. Everyone was in red and white. I had never seen anything like that in women's hockey."

A CTV video of that pinnacle captures not just the Canadian prime minister sitting alongside Wayne Gretzky but also the 9-year-old in her war paint, wearing a Hockey Canada cap and waving her country's flag, gleeful from her balcony seat.

Along with winning collegiate national championships, Watts aspires to represent Canada in the Olympics.

"I never really thought about women's hockey before that; I played with boys," she said. "Watching the Canadian team was so inspiring. I wanted to be as good as I could be."

Watts leads the nation in points and assists and ranks third in goals, one spot behind Shirley. Wisconsin, which moved back into the top spot in the national poll on Monday, can avenge a November defeat to No. 2 Minnesota this weekend in another chapter of the Border Battle series. The top two teams face off in back-to-back contests in Madison on Friday and Saturday.

"I cannot wait," Watts said. "When we were in Minnesota, their fans, they were so loud. They were cheering on the Gophers. We could feel their home advantage. It was so cool to play in front of all those people. But it will definitely be way more fun to play in front of our fans in our home rink."