Since graduating high school 18 months ago, Laila Edwards’ hockey career has been a whirlwind.
Edwards skipped her high school graduation ceremony in June 2022 to play in the IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship. Instead of getting handed a diploma, she was recognized as the Most Valuable Player of the tournament while helping the United States earn a silver medal.
Nine months later, as a first-year player at the University of Wisconsin, she scored the first goal in the semifinal round of the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four as Wisconsin defeated Minnesota, 3-2. Wisconsin won its seventh national championship two days later over Ohio State.
Edwards has now received her first invitation to play for the U.S. Women’s National Team, becoming the first Black woman to play for Team USA’s senior squad as she laces up the skates today in Los Angeles for the second game of the 2023-24 Rivalry Series (4 p.m. ET NHL Network).
For the 19-year-old forward from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, it’s a dream come true, and something that’s been a long time coming.
“It’s overwhelming, but in a good way,” Edwards said. “It’s a privilege to be able to call something like this overwhelming. I’m very proud to be in this position.”
She wishes this barrier weren’t just now being broken in 2023, but she’s honored to be the person doing it.
“It’s about time,” she said. “Now young girls can look at the highest level and see someone that looks like that. It adds extra motivation and inspiration. I like to be a role model for anyone, but more specifically for young people of color.”
She hopes that seeing her on the ice will encourage people of color to play more hockey or even try it for the first time, as she’s proof that the goal is reachable.
“Sometimes it can be discouraging to not see people that look like you, but we have to start somewhere,” said Edwards. “I hope that what I’m doing this week is a big start and people continue to try and make the game more diverse and inclusive.”
Abby Roque has been essential in helping Edwards navigate the extra attention breaking this barrier has brought. In 2022, Roque was the first Indigenous woman to play for the U.S. women’s hockey team in the Olympics. She said she’s been reminding Edwards to enjoy the moment and be proud of the accomplishment of making this roster, especially at such a young age.
“I'm super proud of her,” Roque said. “It’s a big deal. She should be proud of this moment and proud that little girls will look on the ice in Los Angelesand on the TV and there is a Black woman on the ice. That is a huge piece for hockey. That’s where it needs to go. Hockey needs to be so much more inclusive.”
Roque said this first is important and should be talked about, but she also said that when the team is on the ice, it’s not a factor. For her part, Edwards said she’s trying to find balance in bearing the pressure of the increased attention as well as the pressure she feels to perform well in her first opportunity with the national team.
“It’s a great opportunity that I'm really excited for and grateful for to get to play with and against the best players in the world,” Edwards said. “It’s something I don’t take for granted. When I’m on the ice, I’m trying to drown everything out and focus on playing my game and be the best version of myself as a player and a person.”
Since starting at Wisconsin, Edwards said her confidence has grown along with her game.
Roque, a Wisconsin alum, said she’s been watching Edwards regularly since that Under-18 tournament and has noticed an improvement not just in her skills, but in her commitment to improving all aspects of her game.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth from her,” Roque said. “She has gotten faster. She’s a super smart player. Being as young as she is, you just know she’s going to continue to get better.”
The 6-foot-1-inch Edwards stands out on the ice, and her size impacts her game in a number of ways. There’s her long stride and the relative lack of effort it takes her to get down the lice. There’s her strength and how she uses it to own whatever piece of ice she’s on. There’s the height she uses to block the view of her opponents. And then there’s her reach — probably the most underrated part of her game.
Most players will tell you that the longer their stick, the less control they feel they have on the puck; it gets harder to make small, skillful moves and also leaves the puck more vulnerable. But Edwards’ long arms and strength means she can protect the space between her and the puck, create space between herself and defenders and cut off passes or pick pockets from players that don’t respect her reach.
Being a former figure skater, there’s a fluidity and finesse to Edwards’ skating that feels unexpected.
U.S. Women’s National Team head coach John Wroblewski raved about the different skills Edwards possesses.
“You have this imposing frame and that allows her to have this innate puck possession and buy some extra time,” he said. “With that extra time, her intelligence, her hockey IQ and her vision is outstanding. She’s able to distribute pucks and make deft little plays.”
Edwards earned being named to this roster based on what Wroblewski sees as her massive upside. He’s not expecting her to be perfect or gold-medal game ready immediately. There are no benchmarks the staff expects her to hit. They’re just trying to get her acclimated to the speed, help her grow and support the things she’s already doing.
“She's got the potential of being able to be a real factor down the line for us,” Wroblewski said. “When that is, we’re not sure. There is no expectation or baseline for Laila’s game. Get the experience. Go out and assert yourself and then let’s modify what needs to be modified.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.