Years later, Laila Edwards still can’t recall exactly what the guest speaker said to her youth hockey team. But the Black woman who addressed them made enough of an impression to inspire her to rise to the highest levels in her sport.
“I just remember kind of being a little starstruck and so excited to see someone else successful in hockey that looked like me and was older,” Edwards recalled about Blake Bolden, the first Black woman to play pro hockey. “What I took away from that encounter was inspiration and motivation. I wanted to be like her.”
“Being like Bolden” not only led Edwards to last year’s NCAA women’s hockey title for the University of Wisconsin, but her play over time earned her a spot on USA’s national team. Edwards, a forward, is the first Black woman to play for Team USA, and her skills will be on display Wednesday in Tempe, Arizona, when the national team begins the first of seven games of Rivalry Series play against Team Canada.
While grateful for being selected, Edwards is concerned it took 25 years (the first women’s national team to compete in the Olympics in 1998) for a Black woman to make the team.
“It’s an honor to be the first Black woman on the national team, but this team’s been around for a long time,” she said. “And not to sound ungrateful, but it would have been nice to have someone that looked like me on that team before me. I’m glad that I’m able to be that someone for another little Black girl out there.”
Bolden, the first and only Black female scout in the NHL (Los Angeles Kings) failed in her bid to make the national team years ago.
“When I didn’t make my dreams come true, it was like the passing of the torch to try to inspire young girls of color to dream big,” Bolden said. “Knowing who Laila is and what she’s become makes me feel very honored and proud of her. It’s like a rally. This is just another plant in the pot that will grow. She’s going to inspire so many young girls.”
Edwards’ spot on Team USA’s roster highlights the mission of Black Girls Hockey Club – making hockey more inclusive for Black women and their families and friends. Founder Renee Hess will attend the Rivalry Series in Los Angeles.
“We’ll be there in the stands wearing ‘Black Girl Hockey’ T-shirts, to let her know we’re in the house,” Hess said. “Laila’s going to be a role model for so many Black folk playing hockey, and for us older Black folk . . . It’s such an exciting time.”
Edwards began playing hockey in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Her father, Robert, dabbled in the sport in his youth. He steered three of his children into the sport, Edwards’ older brother, Bobby, her older sister, Chayla, and his youngest son, Colson, 16, is on Team Ohio. Before his daughters played hockey, he guided them into figure skating when Edwards 3 and Chayla was 5, figuring it would make the transition to hockey easier.
At 6 years old, however, Edwards didn’t trade in her tutu for a hockey helmet and shoulder pads willingly.
“I loved figure skating because you got to wear those cute little outfits,” Edwards said. “My dad said I had to do hockey, and I was upset at first, but my dad was like, trust me. I was not very happy about it at the time, but now I am.”
Edwards’ father steered her away from figure skating as she continued to improve in hockey.
“At age 4, she was the best [hockey] player on her team among boys because she could skate,” he said. “When I saw how good Laila and her sister were against boys, I was like ‘OK, this is the direction we’ll go in.’ I also knew hockey would create different opportunities.”
A little Black girl playing hockey on boys’ teams also came with challenges, from dressing in the same locker room to pretending not to hear immature boys talk about other girls to joining her teammates for sleepovers.
“Most of the boys on my teams were nice and inclusive for the most part,” Edwards said. “But, of course, there were some here and there who weren’t, which made the experience a little more difficult. But I was able to get through those little things because of how much I loved hockey. I’m glad my love for the game was strong enough to get me through.”
Other challenges surfaced. On the road, she heard comments that girls shouldn’t play hockey, especially with boys. And when Edwards moved onto the girls’ teams, the animosity didn’t stop. There was an incident in Buffalo, New York, that reeked with racist overtones, angering Edwards’ father.
“The other parents got extra excited every time Laila touched the puck or got hit,” he said. “A player hit Laila in the head, and she got the penalty, but the parents cheered. We questioned [the cheering fans] on their motivation. Our whole family was there, so it almost went down.”
Edwards was named MVP at the 2022 International Ice Hockey Federation Under-18 Women’s World Championship. She scored eight points and led the U.S. to a silver medal. She left home to attend an elite girls hockey program at Bishop Kearney High School in Rochester, New York, and had 147 goals and 266 assists in 287 games during her prep career.
In 2022, her stellar career led her to Wisconsin, where she scored 27 points in 41 games in her first season and earned Women’s College Hockey Association All-Rookie team honors. Edwards also helped Wisconsin win an NCAA-record seventh title and was one of five Badgers to make the Frozen Four All-Tournament team.
Winning the title was a family affair. Edwards became teammates with her sister, Chayla, now a graduate student.
“Me and my sister were just ecstatic when we won the title,” Edwards said. “There’s no better feeling to be able to win with my parents there, and to win with my sister.”
The winning didn’t stop once the season was over. Wisconsin has won its first six games this season, and Edwards has 14 points (three goals and 11 assists). Last month, she received the news she was waiting for when USA Hockey told each of the 26 players in an email that they had made the roster.
“My stomach dropped and my heart raced,” Edwards said. “And I’m so excited to have the opportunity to learn from the best and play with and against the best people.”
Team USA coach John Wroblewski said Edwards made the team because of her successful ascension through each level of hockey she played in.
“Her hockey IQ is off the charts,” Wroblewski said. “I would call her like a quarterback of sorts, because she’s able to see the little easy chip play. She makes those little short plays look easy with her deception and her vision.”
Edwards also uses her 6-foot-1 frame and long wingspan to her advantage.
“She may have the biggest frame that we’ve had in women’s hockey. Certainly no one that plays forward and plays more of what you call a skill game,” he said. “It’s tough to figure out why the puck finds certain players, and it finds her.”
Team USA, which won last year’s world championship, hopes the puck continues to find Edwards during this upcoming Rivalry Series. And Edwards will keep in mind that many young girls with similar dreams will be watching her.
“I hope to do the same thing [as Bolden],” she said, “and to even inspire some girls who aren’t into hockey yet, and to provide an example of, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too.’ ”