Team USA’s Laila Edwards Is Set For A Historic Debut In The Women’s Hockey Rivalry Series
by Joanne C. Gerstner
Back in her days as a youth hockey player, Laila Edwards dreamed about playing for Team USA. She religiously watched women’s hockey on TV, especially tuning in for the epic USA-Canada clashes at the Olympics or world championships.
The women on those teams served as powerful role models and inspirations. And, in a then-unthinkable way, they also revealed Edwards’ future.
Edwards, a forward from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, now steps into her own legacy, as she is set to make her first appearance as a member of the U.S. women’s national team this week when the Rivalry Series with Canada starts Wednesday in Tempe, Arizona. Now its fourth year, the popular competition will criss-cross the U.S. and Canada for seven games spread over three months between the legendary rivals.
“It doesn’t seem real yet that I am on the national team, I’m still processing,” Edwards said. “It will seem real when I put on the sweater and play. Just a big goal of mine come true, and I want to do my best. It’s hard not to feel that rivalry against Canada, it’s a big thing.”
Edwards’ debut for the national team also signifies another milestone: she will become the first Black woman to play for Team USA. She previously represented USA Hockey at the youth international level, winning silver at the 2022 IIHF Under-18 Women's World Championship, where she earned MVP honors.
Getting to represent the highest level of Team USA, and open a new avenue of diversity, unlocks significant emotions for Edwards. Her family will be coming to the games, and Edwards said they are excited as she is right now.
“When I was growing up, watching the Team USA and Canada, there wasn’t anybody who looks like me, so the fact I get to be that for the kids growing up now, it’s a big deal for me,” said Edwards, who is also a sophomore at Wisconsin and an important part of its reigning NCAA champion team. “I’m really honored and excited to have little boys and girls see me and know they can do it too. When you see somebody who looks like you, it makes it easier for you to get into the game than if you didn’t have that representation.”
Edwards does not want to be defined by being the first Black woman, or by that discussion. She is coming to play hockey, find her way at a higher level of the game and, hopefully, weave her way into the line-up.
“I’m trying to drown out all of that noise,” she said. “It’s something I am still trying to figure out. I just want to get there and play.”
Edwards’ play is characterized by her speed and strength, as she wields her 6-1 frame on the ice. She was called up for a U.S. training camp, along with a handful of her Wisconsin teammates, over the summer. It was there she saw how the game of hockey changes from college to the highest international level.
It’s faster, smarter and requires a degree of mindful fearlessness.
That experience was a small glimpse of the intensity that comes with playing for the defending world champions, and the Rivalry Series will serve further lessons in that space.
“I did learn, and I think I am more prepared, because its more physical than my league here in college,” Edwards said. “That camp made me more prepared for college. It’s really a different game at that higher level; it’s fast, quick, so aggressive. My goal, going into this, is to learn as much as possible from my teammates and coaches. To learn from the games themselves. I have the goal of retaining as much of the knowledge as possible and using it to make me better overall everywhere I play.”
Edwards’ hockey education leveled up last season, her first in the WCHA, and with the Badgers. She was named to the league’s All-Rookie team and had 27 points in Wisconsin’s title-capped season.
“I learned a lot about how I perform under pressure — can I still play my game under pressure?” she said. “Yes, I can play under pressure and be comfortable with it. Now there is more pressure, and can I play my game and not panic. That’s what I need to do.
“When you win a championship, like we did with the NCAA, you think about that great feeling for a while, but then you want to win it again — you want that feeling again. That’s the motivation.”