The pages to her story that Laila Edwards has added in the last year have been consequential.
She won an NCAA championship as a freshman last season at Wisconsin, a result that pushed her toward striving to do it again. Then she made her first appearance with the U.S. Women’s National Team at the Rivalry Series this past November, a breakthrough that went far beyond herself and her blossoming career. She was the team’s first Black player and the achievement received nationwide attention.
Those entries are new, but the central themes in her journey have been consistent. Emerging from challenges and taking uncharted paths are the main narratives for Edwards, who accomplished these big things before she turned 20.
“I’m just another hockey player who had a few more barriers and obstacles to go through growing up in this sport,” Edwards said. “I was able to persevere, and I’m someone that is hopefully a role model to many girls, but specifically to girls of color.”
Edwards didn’t see anyone who looked like her when she started playing hockey in her hometown of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and that was initially discomforting. Now she accepts her place as someone who can help change that for the next generation of young players.
“I’m hoping that I’m presenting an example that shows that it’s possible,” she said.
There’s also so much more potentially to come for the forward with fluid skating strides, high-level hands and a knack for finishing. Many closest to Edwards believe her game is on the upward.
“I’m excited to see where she can take her game because she’s just tapping the surface right now and will continue to get better,” said Mark Johnson, head coach of the Wisconsin women’s hockey team.
Edwards has broken through at multiple points in her young career, not just the Nov. 11 Rivalry Series game against Canada in Los Angeles that served as her official U.S. Women’s National Team debut.
She was 11 years old and playing for Pittsburgh Penguins Elite in a 12-and-under tournament in Massachusetts when she experienced an awakening. A heightened intensity level on the ice translated to her game, and the results in terms of goals and overall performance made her think that a higher level was possible.
It also made her a known commodity.
“Everyone’s known Laila since then,” said Kathy Pippy, who started the program that evolved into Pens Elite and has followed Edwards’ career. “Whether it was 12U, 14U, up in Canada, they all know Laila. And they all know what she’s capable of.”
Not all the turning points have been positive experiences in the moment, however. Edwards didn’t get picked for a national camp the summer before her sophomore year with Bishop Kearney Selects, and it left an impression on her about what it takes to progress to higher levels.
From then on, she didn’t want to give evaluators any reason to leave her out.
“If I get cut or I don’t, at least I can say that I made it hard for them,” Edwards said. “That’s a great mentality to have.”
In good times and bad, Edwards has had the support of her family and her community. Her dad, Robert, used to set up morning practice sessions with skills instructors.
Laila Edwards and her siblings Bobby, Chayla (also a Wisconsin teammate) and Colson left the house at 5:40 a.m. for the 10-minute drive to the Cleveland Heights Community Center. The Edwards family had to find inexpensive ice time, Robert Edwards said, and 6 a.m. fit that need and the kids’ schedule before school.
They’d be on the ice for an hour with Eamonn McDermott or Tim and Alex Okicki, some of the many people who Robert Edwards said gave their time more for the benefit of young players than for the money.
“That one-on-one time with three or four players in the morning really created their success,” Robert Edwards said.
Laila Edwards continued the early-morning skates after she left home to attend Bishop Kearney in Rochester, New York, at the start of eighth grade. The wake-up call was even earlier—4:55 a.m.
“It was all worth it,” she said. “I’m glad I did it.”
Cari Coen, the director of girls hockey for BK Selects, said Edwards had a relentless work ethic in New York. The daily morning skate came before school, practice, a team workout and study session.
“There’s so many hours that she’s put into her game that, like other players just like her on that national level, it just goes unseen,” Coen said.
Edwards has an appreciation and a fondness for those early hours on the ice and the coaches, teammates, family members and family members of teammates who saw something special in her and helped her develop.
The player that she has become is able to control the pace of a game with an intellectual approach. Coaches and observers said her ability to slow the game down and speed it up whenever she wants is uncanny.
Combine that with vision, a good read on situations and physical skills to go along with a 6-foot-1 frame and you get an opportunity for offense.
You also get someone who can make others take notice.
“She walks in a room and there’s presence,” Paul Colontino, the vice president of hockey administration for BK Selects, said. “She hops the boards, there’s presence. She’s in a locker room and she can be very soft-spoken, and when she speaks up it hits like a 10-pound hammer.”
It all came together in helping Wisconsin win the 2023 NCAA championship, an effort she furthered with a determined shift in the semifinals against Minnesota that led to her scoring a momentum-turning goal.
She’s back for more this season with the Badgers, but she’s also getting into international play. Her minutes were limited at the Rivalry Series, but Edwards made some plays that stood out to coach John Wroblewski, including a scoring chance that just missed the top corner.
“That shows that you belong, and that doesn’t happen for the majority of players, especially players in their first game,” Wroblewski said. “It was an announcement that she belonged. She did some wonderful things without the puck, too. Her forechecking, her straight-ahead speed had a presence in that game.”
Edwards had a small cheering section of family members and friends at the game and a larger group across the country that acknowledged that she was a trailblazer for Black players on the Women’s National Team.
She said she understands that significance for the sport in the U.S. but also is trying to keep in mind that it was the start of a new page of her story, one that she hopes to keep going with the national team.
“I have to put it to the back of my head, put my head down and go to work,” Edwards concluded. “Because this is a big deal to me. It’s the U.S. team. It’s something I’ve worked for forever and made a lot of sacrifices for, along with my family.”
This story originally appeared in the 2024 January/February issue of USA Hockey Magazine.
Black History Month is observed in February and celebrates the rich cultural heritage, triumphs and adversities that are an indelible part of our country's history.
To learn more about Black History Month visit https://www.blackhistorymonth.gov/