Laila Edwards seeks to become the first Black player to suit up for a Team USA women’s hockey game, inspiring the next generation while overcoming obstacles in a sport that still lacks diversity. (Photo by Mia Jones/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – Mullett Arena buzzed with excitement Wednesday night, with the anticipation of not one but two groundbreaking milestones. Team USA women’s hockey made its debut in the Valley for the 2023-24 Rivalry Series against Team Canada, and as the puck drop drew near, fan noise reached a crescendo in the hope of witnessing another piece of history.

Laila Edwards was set to become the first Black woman to suit up for the women’s national team before she was announced as a healthy scratch. Edwards is expected to play Saturday when the popular series moves to Los Angeles, delaying a long-overdue feat that should have happened a long time ago – and she’s the first one to fully admit that.

Although she finds it disappointing that it took this long for a Black female to crack the national team’s roster, she’s excited for what she can inspire in the future.

“It would’ve been nicer if this would’ve happened a little sooner,” Edwards said before Team USA beat Team Canada, 3-1, in the first game of the seven-game series that will cross-cross North America over the next three months.

“Right now it is what it is. I’m grateful that I hope that I can be that role model for the next one right after me and then after her. I just hope that this barrier break allows an overflow kind of thing.”

Although Edwards, a 19-year-old forward, is the first African American to suit up for a USA women’s hockey game, she is the only member of the 22-player roster who didn’t play in the 2023 IIHF tournament where the USA won gold. She did win a silver medal while representing USA Hockey at the 2022 IIHF under-18 women’s world championship, while also earning MVP honors.

Edwards’s path to this stage wasn’t given to her. A native of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, she started skating with her siblings at a recreational center, the same one where her dad played. She soon figured out hockey wasn’t just a hobby for her, it was something she wanted to pursue long-term.

“I think I realized that I wanted to take this thing far when I was about 10 or 11,” Edwards said. “Then I started to travel more for hockey. I was like, ‘OK, this can take me far.’”

Edwards did everything she could as she got older to get noticed by colleges. She traveled a lot, playing with numerous teams to try to continue her hockey career. Sometimes she would even play on a boys team to show off her skills to scouts.

Her wishes eventually came true. After playing with Bishop Kearney High School in Rochester, N.Y., for four seasons, Edwards joined the University of Wisconsin women’s team. In her first season with the Badgers, she and the team went on a Cinderella run. En route to a Frozen Four appearance, Edwards scored 21 points in 41 games. Wisconsin beat Minnesota and Ohio State to win the 2022-23 NCAA championship.

Edwards was named to the All-Tournament team. As a freshman, she was already on top of the college hockey world with a championship under her belt, a memory of which she’s very fond

“The NCAA tournament and winning the Frozen Four was awesome,” Edwards said. “It was something that I will never forget. That was a great feeling. It’s a two-game, short tournament, so being named to that All-Tournament Team was great. However, I think the biggest part was us winning it all.”

Edwards has started off her sophomore season even stronger than she did her championship year. She has notched 18 points in just 12 games for the Badgers, her 6-foot-1 frame often a speedy blur on the ice.

Even amid all the winning and achievements in her life, Edwards still struggles with the labels and microaggressions that sometimes come with being a Black female hockey player. She knows people are still judging her for how she looks and it has led to insulting assumptions that show hockey is still not always an inclusive arena.

“It’s still hard going to rinks and not really seeing anyone that looks like you,” Edwards said. “Going into the locker rooms and not like you. I would say that it’s a little uncomfortable. People whispering and kind of looking at you weirdly.

“Or sometimes I would walk into a rink and ask where the locker room was, and the people working there would say, ‘Oh, the basketball court is over that way.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m here for hockey.’I think those little microaggressions and things like that were a bit of an obstacle growing up. But I’ve become more comfortable with it and myself.”

Diversity isn’t just a problem in women’s hockey. In the NHL, there are only 26 Black active players, making up less than 3% of the league’s total roster numbers. There have been some recent advances, including San Jose Sharks’ Mike Grier who is the first Black general manager in the NHL, and Quinton Byfield, who became the highest-drafted Black player after the Los Angeles Kings picked him second overall in 2020.

On the international side, Sarah Nurse, a Canadian forward who is biracial, is one of the best players for Team Canada, with an Olympic gold and a silver medal already on her mantel. She also has a Barbie doll based on her likeness that was eventually featured in the Barbie movie, and she was the first woman to appear on the cover of an EA Sports NHL title with NHL 23 and in the 2023 NHL All-Star Game.

Although Edwards doesn’t have as much recognition or as many accolades, she is slowly trending that way. Jason and Travis Kelce talked about her on their podcast. Edwards is honored that she’s even getting to play with Team USA, admitting that when she was younger she idolized Hilary Knight, who is now her teammate.

Now, Edwards is trying to use her platform to help other young girls, including young Black girls, get into the sport she loves. Her message is simple: It’s possible, just keep going.

“I would say that I know that it can be a little discouraging that there may not be that many people who look like you,” Edwards said. “But I hope that I inspire the next young woman of color, that once she’s there, that it is reachable and possible. So motivate them and inspire them to work as hard as you can to get to that next level.”