TEMPE, Ariz. — Laila Edwards asked to step away from the interview.
She’d just received a direct message on X (formerly known as Twitter) from Travis Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs’ All-Pro tight end, Taylor Swift’s (possible) boyfriend and Cleveland Heights, Ohio’s most famous export.
So, understandably, she needed a minute.
“Travis is one of the most popular guys in the world right now, but I’ve always been a big fan of his,” Edwards, a Cleveland Heights native herself, said in an interview with The Athletic. “It’s another thing that honestly doesn’t feel real.”
Kelce, she said, was supportive of her budding hockey career and called Edwards a trailblazer. It’s all part of a whirlwind few months for the 19-year-old, from cracking Team USA’s roster for the November Rivalry Series against Canada, to preparing for her senior team debut. Along the way, she got a shoutout from Travis and his brother Jason on their wildly popular “New Heights” podcast.
Edwards has the potential to be a star — and perhaps someday the first Black woman to represent the U.S. women’s national team at a world championship or Olympics. Her debut on Saturday is the logical next step in a career that has her looking like a building block for Team USA’s long-term plans.
As a sophomore at top-ranked Wisconsin this season, Edwards is fifth in team scoring with 18 points in 12 games. She was top-10 in scoring as a freshman en route to the Badgers’ seventh national championship and was named to the WCHA all-rookie team. In 2022, she was an alternate captain on the U.S. team that won a silver medal at the U18 world championships and was named tournament MVP.
With a combination of size — she stands 6-foot-1 — and skill, Edwards is one of the most unique and exciting prospects in the game.
“I don’t think there’s another woman like her in the game right now,” said Team USA coach John Wroblewski.
Growing up in Cleveland Heights, Edwards was the second-youngest of four children. Her father, Robert, played hockey recreationally and, with his wife, Charone, got all his kids on the ice at local open skates. Edwards — and her older sister Chayla — started with figure skating, but moved to hockey full-time when she was around six years old.
“I fell in love with it,” Edwards said.
Edwards played boys’ hockey throughout elementary school. She worked hard at the game, even when she was young; Chayla, who is three years older, said she was always trying to keep up with her little sister. By the time she was in seventh grade, Laila had drawn the eye of some of the top women’s hockey colleges in the nation.
Dan Koch, a longtime associate coach at Wisconsin, first saw Edwards as her coach with a summer all-star team around the same time. She wasn’t as tall then, but she still had the kind of size advantage over other girls that made her a consistent threat.
“She was able to beat people one-on-one. She always had a heavy shot. And she’s very versatile,” Koch said. “She was just competitive. She wanted the puck on her stick and had a good skill set. Those were the things that really attracted us to her.”
Edwards left Cleveland Heights in eighth grade to attend an elite girls’ hockey program at Bishop Kearney, a private school in Rochester, N.Y. The growth spurt came not long after. Edwards said she went from 5-foot-6 to around 5-foot-10 between eighth and ninth grade. “I wasn’t really comfortable in my body,” she laughed. “I was falling and really awkward.”
Still, she committed to Wisconsin after her freshman year of high school and went on to score 147 goals and 413 points in 287 games while at Bishop Kearney. In her first tournament with USA Hockey, the 2022 U18 women’s worlds, Edwards was a star. Nobody on Team USA had more points. Nobody in the world had more goals. She was named the top forward and MVP.
“Obviously she had a lot of success before coming (into her freshman year),” said Koch.
She trained with the Badgers for eight weeks before the season and got familiar with the campus, her coaches and the demands of college hockey. That, coupled with her experience at Bishop Kearney and U18s, helped ease the transition into the NCAA. Still, it took some time.
“Her freshman year she came in with a good set of skills, but it’s always an adjustment coming into college,” said Chayla. “It was very cool to see how quick she was able to adjust to the game and still keep her own style of play. As the season went on, I think as her confidence grew.”
As a freshman, Edwards scored a modest 13 goals and 27 points in 42 games. She was a finalist for WCHA rookie of the year, and was named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team after the Badgers won the national championship. In the semifinal game, Edwards scored the third-period goal that sparked a comeback for the Badgers against No. 2 University of Minnesota. Edwards is a highly skilled playmaker with the ability to slow the game down around her. She can find laser-thin seams in the ice, or see plays progress two steps ahead of her competition. Edwards uses her size to her advantage to win battles, strip pucks and create space for herself and her linemates.
“She always makes these really cool passes that I didn’t even see develop,” said Chayla. “She’s just a really unique player.”
That toolkit, and Edwards’ progression through her freshman year, drew the attention of the U.S. national program. Wroblewski saw her potential, and in August, Edwards was invited to USA Hockey’s National Festival in Lake Placid, N.Y. — the summer evaluation camp for the upcoming U18, collegiate, and senior team rosters.
Edwards, she said, assumed she’d skate with the college players and be part of the collegiate group — the players too old for the U18 team, and not quite ready for the senior team — and was caught off guard to be placed with the senior team.
“I didn’t know if I’d be moved back down,” Edwards said. “But I kept skating with the national team players and was a little shocked that I stayed up with them the entire camp.”
At one point, Edwards found herself on a line with Hilary Knight, the future Hall of Fame winger who was Edwards’ favorite player — and idol — growing up. Knight, she said, told Edwards she was excited to play with her.
“If I told my 10-year-old self that, she would freak,” Edwards said. “You grow up idolizing someone, and then you’re on their line at camp? It was honestly crazy.”
Knight, after playing with Edwards, called her an “up-and-coming talent” for the team.
“Her size is incredible. The way she can rip the puck, it looks like it’s about to break the glass or rip the netting,” she said. “I wish I had all those things at that age.”
By the end of August, Edwards received an email notifying her that she had been selected into the U.S. National Team player pool. One month later, she was named to the Rivalry Series roster for the games against Canada in November. That she’s going to play for Team USA still hasn’t sunk in yet — it might not until after she plays, Edwards said.
And while her debut on the national team might have been a pleasant surprise, the roadmap was clear for the USA braintrust.
“To say that she was part of the plan a year and a half ago would have been premature,” said Wroblewski. “But once the summer rolled around and you started to piece things together it became apparent that she was going to be part of the team.”
At training camp, he said, Edwards just needed to show she belonged with the best players in the country, “and she did that.”
“A lot of the same things that she showed in the NCAA showed up at the senior team level,” he said. “So it’s like, yes, this is going to work long term. And hopefully quicker than the longer.”
Wroblewski, who spent 15 years working with NHL prospects in the U.S. National Team Development Program and the American Hockey League, likened Edwards to a high first-round draft pick. Edwards is the tallest player on the U.S. national team — and taller than everyone on rival Canada’s — but she’s not your typical power forward and does not rely on pure physical ability to make an impact.
“The interesting thing about her is that you look at the size and that she puts up points, but the most impressive thing about her (is her) brain,” said Wroblewski. “Her computer is extremely advanced. She’s got very nifty hands and she’s able to navigate the neutral zone extremely well. She’s sort of a dream to play with.”
Her ascension — given she was in high school two years ago — has been swift and undeniable; all signs point to Edwards competing for the U.S. in international competition in the near future.
Whether it happens at the 2024 world championships — hosted in Utica, N.Y. — remains to be seen. Should she make the team, Edwards would become the first Black woman to represent Team USA at women’s worlds. But first, she’ll need to acclimate to the speed and skill of the national level, something that takes time for even the top college players. And while the U.S. wants to beat its Canadian rival during the seven-game series, Wroblewski is focused on developing his players for the future, too.
“There’s going to be rookie mistakes,” he said. “But that’s why we have defense and that’s why we have Aerin (Frankel, the American’s starting goalie).”
To make the worlds team, Edwards would likely need to beat out a veteran of a program that just won the last world championship and the other young players — like Edwards’ Wisconsin teammates Britta Curl and Kirsten Simms, for example — who are vying for a spot on the roster.
For her part, Edwards said she feels much more comfortable and confident in her second year of college hockey, and it shows through her play and production through the first few weeks of the season. So much so that the scouting report for Wisconsin’s opponents this season could conceivably be “make sure you know where No. 10 is,” said Koch. But she’s not too comfortable.
Edwards is constantly in the gym. And she spends extra time on the ice outside of practice working at goal scoring, and using her shot — not just her vision — to be a consistent scoring threat.
“It doesn’t happen naturally. Sure, some people are gifted, but you have to be able to compete and be consistent with it and put in all the extra time. And she’s definitely someone that does that,” said Koch. “She’s someone that has goals to make the world championship or Olympic team. She knows what it takes to get there and she’s going to work at it.”
Blake Bolden, the highest-profile Black woman to play hockey in the United States, came close to making the national team in 2012.
After an excellent junior year at Boston College in 2011-12 that saw her nominated for national player of the year, Bolden attended Team USA’s training camp ahead of the 2012 women’s world championship in Burlington, Vt. Despite a solid showing, Bolden was cut by then-coach Katey Stone and manager Reagan Carey just days before the tournament.
Bolden attended camp again in 2013, after winning Hockey East defender of the year, but was cut again — and told she would not be back in the mix.
“I want to focus on the positives and let (Edwards) shine her light,” Bolden said in an interview with The Athletic. “Right now, I’m just very proud.”
Bolden went on to break barriers as the first Black woman to play in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League. A native of Cleveland, Bolden was a role model for Edwards and her sister, because of her playing style — and because, during their formative years, she was “the only person that played at a high level that looked like me and my sister,” Edwards said.
There have been other trailblazers, such as Canadians Angela James, the first Black woman to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Sarah Nurse, who became the first Black woman to win an ice hockey gold medal at the Olympics in 2022. Julie Chu was the first Asian American to play for Team USA at the Olympics in 2002. And Abby Roque became the first Indigenous woman to represent Team USA at the Olympics in 2022. But there have been few Black women playing hockey at a high level in the United States, and Edwards is poised to someday be one of the faces of the game. That representation, Bolden said, is going to be “huge” for young boys and girls in hockey to see themselves on one of the biggest stages the sport has to offer.
“I’m very humbled and grateful to be in this position so that the next young girl can see me and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’” Edwards said.
“It’s very surreal,” said Chayla about her sister’s rise. “Beyond anything, I’m just really proud (of her) and excited for the younger girls to see her play. It’s going to bring me so much joy that she can be a person for them to look up to.”
Edwards’ poise and maturity is clear. But she’s also a college sophomore who is balancing homework, navigating her stint with the national team, and becoming a role model, when she is still a teenager herself. That would be overwhelming for just about anyone.
“I’m 32, and it’s funny that people call me a role model because I’m still trying to figure it out myself,” Bolden said. “It can make you feel like, ‘Oh, I guess I need to be more mature.’ But you don’t. Just be who you are. You don’t need to do anything more or anything less.”
And when Edwards takes the ice on Saturday, Bolden will be there, proudly watching from the stands.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos courtesy of the University of Wisconsin.)