Ahead of the 2022 Women’s U18 Ice Hockey World Championship (June 6-13) in Madison, Wisconsin, On Her Turf caught up with two members of this year’s U.S. team: alternate captains Kirsten Simms (Plymouth, Mich.) and Laila Edwards (Cleveland Heights, Ohio).
This week’s tournament will mark the first IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship since before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Simms was a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. team in 2020, while Edwards is making her U18 world championship debut. Both players just completed their senior year of high school — and are missing their graduation ceremonies because of the tournament — and will continue their hockey careers as teammates at the University of Wisconsin.
This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. On Her Turf’s guide to the 2022 U18 Women’s World Championship — which includes a full tournament schedule and details on how to watch — can be found here.
On Her Turf: What does it mean for both of you to be on the U.S. roster for this year’s U18 Women’s World Championship?
Kirsten Simms: It’s a huge honor to be on this team, especially with the tournament being held in Madison. I’m super excited to get going.
Laila Edwards: To play in this tournament is a dream that doesn’t feel real yet. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s finally here.
On Her Turf: Kirsten, you’re one of two players (along with Danielle Burgen) on this U.S. team that also competed at U18 Worlds in 2020. What was that experience like for you?
Simms: Being on that team two years ago was obviously a huge honor, especially being so young. It was such a good experience getting to play with girls older than me and girls that I looked up to my entire life… It’s a little bit different now, being one of the older ones, but it’s still cool knowing what’s going on and getting to help other people.
On Her Turf: What advice are you giving to teammates who haven’t played at this tournament before?
Simms: (Don’t) let the nerves get to you. Just take it all in, knowing that you’re at a huge event. But at the end of the day, it’s just hockey and there’s no need to get nervous about it. Just play your game.
On Her Turf: Laila, you mentioned that playing at U18 Worlds is a “dream that doesn’t feel real yet.” I’m curious: when did the dream of competing at this level start for you?
Edwards: Let’s see… I came to Selects Academy when I was 13. And that’s when the older girls there were trying out for the (U18) team. And my sister (Chayla) was playing too; she’s three years older than me so my dad would talk about her going to these camps… (Once I learned more), I was like, ‘Oh, I kind of wanna do that one day,’ and that dream became bigger every year.
On Her Turf: What about for you, Kirsten?
Simms: When I was really little, looking up to Olympic, national team-level players, you’re like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ That’s what every little girl’s dream is, I guess. But (it became more of a reality) when I made the switch to girls’ hockey. I started watching the (U18) level and that’s when I got an understanding of what that was. Each year, (the goal) just grew and grew and grew and it started to become a reality as I went to more camps.
On Her Turf: You mentioned being inspired by the Olympic and national team players… How did it feel when those same players were some of the most vocal after this U18 tournament was initially cancelled in December? I know a lot of them were speaking up and saying, ‘Hey, why was this cancelled? Isn’t there a way to reschedule it?’
Simms: That meant the world, seeing them repost everything. The amount of backlash the IIHF was getting when it was initially cancelled was super cool. Even though those players are older than us, even though they are on that national team, they want to see us to achieve what they got to achieve when they were (our) age.
Edwards: I thought it was really cool how they advocated for us because they could have simply just gone about their days. (The cancellation) didn’t really affect them, necessarily. But like Kirsten said, they wanted us to get the opportunity they had to keep growing the game. That has to happen one step at a time and I think they’re committed to that.
MORE U18 WOMEN’S HOCKEY: Game schedule, how to watch, tournament format for the 2022 World Championship
On Her Turf: Looking ahead to the tournament this week. You start off with group play games against Sweden, Finland, and Canada. What are the team’s expectations and goals heading into those first three games?
Edwards: We have three words that we (focus on): pride, relentless, and together. So no matter the opponent, we’re just going to do our best to showcase that we can do those three (things) well.
On Her Turf: For people that are watching this week — either in-person at LaBahn Arena or at home on TV — what do you want them to know about your teammates?
Edwards: I think our teammates play with a lot of heart. That takes a lot of courage and should earn the respect of the viewers. That’s a big thing.
Simms: I think the love of the game that our team has and just how close we are as a group to really shows on the ice. And the speed and skill of our team is just at another level.
On Her Turf: I know the team has been in a training camp environment for the last week or so, but did you know everyone on the team pretty well before this or are there some teammates you just met for the first time?
Simms: We’ve known each other for quite a while, actually. After camp last August, (the roster) was trimmed down to almost the group we have now. So even when the tournament got cancelled in December, we all stayed connected and we were just hoping that this was going to get rescheduled.
Edwards: We also just know each other from traveling and playing against each other. Kirsten’s team actually ended my team’s season this year. So it’s a little bit of bad blood there, but we try to get past it.
On Her Turf: Oh, I want to hear this story. What round did that happen in?
Edwards: It was literally the first game of playoffs. It was quarterfinals.
On Her Turf: What was the final score?
Edwards: It was 3 or 4 to 1, I don’t remember.
Simms: I think it was 3-1, plus an empty net (goal).
On Her Turf: At least you two will get to be teammates together next season at Wisconsin. What are you most looking forward to as you transition to college hockey?
Edwards: I’m excited because I think it’ll force me to find an extra gear to keep up, I’ll learn new things from my teammates, and maybe even opponents.
Simms: For me, it’s just kind of a speed transition. It’s gonna be a quicker game, quicker plays, quicker puck movement… So I’m super excited to play at that higher level and to play with girls that are three years older than me. You have to step up to their game. You don’t get that in youth hockey, where you’re playing with girls (the same age).
On Her Turf: I know you’re obviously focused on this U18 world championship, and then your college careers after that… but there’s also been a lot of momentum in women’s pro hockey recently, including with U.S. national team players Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hilary Knight helping to lead the PWHPA. Have you been following those developments at all, given that they could impact you once you graduate from college and reach that point in your hockey careers?
Edwards: Well, personally, I don’t know too much about the pro league (situation), but I do know that they’ve been making bigger steps as of late, like Mikyla Grant-Mentis (signing for an $80,000) salary and stuff like that. And I think it’s going to continue to grow, which is good for us.
Simms: I’ve been following what the PWHPA is trying to do. I think it’d be pretty cool if it could (become) a huge league or whatever cause all the national team players are on it. So yeah, I’m definitely hoping that they can keep growing so we have somewhere to play after college.
On Her Turf: I think that’s all of my questions. Anything I should have asked but didn’t?
Edwards: I think it’s super cool we get to play (U18 Worlds) in LaBahn Arena, which is where we’ll play for the next four years. It’s definitely unique… you wouldn’t think your first game (on that ice) wouldn’t be (for Wisconsin).
Simms: Or in a USA jersey.
On Her Turf: So is this the first time both of you have skated on the ice at LaBahn?
Edwards: No, we did the Badger camp, Kirsten!
Simms: Oh, yeah. True. Sorry!
On Her Turf: I love the fact checking, Laila.
Edwards: But it’s been years, like five or six years.
On Her Turf: I saw a photo of the new ice on Twitter, complete with the logo for the tournament. Does it look as good in person as it does on social media?
Edwards: It looks even better, feels better too. It’s nice ice.
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC