Before she racked up more than a dozen Division I conference hockey awards at Ohio State.
Before she led the Buckeyes to their first-ever Frozen Four appearance as a freshman, with the most points on the team.
Before her older brother challenged her to games of road hockey, and her dad convinced her mom to let her play the rough sport, 2-year-old Emma Maltais had her first skating lesson.
“I think my parents knew I would love skating when I was the only one not crawling in my skating lesson,” Maltais said.
Now, three years into her college career, Maltais has been invited to join the Canadian National Women’s Team in a two-game series against the United States Friday and Sunday. Maltais has attended various camps for Canada’s national team before, but this is the first time she’ll be playing with the senior national team.
To a girl who grew up in Toronto, Ontario, a city with a passionate hockey culture, it’s hard to overstate how big of a deal that is.
“That’s always been my dream,” Maltais said. “I grew up watching Hayley Wickenheiser and Marie-Philip Poulin, and I think that those players have inspired me to be where they are.”
Ohio State head coach Nadine Muzerall also grew up just outside Toronto and coached Maltais when she played for Canada’s under-18 team before she came to Ohio State.
“To have the opportunity to represent your country’s colors for hockey in Canada is like the ultimate dream,” Muzerall said. “It’s the highest honor.”
Maltais has led Ohio State in points in both her full seasons and has the lead again through 12 games this year. She has been named first team All-WCHA twice and the conference Rookie of the Year. Top eight in points, goals and assists in the conference this year, she’s on pace for more.
“She’s a 200-foot player,” Muzerall said. “From goal line to goal line, she’s back-checking, she’s blocking shots, she’s defensively sound.”
But it’s not only her talent on the ice that sets Maltais apart. Teammates also note her leadership qualities. This season, she has been encouraging players to reflect after games.
“She likes to always say, ‘Pick out one positive that came out of the game, one negative,’” junior defenseman Lisa Bruno said. “And she always asks us to fill out these papers with a compliment that we would give another teammate.”
After every weekend series, Maltais collects the papers and reads the compliments to the team in the locker room the following Monday.
“That’s something she just chose to do, and it brings so much positivity,” Bruno said.
Maltais has not locked in a permanent position with the national team; she has only been named to the roster for the weekend series against the U.S. Despite her many accolades, gaining the respect of veterans is no easy task for a young player.
“It’s hard if you’re a young buck coming in,” Muzerall said. “It is a huge jump from the [under-18 national team] to the [under-22 national team] and an even bigger jump from the [under-22 national team] to the senior national team.”
Maltais is studying health sciences at Ohio State and has interned at the Ohio State Neurological Institute, which inspired her to become a physical therapist, but she said her ultimate dream is to pursue a career in hockey.
That dream can be hard to actualize in a time when professional women’s hockey leagues struggle to be financially sustainable, but playing for the national team provides some hope.
“There’s always goals to grow the game, and that’s obviously what I want to be a part of,” Maltais said. “Hopefully one day it will be sustainable to the point where I can play hockey and make a living.”
Until then, Maltais is focused on putting in the work to get the Buckeyes back to the Frozen Four and is working to earn the respect of players and coaches on the Canadian national team.
If all goes well, Maltais’ story could someday start with, “Before she won gold with Canada’s national team at the Olympics.”