The first true snowfall in Buffalo today – with icy pavement, blustery snowflakes, and all. The Buffalo Beauts just wrapped up a gut-wrenching 5-0 loss to the Boston Pride. A sense of pulling our collars more snug and huddling up for comfort; both literally and figuratively for us Buffalonians and the Beauts’ faithful. Yet here I am, standing beneath the HarborCenter bleachers, outside of the Beauts locker room with Emily Janiga. And she is welcoming and kind, and has a smile that could definitely warm any misgivings felt from the Beauts loss. Emily embodies what the NWHL is about. What hockey should be about, at its very core. She is why people need to go to hockey games, especially Beauts games.
“I grew up in a hockey family. Older brothers that played, sisters ahead of me that played, and uncles. So I kind of just followed in their footsteps”, Janiga reflects for me. Hockey in its purest sense. A family affair. Learning the game from one another and finding common ground as a family that loves the game together. “We actually have every Sunday for as long as I can remember a family skate in the summertime at 7:00 o’clock in the morning. We do a scrimmage against each other. All the aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins’ friends. We have enough to play five-on-five out there. It’s awesome!”.
Janiga, who started playing organized hockey at the age of five or six, and even wore a pair of skates as early as two years old, is from the Buffalo area; originally having been born and raised in East Aurora. “There are actually a lot more opportunities to play now than when I was growing up. I first started playing for the Saints (Western New York’s own Saints Hockey Club) when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Playing on a team with and against girls who were 13 or 14, if not 16 or 17 even. It was a very diverse collection of players. There was just not much around. I played some local guys hockey in the mites league. Definitely as I got older the Buffalo Bisons started developing and I played there. I played on Rochester Edge for a couple years. My last couple of years I ended up going to Burlington Ontario. Definitely as I got older more opportunities developed”.
In Burlington, Janiga would play for the girls hockey club, the Burlington Barracuda as part of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) during her junior and senior years of high school. This playing history of Janiga’s is most interesting, and seems to document the course of women’s hockey over the past decade or two within Western New York. But Janiga is far from your typical player. The elite skill level that she was able to build and maintain was obvious even at an early age; whether it be while playing against players nearly twice her age as a youngster with the Saints, or needing to reach more challenging competition by venturing up north into the PWHL. Like Janiga, a number of players who came out of the PWHL are now in the NWHL; Kelly Babstock and fellow Beaut Kristina Lavoie to name a couple.
Emily and I find almost immediate common ground when I ask her to tell me about any hockey heroes she may have had while growing up. “Family was a huge part, and still is a huge part of me and finding my motivation. I have always looked up to them. But specifically, I grew up watching the Sabres. We had season tickets and we only had two seats, so we each had a turn at going to the games. My dad would take me to one or two games a year. But my favorite Sabres player – Afinogenov”. Go figure – my favorite Sabre too; the only Buffalo Sabres jersey I have ever purchased was Maxim Afinogenov’s. Hearing this affirmation of Janiga’s instantly brings a smile to my face and a laugh, and I feel almost as if I am talking to an old friend. It is funny how things we have in common create bonds that we form with another person.
“I would always wear the number-61 on my jersey because of Afinogenov when I played as a kid. He was awesome!”, she says. “But as soon as I got his jersey though, he ended up leaving Buffalo (Afinogenov would play one season with the Atlanta Thrashers after not being re-signed by Buffalo in 2009). “Then it turned into every time I bought a jersey the player got traded”, she laughs. “So I had to stop buying jerseys. I bought Pat Kaleta’s, and then he was let go. So there was a family rule made – if anytime there was a favorite player of mine on the team, I wasn’t allowed to buy the jersey”.
Janiga would elect to attend college at Mercyhurst University, and she would become one of the program’s most decorated and accomplished players. Janiga is very humble, though not in a way that is not heartfelt or insincere – when she attributes her many successes to being surrounded by superb teammates, she means it truly and this rings loud and clear to me. “There were a lot of options. It’s hard when you’re thinking about where you want to go to school. When you think about where you want to spend the next four years, there are a lot of factors that play in. Definitely made a few visits all around; some close, some far. And Mercyhurst was the last school that I visited. As soon as I stepped foot onto campus, I was like ‘Mom. Dad. I want to go here’. Everything about it was perfect”.
While there are numerous items that she loves about Mercyhurst, Janiga seems most endeared by the community that comprises the school. “It’s a small community, and reminded me a lot of my high school. I went to Nichols, and that small community feel seemed to transfer over to Mercyhurst. The coaching too, and all of the success that they have had. But more so the community. It was just awesome. Everyone was there to help you move forward. Not just the hockey aspect, but with becoming a better person, to do better in school, and to become an all-around better hockey player”.
The comfort, the sense of home that Janiga found in the school’s community certainly paid immense dividends in how she was able to develop on the ice. When looking at Emily Janiga’s career as a Mercyhurst Laker, she averaged better than a point per game throughout her entire collegiate career; 72-goals and 79-assists for 151-points in only 141-games. That includes a junior year campaign in which she fired away 27-goals in 35-games, her highest goal scoring year out of her four as a Laker, 11-goals of which came on the powerplay while 5-goals were game winners.
The list of accolades that Janiga achieved while at Mercyhurst is tremendous, and some of the more noteworthy ones came during that phenomenal junior year when she was named the 2015 College Hockey America Player of the Year, was named a 2015 All-College Hockey America First Team selection, and won the 2015 College Hockey America scoring title. Other honors include a 2014 All-CHA First Team selection and being named to the 2013 All-CHA Rookie Team. During her first two seasons at Merychurst, 2013 and 2014, Janiga and the Lakers made it all the way to the NCAA’s Frozen Four tournament.
Janiga recalls, “The first couple of years making it to the Frozen Four was like, ‘Whoa! Look at this!’. We got to play in front of some really large crowds, and got to play in some huge games. Definitely got a lot of experience through that. One game that I remember specifically was against Cornell my freshman year”. The second overall ranked Cornell faced off against the Mercyhurst Lakers in the NCAA National Quarterfinals that year. “We were the underdogs going into it. We ended up beating them out even though they were higher seeded. We beat them in overtime (3-2) and I was out on the ice for it. A packed stadium. It was just a lot of fun. Definitely one of my most memorable games, especially in college”.
Looking at her numbers alone, I ask Janiga what qualities she possesses that made her such an effective player and an effective scorer for Mercyhurst. She points out that it was that team aspect, that togetherness as a hockey club that drew out her own individual success. “I wouldn’t exactly pin it to anything that I did in particular. I was very fortunate to play alongside some very talented players during my four years there. I definitely have to thank them for all of my success. My first year at Mercyhurst getting to play alongside Christine Bestland.
During Janiga’s freshman campaign, Bestland would tally an astounding 28-goals and 44-assists for 72-points in only 37-games. Flanked by Bestland, Janiga finished third overall in team scoring that year with 19-goals and 22-assists of her own. “That was a great opportunity for me. Any opportunity that I am given like that, I just take it and run with it”. I offer my sentiment that this “taking an opportunity and running with it” is very much apparent when she is out on the ice. Watching her play today, Janiga forechecks tenaciously and is quick to the attack after loose pucks. Any missed play by an opponent, Janiga capitalizes upon almost instantly. Opposing players need to not give her any opportunities out on the ice.
For a young girl from the Buffalo-area, who loves the game of hockey, who cheered on the Sabres and looked up to Maxim Afinogenov, could she have possibly thought that someday she too would play professional hockey in Buffalo? “No, not at all”, she laughs. The Buffalo Beauts selected Janiga 16th-overall in the 2015 NWHL draft in June of that year; their fourth selection. “Especially with how new it was. It started to come about my second year of college. It started closing in that I was graduating, and I started to think, ‘okay, what’s next for me? Is it time for me to move on, or do I have something more?’. Going into my junior and senior year, I started hearing talk about it (the NWHL). I thought, ‘Do I have this opportunity to play too?’. Then during my senior year the league started going on, and I am thinking, ‘This is awesome!’. Then when I got drafted, it was a really special moment for me”.
To look back on all of her efforts as a hockey player from childhood on up, and then to have it culminate into being drafted into the very first paid professional women’s league is perhaps a bit awe-inspiring for Janiga and the other players in the NWHL. A dream coming true, that not until recently could have been a reality for any of them. “I started getting messages from a lot of local players who I played with or grew up playing with years ago that I did not even think remembered me. Messages congratulating me and my family. It was really huge. They had a lot of support behind me, and so everything about this experience so far has been really memorable”. Once again, there are those warm underlying aspects of family and community wrapping around Emily Janiga, and helping to vault her to that next level in her career. I feel gladdened to know that not only does she have this immense support network, but that perhaps more so that she genuinely recognizes it, understands it, and appreciates it.
That being said, there is certainly an adjustment between making the jump from playing college hockey to the professional level in the NWHL; much the same way that college or major junior male hockey players describe their jump to the NHL. “The speed of it. Definitely. In college there were games that were faster paced games. Out there now (in the NWHL) it’s quick-quick-quick-quick passes; tic-tac-toe. You need to think quicker, move faster. I need to be quicker out there. I need to work on being more explosive of an athlete. Little things like that where I do not have as much time to react. Little things like that I have been focusing on both on and off the ice, in the weight room. Just trying to get that quicker mind out there”. Her efforts are certainly visible and her production mirrors that. 7-games into the 2016 NWHL season, Janiga has tallied 3-goals and an assist in 7-games for the Beauts; her 3-goals place her in the top-ten goal scorers in the league.
So much about the NWHL is building the game and the league for the next generation of players. The players strive for it, and do so well with interacting with an upcoming generation of players. It is visible at every game. Little girls need this. Positive role models who show them that they can be professional athletes too someday, regardless of gender. Despite the loss, this November 20th game is the Beauts annual “Teddy-Bear-Toss” game and many little girls are in attendance. I ask Janiga what it means seeing these youngsters in the crowd, cheering on she and the Beauts. “It’s awesome seeing them in the stands, and seeing them up against the glass, and reaching down for high-fives from us. You know, I think we get so caught up in the moment sometimes and in playing that we forget how much we are impacting their lives and how much fun they are having in the stands. We definitely do it for them. We do it for the younger athletes. We want to grow the game for them, and give them something to look up to. Just be good role models for them”. I do not think that anyone else could have explained it better.
In addition to having these youngsters cheering her on, there are other great things about playing professional hockey here in Buffalo. “Again, getting back to family. Playing in front of my family, being in my hometown. Having a lot of local support. It’s unbelievable, and I never thought I would be back here playing. Being gone for four years, I finally got to come back home with my parents. It’s very fortunate for me, and I am very blessed to have them in the stands”.
I leave Emily with one final question, and its a bit of a tough one – what would she say is the most important thing that hockey has taught her? “That’s a tough question, because it teaches you a lot. The biggest thing I think it teaches you is teamwork. We are not out here by ourselves. We’ve got each other’s backs out there and you’ve got to learn to work with 20-25 girls; if you don’t, you’re not going to be successful. But also hard work, determination. Learning to play with the team, and take on a role. Having this responsibility and learning to balance between family, when you’re in school learning to balance with school, and with friends, and still be committed. You don’t just show up at the rink. It’s a huge commitment. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t realize to get to this level, to get to college. We have to put in a lot of hard work and sacrifice a lot of things to get here”.
I do not think I could come across a better ambassador for hockey, particularly women’s hockey, than Emily Janiga. I believe that Emily has found that proper balance, and she puts the work in to maintain it. I mentioned a kindness in her that I noted. A sincere love and appreciation of family and all of the support they have shown her. Belief in community and how the right one fosters growth in a player, both personally and on the ice. It is a natural hat-trick of sorts. One that she has scored profoundly. Emily imbues what a hockey player should be about, and what the game can teach us. She exemplifies what it means to be a professional hockey player, a Buffalo Beaut, and a Buffalonian. And as a remarkable person as you will ever meet, and for that, I am grateful. The hockey community is too.