In about a month, the world’s best women’s hockey players will face off in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Many hockey fans will be following along, rooting for their home countries. Emily Curlett, a Michigan native and first-year defender for Robert Morris, will be paying especially close attention to the play of Team USA in the tournament.
In addition to national pride, Team USA has a special meaning for Curlett. In 2016, she was invited to the USA Hockey select 66 camp. That gave her a taste of what representing her country was like and made her hungry for more. It also gave her opportunities for growth in her game, something that has been extremely helpful in the time since.
“Honestly, the more I’ve grown up, the more thankful I am that I was able to actually go to that camp and experience that,” she said. “It helped me to understand that it’s definitely my goal of where I want to be. If I didn’t get exposed to that, I wouldn’t really understand what they expected and where I needed to be and what level I needed to play at. I think that was so huge for me to actually see that to know where I need to get to be at that level.”
Curlett will only be able to watch the athletes on the team she aspires to be on one day on TV in the Olympics. However, she was lucky enough to see the team play in person last year in the Women’s World Championships. The tournament was held in Plymouth, Mich., which is about an hour from her hometown.
It was an exciting experience getting to see the team play in front of a full stadium and witness such a high-intensity game in person. Michigan has offered Curlett many opportunities to play and watch the game. Growing up, she followed in the footsteps of her dad and brothers as she began to play the game.
“Both my brothers and my dad played hockey when I was little, and I’m the youngest, so naturally, when I saw my dad and my brothers on skates, I wanted to play,” she said. “So, I started skating when I was about 4, and then I started on my first team when I was 7 or 8, and I’ve been playing ever since.”
The family ties also prevailed in her rooting interests as a hockey fan. Her dad is a long-time Red Wings fan, and passed that down to his children. As she grew up, Curlett always took notice of a certain puck-moving defender on the team.
“Growing up, my favorite player was probably (Nicklas) Lidstrom,” she said. “I didn’t really have a higher appreciation of him until I was a little bit older because I actually understood that he was a phenomenal player. But I loved the way that he played, and just his style, he was an amazing player.”
Now a freshman at Robert Morris, the number five on her jersey is not the only similarity one will find between her and her childhood favorite player. Much like Lidstrom, Curlett has demonstrated an outstanding ability to move the puck, jump into the rush and especially shoot the puck as a defender.
Now a solid defender at the Division I level, Curlett actually is relatively new to the position. She only transitioned to defense at age 12, which was coincidentally her first year playing girls hockey. Her innate offensive nature has remained in her game today, but it was definitely something that took some adjusting over the years.
“If you ask anyone I’ve ever played with, it’s definitely something that’s always been there,” she said. “I started out as a forward, so it kind of was in my blood. And then I became a defenseman, and it kind of carried over. It’s taken me this long to kind of tone it down and kind of embed it in my game and use it to my advantage instead of it being a negative aspect of my game.”
She has definitely used it to her advantage to this point in her rookie season. Through 19 games, she has five goals and six assists for 11 points. Her solid play on both sides of the ice has resulted in her playing consistently in the top 4 on defense, and earning both powerplay and penalty kill time. Her ability to contribute to the team has definitely been evident to associate head coach Logan Bittle.
“She has a tireless work ethic which has allowed her to jump into college hockey and not miss a beat,” associate head coach Logan Bittle said. “She continues to work at her craft, and it continues to show on the ice. She has been a great addition to our program both on and off the ice.”
The offensive trait that really stands out is her shot. Curlett exhibits an impressive ability to take hard, accurate shots, especially one-timers. This has proved to be a valuable weapon in all situations, but especially on the power play. She has scored two such goals this year. One of those came this past weekend against Syracuse, right off the draw, as you can see below.
Curlett credits one thing to that impressive shooting ability: practice.
“I think it just has to do with focusing on it and making sure you put time into it,” she said. “I definitely love to practice, so it’s kind of easy to practice it (my shot). I definitely want that to be a huge part of my game because toning down offensively actually makes me need to get better at skills like shooting from the blue line. Instead of having to do it myself, I can kind of accomplish things by having a good, accurate shot.
“I just think practice is the biggest thing with that. If I hadn’t put so much time into making it as good as it is and continuing to make it better, it wouldn’t be where it is right now.”
Her transition to college has included using her shot more, as opposed to trying to take the puck to the net herself. Given the structure and intensity in college hockey, there is much less room for error, and defensive responsibility is essential. That took some getting used to, but she was able to learn by example. Much like she followed in the footsteps of her dad and brothers in her early hockey days, Curlett followed in the strides of her fellow defenders on the Colonials.
As the only first-year defender regularly in the lineup, she has five experienced teammates to lean on for advice every game. One person who has helped her out in particular is her defensive partner, junior Maggie LaGue. LaGue is a similar type of defender, with a strong two-way ability. Playing with someone who has a similar playing style, but more games under her belt, has been extremely valuable.
“I can’t stress enough how much I love playing with her,” Curlett said. “Especially because she is, like you said, similar to me, but at the same time, she has so much more experience than me. Especially because she is one of our go-to players for power play or penalty kill. I look to learn from her whenever I can, as far as when to have patience and how to use her offense, but how she can also be such a stable defenseman. That’s something that I definitely try to learn from to improve that aspect of my own game.”
LaGue, Curlett and the rest of the Colonials defense corps have all exhibited an outstanding offensive ability so far this season. Currently, all of the defenders sit in the top 17 among CHA defenders in points, including four of the top six. Junior Kirsten Welsh leads the conference with 16 points, LaGue is second with 13, Curlett has 11 and senior Katherine Murphy has nine.
The willingness of the defenders to jump into the play and contribute offensively is noticeable game in and game out for the Colonials. While their individual talent plays a role in this, Curlett credits the entire team for allowing this to occur.
“I think it has to do with the team around us,” she said. “We’ve got some really high-powered forwards up front, and I think having that help as well as our own talent and our own work ethic as far as being offensive and being active in the game. And then our practice habits, our coaches definitely stress shooting hard, shooting accurate, getting the puck on net, creating havoc in front of the net with our shots; I think it all kind of works together to help us all get good scoring chances and helping our team get points on the board.”
The Colonials are a disciplined, determined group, and are on track to build upon the success that last year’s team had. Curlett and her classmates have jumped right in and embraced the winning culture that was established last year. The fact that everyone is working for the same goal is something that has made this Colonials team especially exciting to play on for her.
“As a team, we all want to win a ring. We all want a national championship,” she said. “The girls got a CHA ring last year. The people who were on the team last year, and I know all of us freshmen are hungry for it. We definitely are moving forward looking for that CHA championship, and then we want to be in the Final Four and we want to win a national championship.”
As she works toward helping her team achieve this goal, it will allow her to further develop and improve her game. She has already had her eyes opened to what kind of player she can become in her first 19 collegiate games. Moving forward, she hopes to take everything in and work toward her ultimate personal goal for her career.
“Personally, I definitely just want to become the best player that I can,” she said. “This year I’ve really especially seen that there’s a lot of potential that I can’t see but my coaches can see. I definitely want to do whatever I can to tap into that. My end result is to be a national team player. There’s nothing that I would love more than to represent my country, in college or out of college. I just think that would be the greatest thing.”