It's funny how one little decision can rewrite the script entirely. It can completely change the path of a person, the culture of a program and in this case- even the hockey spirit of a nation.
One split-second conclusion that Emma Maltais chuckles about still to this day.
"I wanted to be a gymnast," chuckled Maltais. "I remember when I was really young, I tried out for the gymnastics team; I thought that's what I wanted to do. It turned out I didn't make it, so my dad said okay, she's playing hockey. The gymnastics team actually called back and said now we want you and my parents were like, nope it's too late. I started playing hockey right after that and ever since then I just fell in love with the game and have never looked back."
At this point thank you cards from anyone associated with the Ohio State women's hockey team, addressed to that gymnastics coach, are probably in order.
"We were talking about that just last week," added Ohio State head coach Nadine Muzerall. "It's pretty cool when you think about how one little thing can shape someone's future like that. It definitely played a big part in what Buckeye hockey is like today and the tradition that has been built."
In other words, Emma Maltais is a game changer and a program builder. When she was two Maltais remembers the smile she got on her face every time she laced up her skates and hit the ice. She had no interest in crawling, she wanted to skate. That level of determination propelled her through the youth hockey ranks, playing for both girls and boys programs while honing her skills as a scorer and a leader.
First the scorer.
Over the span of three seasons (2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17) and prior to her time at Ohio State, the Burlington, Ont., product registered 142 points over 92 games for the Oakville Hornets of Ontario's Provincial Women's Hockey League. By the time she finished her Hornet career, Maltais was their all-time leading scorer. The talent was obvious to anyone and everyone who stopped and watched her; including representatives of Hockey Canada. In 2015-16 and 2016-17, Maltais was invited to play for Team Canada's U-18 Team. It was during one of those national team tryouts when Muzerall, a hockey legend throughout women's hockey circles across the United States and Canada, first saw Maltais play. She will never forget what she saw.
"She was 16 years old and that's when I first met her," recalled Muzerall. "The first time I saw her she was playing for Team Canada during tryouts and what stood out right away was her speed and her strength. She wasn't very big, so she had to play big. That's what I noticed right away. With that, she had a lot of speed and strength. You could just tell she was special."
Fortunately for Muzerall it would not be the last time their paths would cross.
In September 2016 Nadine Muzerall was named head coach of an Ohio State women's hockey program that was struggling. Not only was Muzerall the third head coach in as many years but the former University of Minnesota standout was tasked with the challenge of stripping the program down and completely changing the culture.
Known for her intense determination and dedication to the game, her first challenge was to root out the problems one by one. As she puts it, arguably the main thing that needed to change was the general attitude within the program. Her plan? Seek out and attract the right mix of skill and maturity required to turn ordinary into exceptional. Seek out and attract players like Emma Maltais.
At the time, Maltais had already committed to play hockey at Ohio State but she had committed under the previous coaching staff and word started to spread that the coaching change may be enough to sway Maltais and her family's mind about OSU. Other programs were trying to re-open that door, and quickly.
"I wasn't the original recruiter for Emma," remarked Muzerall. "But I had to convince her to come to OSU because there was so much shuffling around going on with all of the coaches, so I had to re-recruit her to come back to Ohio State. Her mom and dad were concerned a little with things like who are you? How do we know you are going to stay unlike the others and what are you going to do?
"I remember speaking with Emma's mom, Jennifer, and talking about her concerns which I totally understood. I'm a mother myself so I got where she was coming from. We had to take care of her baby daughter and who was I as a person and as a coach. They knew of me but just because you hear the name you don't actually know the person. I walked her through my philosophy and why I was taking the job."
It worked and a new chapter of Buckeye hockey was officially underway.
It was another decision that changed a player, a coach, a program and so much more. It took her teammates exactly one practice to realize what Maltais could do on the ice. It took Muzerall and her staff just seconds to realize that she and her fellow freshmen were the right anchors they needed to stabilize a program.
"I got the full support from our captains at the time and then the support from the elite players- players like Emma who want to make the next level, who want to go and play for their country's colors; they didn't have a problem with it," continued Muzerall. "They have a different maturity in terms of athletics and are willing to do what it takes to get to that next level."
It took Ohio State Buckeye fans one game to see that Maltais and her classmates were different.
In her first regular season game in an OSU uniform the eventual 2018 WCHA Rookie of the Year tallied two assists helping the Buckeyes to a convincing 4-1 win over RPI. The following day she tallied her first collegiate goal. Since the fall of 2017 it's been a consistent pattern that time and time again rings true- when Maltais puts her imprint on the game her squad typically skates away with a victory.
Now in her junior season the numbers tell quite the success story. Ohio State is 32-4-3 when Maltais scores at least one goal in a game and is 47-13-7 when she registers at least one point. Maybe more telling; when she does not appear on the scoresheet Ohio State is 7-15-3.
With the numbers have come numerous individual accolades including All-WCHA First Team accolades the last two seasons, a slew of WCHA weekly and monthly awards and a growing reputation of excellence within the league, throughout college hockey and beyond. This season, Maltais is currently fourth in the WCHA in scoring and has only been held without a point five times in 18 games. As a team, Ohio State is 10-4-4 overall (6-3-3 WCHA) and is ranked fifth in the nation.
"I don't know if I have always had a knack for scoring," Maltais said. "I would consider my strongest strength being able to see the ice and understand the game and I think that has come along with some of the great coaches I have had; people like Bradi Cochrane. She really took me under her wing when I played junior hockey (Oakville Hornets) and I started thinking about the game and the little steps; things like which way does the defense cheat and where do I have to go in order to beat them and things like that," "When I transitioned to Ohio State with coach Muzerall she helped me even more. Being around some great hockey minds and playing alongside some of the best players around has just resulted in me being in the right place at the right time."
Being in the right place at the right time is something easier said than done. Just ask her coach. As a puckster for the University of Minnesota from 1997-2001, Muzerall finished her Gopher career with an eye-popping 139 goals (most in program history) and 235 points (third all-time). A two-time Patty Kazmaier Award finalist, Muzerall played on one national championship team as a player and later moved behind the bench as a U of M assistant where she helped coach the Golden Gophers to four more titles. In other words, she knows more than most that "being in the right place at the right time" takes more than luck. Some call it hockey IQ, Maltais describes it as instinct. Whatever "it" is, it goes way beyond a well-placed shot or the skill behind the flick of a wrist. There is a certain level of maturity that goes along with balancing the back and forth tug of war between time and space (or lack thereof); between opportunity and danger.
However, you describe it or whatever you call it; that special talent is unlocking doors Maltais has been knocking on ever since she could remember. The largest and most impressive was just opened up earlier this month. For the first time Maltais was asked to play for Canada's Senior National Team in a two-game exhibition series against the United States in early November. Maltais was the second-youngest player on the roster meaning while it may have been her first senior national team experience, it most likely won't be her last. Not too shabby for someone who once wished to fly to new heights on the vault as opposed to the rink.
"A lot of people don't see the little things Emma does and that's why I think she's different," commented Muzerall. "Everyone talks about the Minnesota girls and the Wisconsin girls and all these goals and points that those players are putting up but sometimes you don't see the little things; you don't see the things that Hockey Canada has seen. She was on the Senior National Team and made that squad over a lot of those other players and that's because she does those little things, it's not always just the offense. She's not going to go to Hockey Canada and score all these goals and score all these points. Her goal is completely different and that's what they see in her.
"For me, it's more of understanding the game of hockey," added Muzerall. "It's her hockey IQ and she does all the little things well and she is a 200-foot hockey player. Some of these players who you always read about and are on the scoresheet are like a blueline on-in player. Emma is a 200-foot hockey player.
"Also, it's her mental toughness. We focus on that a lot at OSU, that mental strength to excel. Having that toughness and saying there is no way you're going to beat me to that puck in the corner or there is no way you're going to take that stick from me; there is no way that puck is getting past me and I'm going to block that shot. She has those little things going on inside of her brain as the game is going on. Her mindset is I might be small, but I am going to fight. She just doesn't back down. A lot of players have a bark but she has a bite."
"The mental piece of it is huge," commented Maltais. "Not only during the game but before and after as well. Mental toughness is something I have had to really work on the last few years, just trying to mature my game and I think that's really important. I believe I could have even introduced that earlier in my career, but I am fortunate to have brought that mindset to my game now and it's helped me. Things like points are something that is really hard to predict because sometimes the puck comes your way and other times it doesn't. I think if I set little goals that are achievable in every game such as am I moving my feet quick enough or am I taking the puck to the net; am I being a good teammate? Those are the goals I try to focus on. The little goals, even beyond winning games and just going shift by shift, that's what leads to success in the end."
It's a mindset, the same mindset that Muzerall asked her freshman class to adopt back in 2017 and live by. And they have. Now looking back on things two and a half years later, it probably shouldn't be a surprise that after being handed the program's torch, Maltais and company helped lead the Buckeyes to the Frozen Four in their first season in Columbus. It probably shouldn't be a surprise that through her first three years Muzerall led OSU to 58 wins, the most my any coach in program history through three seasons. It's not a surprise that the ghosts of OSU women's hockey past are now doing handstands and summersaults in honor of Maltais and her teammates who have seemingly turned the program around.
"I remember I was remodeling my house before I took the job and I learned a lot from that- the first being, don't ever do that again," laughed Muzerall. "What I tell a lot of our recruits at OSU is this program is like building my house. The foundation of the house was really good to start with but things just needed to be remodeled. I went in with a great foundation already in place with the name of Ohio State being the pinnacle of athletics in the entire country. When it came to the women's hockey program, I just needed to remodel it. With Emma and Tatum (Skaggs), Liz Schepers, Lisa Bruno; they came in and we were like this is how it has to be to win. We saw success that first year. We went to the Frozen Four because they all bought in and they have continued to help mold the culture here into what it is and what it needs to be.
"I knew it was that class that would have to take control and withstand this culture change over the next four years to keep the tradition going for the future. They were the ones who would have to give us that identity."
"An identity is hard to think about and talk about," concluded Maltais. "I think words like relentless and selflessness are two words that I always want to live by. Also being loyal, I think loyalty is a huge thing. I picked Ohio State because I knew that building a culture around a team that wasn't so successful to begin with, if you work on it and build relationships; that's what is most important and that's what will lead to a successful team and I want to be a part of that. I think Ohio State is an amazing school and an amazing program and I want to be remembered by my teammates as someone who can be counted on at all times and being a big part of the culture we have built here."
When her playing days are over Emma Maltais will be remembered for that and so much more.