Starting in Saskatoon, Emily Clark and Sophie Shirley share a similar path to Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey
The way that Sophie Shirley recalls it, she was 6 or 7 years old when the Emily Clark influence on her hockey career started.
At that point, Clark was still a youth player herself in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but clearly on the road to something big.
Big enough that Shirley remembers looking up to her at that early age.
“I knew her when she didn’t even know me,” Shirley said with a grin.
So it’s probably no coincidence that Shirley took a strikingly similar path from Saskatoon to the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team as Clark did four years earlier.
Same youth program. Same high school team. Same national-level experience.
Both forwards, they’ve practiced together and trained together but have never before been true teammates. That changes this season when they’re among the most anticipated additions — or, in Clark’s case, returns — to the Badgers roster in years.
A year ago, Shirley was starting a season that would end with her as the rookie of the year in Canada’s pro league. A year ago, Clark was starting the road to fulfilling the dream of playing in the Olympics.
They’re two of the intriguing stories with the second-ranked Badgers in a season where they’ll chase a record fourth straight Western Collegiate Hockey Association title and a record-tying sixth consecutive Frozen Four appearance.
It starts Friday when they play non-conference foe Lindenwood at LaBahn Arena.
Clark had to reacquaint herself with UW and Madison when she returned this summer after her Olympic redshirt season. In some ways, she felt like Shirley and the rest of the freshmen.
No one on the roster, however, has the resume that Clark brings back to the Badgers. Her Olympics experience didn’t finish with the prize she wanted — Canada won silver after a shootout loss to the U.S. — but the season-long build-up to the competition made her stronger.
“Having all last year to be completely immersed in hockey definitely helped me grow as a hockey player,” said Clark, UW’s talented top-line center. “And being with an older group helped me grow as a person. So I think being around those women and the standards that they have — we have high standards here, but I learned a lot from those girls, things day-in, day-out that I hope I can bring back.”
Shirley initially was scheduled to be a UW freshman last season but had admissions difficulties. Taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows for competition in pro leagues before the start of a player’s college career, she skated with the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Known as a seemingly effortless skater while playing with her age group, Shirley had to adjust for the higher level of play.
“I was a young 18-year-old going into the league with players around me who were 30, 40 years old,” she said. “It was quite a jump, and I think I matured a lot as a player. And I think that will really help me moving forward with this team and in this league.”
Shirley and Clark stand to be major parts of a Badgers team that’s impressively deep. Forward Annie Pankowski returns from an Olympic redshirt year motivated to prove people wrong after she was left off the U.S. team.
The defensive corps, deemed inexperienced at the start of last season, has turned that around and starts 2018-19 with a veteran core. Goalie Kristen Campbell made her mark in her first year with the Badgers as a top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award.
And UW hasn’t fully shed the bad taste of coming home empty-handed from the Frozen Four for a fifth straight season last March.
Amid an improved national landscape, the Badgers will try to change that with Clark and Shirley, who have grown accustomed to the mentor/mentee roles in their history together.
Clark played on a pee-wee team with one of Shirley’s older brothers and trained with another, so their families have known each other for years. Both Clark and Shirley played for the Saskatoon Stars, then the Okanagan Hockey Academy and in camps with Hockey Canada.
“There’s definitely different routes to get to the national team and achieve those goals,” Clark said. “But I think it’s pretty special that we’ve been able to follow the same path.”
There’s a chance that the shared route could extend beyond UW.
“Maybe four years from now we’ll see (Shirley) in the Olympics, similar to the way we saw Emily work to get herself in position to do that,” Badgers coach Mark Johnson said.
Clark, who enters her redshirt senior season with 118 points in 111 collegiate games, can see it happening for Shirley.
“I want her to be able to accomplish everything that I have and even be better than me,” she said. “I want nothing but big things for her.”