After a four-year career at Yale University, Emma Vlasic took her talents to the NWHL and the Connecticut Whale this season and both the franchise and league couldn’t be happier to have her as a part of their families. After back-to-back seasons with 17 points to end her collegiate career, where she was named team captain as a senior, she was the Whale’s no. 1 center almost from day one.
As a rookie she led the Whale in goals (9), face-offs taken and won, power-play goals (2), led all forwards on the team in blocked shots (20), and was third on the team in points (9). Vlasic was also named an All-Star, was on the winning team in the Relay Challenge, and picked up her first two assists of the season in the All-Star Game.
Whale to Yale
Those Yale kids are pretty smart, so she saved her real first assists for the playoffs and assisted on the final three goals for Connecticut in a 5-3 playoff win over the Buffalo Beauts on March 6. We spoke with the 23-year-old Vlasic via phone to get her thoughts on her rookie season, the future of the Whale, and more.
The Hockey Writers: Looking back at your season, how would you asses it?
Emma Vlasic: I thought as a team we really improved a lot over the course of the season. I was really impressed with how we developed as a group and you really saw how we came together over our last couple of games. In (our playoff game in) Buffalo I really thought we really put together a team effort (to get that win) and that displayed how much we had improved over the course of the season. That was really special to be a part of.
For me personally in my first year in the league, it was a tough regular season, but the way we came together at the end was great. The Boston game on Semifinal Sunday we were only down 2-1 heading into the later stages of the third period. It was a special experience for me being a part of that and it makes you hopeful for the future.
THW: Your team had a lot of trouble with Buffalo this season, but all of your games against them were very early in the season. How good did it feel to finally beat them?
EV: Yeah, we hadn’t played them since November I wanna say, so it was a little weird how we never saw them again until the opening game of the playoffs. Once we knew that we would be playing them we were confident that we had gotten better since then, that we were better than the team was back in October and November. We wanted to show that, and I think that’s what made it special; it was good to see from our group.
THW: That game against the Beauts in the playoffs ended up being against a completely different goalie (Léa-Kristine Demers). We’re curious as to how you approach preparing for a scenario like that?
EV: Our assistant coach Laura Brennan was a goalie so she does the goalie scouting for us and will talk us through it a little bit. She gives us a little bit of a preview but other than that I try not to change too much. You take the hints from Laura and try to follow your instincts when/if you get the puck around the net. I don’t change too much but it’s nice to have a bit of a pre-scout before you hit the ice.
THW: How do you feel your game evolved from training camp to the semifinal game?
EV: It was a good learning experience for me. Just like the team, in general, I tried to improve my game throughout the course of the season. The first couple of weeks was just figuring things out, adjusting to the pace, the speed, the physicality. Watching the video of our games was a big thing for me, seeing where I could improve my game. The biggest thing for me is just confidence with the puck and I’ve made that a thing to work as the season went on. Obviously the teams are improving as well which makes things more difficult to get done down the stretch. You just keep working on it and for me personally and the team we had good development this season. This is a physical, fast-paced game, and it was a lot of fun. Playing against teams like Boston and Minnesota – those are very fast games you have to make mental decisions quickly and you have to know where the play is going to be prior to getting the puck.
THW: You’re from Illinois, but played collegiately and now as a pro in Connecticut. What is your day job?
EV: I work for a company in Stamford, its an investment research firm. I work there during the day and it was a great experience, I’m grateful to be there I learned a lot. When I moved back out to Connecticut for the NWHL season in September I interviewed there and was hired around mid-November. I’m back home in Illinois right now, but working for them remotely while we are social distancing and I’m excited to get back to Connecticut.
THW: As a first-year player did the league surpass your expectations prior to the start of the season?
EV: I definitely think it did. For me comparing it to my experience in college it’s a bigger stage and more people are paying attention. Yale was definitely a great experience but coming into the NWHL and we get all of these sponsorships, the fans you see in the stands. It’s crazy, I was surprised in a good way of how crazy people are for the league and the women’s game. It was really encouraging to see and I think it only allows us to grow more in the future.
THW: One of the highlights of the season was the All-Star Game in Boston, now that you’ve had some time to reflect on it what was the experience like for you?
EV: It was such an honor to represent the Connecticut Whale and my teammates, and it was a fun experience. It’s cool to meet a lot of the other girls that you’re usually playing and competing against in the league. It was nice to be on the same team as some of them. It was great to share the ice with some of the best players in the world too, and fun to spend that weekend with some of my Whale teammates.
THW: The Whale may have had a disappointing season record-wise, but as you mentioned the team really grew over the course of the season. You have to feel like you have a good foundation to build on going forward with players like yourself and goaltender Brooke Wolejko having such good rookie seasons, and maybe next season the group can hit the ground running right?
EV: Oh yeah, for sure. That was what we immediately talked about as a group after the season ended. We saw the potential that we have and if we start that way next season it will allow us to be that much better. We had close games with the best teams in the league and we plan to be right up there and beating those teams next year. That’s the kind of development we expect out of this organization. Like you said we have a nice foundation of players – to see the development of Brooke over the course of the season was amazing. She easily turned into one of the best, if not the best goalies in the league. After seeing what we are capable of we just have to put that into a full season next year and I’m excited to see what that looks like.
THW: You grew up in Illinois, but your cousin Marc-Edouard Vlasic plays for the San Jose Sharks. So are you a Hawks fan or a Sharks fan?
EV: A little bit of both. I’d say right now a bigger Sharks fan because he’s been playing there longer and I’ve developed a liking to some of the other players on that team. I’d probably say Sharks but definitely still a Chicago Blackhawks fan, especially now with my brother coming up through that system.
THW: You mentioned your younger brother Alex who the Blackhawks drafted this past June. He plays defense and you’re a forward, so what were those games like growing up?
EV: They were always a lot of fun (laughs). Our dad would build an ice rink in our backyard and I was always the forward coming down one-on-one on him as the defenseman. Even though I was a couple of years older he was still very good at a young age. It was a lot of fun, we are all very competitive in this house so it makes for some fun hockey. We try to work out together when we are both at home. Seeing his development has been amazing. My older brother is a goalie so growing up we all played our position and it worked out.
THW: For your family, it had to be the ultimate dream come true to see Alex get drafted by your hometown team right?
EV: Yeah it was definitely surreal. We were sitting there at the draft and when Chicago called him it was like – this is crazy! We were all so happy for him. That’s the team that everyone around here grows up rooting for. Thinking about him maybe sharing the ice one day with the guys on our hometown team, I think it’s still sinking in for us. My parents were very surprised, but also so proud like I am.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.