After dabbling in a little figure skating at nine years old, Emily Wilburn traded in her leotard for pads, joined the youth hockey club in her hometown of Stockton, Calif. and immediately dove in.
“I did a little figure skating when I was really little, but I didn’t like it,” said Wilburn, a 19-year-old junior and a center on the SF State Gators Hockey Club. “But then I tried on hockey skates, and that was a lot cooler.”
Though collegiate ice hockey is a sport divided by the line of gender, with 20 different schools boasting separate men’s and women’s ice hockey teams in the NCAA, SF State is home to a female player in the male-dominated Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association this season.
Wilburn grew up just a few minutes away from an ice rink in Stockton, and that’s where she began her 10-year-and-counting love affair with hockey. This love affair took her all over California, including the Sharks Girls team in San Jose and even Southern California.
“There was a group of some other girls from Norcal who didn’t have a team, so we’d go down every other weekend for games,” Wilburn said of playing for teams like the Lady Ducks in Pasadena and Anaheim.
But in all, Wilburn said she only played four seasons on women’s teams. The rest of her hockey career was on male-dominated squads, like the team she is now joining at SF State.
“Nobody even batted an eye. They were like, ‘Okay we have a girl. Welcome to the team,’” she said.
Team President Andrew Duenes said the Gators’ visibility on campus helped them recruit Wilburn.
“During the fall semester, sometimes we would all hang out by the rec field and pass the puck to each other,” Duenes said. “She actually approached some of the guys because they had their jerseys on and she said, ‘Oh, I want to join.’”
Wilburn got her first experience as a Gator playing some pick-up scrimmages against San Jose State last spring. Her years of experience showed immediately, impressing players on both benches.
“You honestly wouldn’t know, if you didn’t know she was a girl,” said left-winger Matt Gold. “I overheard a conversation from a couple guys from San Jose State that were like, ‘Did you realize number 7 on the ice was a girl?’ and the other person was just completely baffled.”
Gold praised Wilburn’s speed and aggression on the ice, noting that she dominated on the faceoff dot and showed off her playmaking abilities despite going scoreless through the scrimmages.
Ryan Murnane, a 24-year-old Gator defenseman with 14 years of hockey experience, heaped praise on Wilburn as well.
“She’s a really good center,” Murnane said. “She won 90 percent of the faceoffs she had against San Jose State. I think Emily is kind of a utility player, you put her with anyone and she’s going to help them.”
Although women’s hockey is not full-contact, Wilburn said her experience on boy’s clubs should have her ready for the hard checking she’ll face in the PCHA. Duenes said he saw Wilburn take a couple hard hits in the scrimmages against San Jose State, and she popped right back up.
“That’s definitely a disadvantage for me, that I’m one of the smallest people on the team,” Wilburn said, but added, “I’ve got a pretty good game understanding. That’s my strength.”