If you had told Detroit Lakes senior Emma Wahl last year that she’d be playing her senior hockey season between the pipes as a goalie, she would’ve called you crazy. In fact, she wasn’t sure she’d be playing at all.
The Detroit Lakes girls hockey team came into this season missing the biggest piece of the puzzle: a goalie. Wahl, who had played hockey from a young age, had limited experience strapping on the pads.
“I played backup goalie for a couple of games in U12s,” Wahl said. “That was my only goalie experience. I had fun. It’s a very interesting position, but I didn’t play it other than that.”
Wahl played hockey at the junior varsity level until her junior season. That’s when she stepped away from the rink and wasn’t sure if she was going to come back. Detroit Lakes Girls Hockey Coach Scott Piepkorn showed off his negotiation tactics to not only get her to come back, but to play goalie.
“I told Pep that if he got me a new helmet, I would play goalie. Next thing I know is him showing up with this goalie helmet,” Wahl said. “One day, in practice, I made a joke about being a “brick wall.” The next day, when I got to the rink, Pep had put a ‘Brick Wahl’ decal on my helmet. He made it himself on his cricket machine. He does little thoughtful things like this on a regular basis. However, most of the time, it goes unnoticed or without a thank you.”
Wahl’s junior year in high school didn’t go according to plan. She struggled with her mental health and decided that hockey wasn’t in the cards. Her connection with her head coach made her feel comfortable coming back when she felt ready.
“His main concern was for my happiness and well-being,” Wahl said of Piepkorn. “He told me to come back when I was ready, and my spot on the team would remain. He has been here for me since I’ve known him. Not only has he shown he cares about me, but he cares about the team. He puts his all into his job as our coach. We are his family. He has turned this program around. Not just by updating our locker room and the gear, but also he’s changed the dynamic amongst the team, as well. He gives so much, if not all, of his time to our team, and I am very grateful for that.”
Playing goalie takes years of practice to be able to compete at the varsity level, but Wahl only had a few weeks.
“It’s scary when you realize a lot of the game depends on you,” Wahl said. “It’s scary, but it’s also really fun. It’s such an adrenaline rush. I like to push myself to see if I can do this or that. I like to see what kind of saves I can make. I think I’m getting better.”
It took a few tries, but on Dec. 2, the Lakers got her first win of the season. The Lakers beat Prairie Centre 8-5 in a game where Wahl made 17 saves to secure her first every varsity victory as a goalie.
“The attitude for us is to just go out there and have fun,” Wahl said. “We need to work on the basics of hockey. I try to do the best I can. We’ve won three games, and we all try to do our best. Getting that first win was pretty exciting.”
Wahl’s expectations for this season were to make the most of a unique opportunity. For most goalies, a .752 save percentage and a goals-against-average of 10 would be a sign of a struggling year. But for Wahl, it’s an indictment of her courage to try something new even though the odds are stacked against her.
“I remember being at captain’s practices and thinking, ‘How did I get roped into this?’” Wahl said. “It was a struggle, but I’ve kind of fallen in love with it. It’s so much fun. I wish I would’ve played goalie the whole time. We were at a youth practice earlier (on Tuesday), and I told the goalie to stick with it because it’s a fun position.”
Senior Emma Coley, who leads the Lakers with 19 goals, started playing hockey a little later in her childhood. When she was 10 years old, she looked for a new sport to play. That’s where Wahl stepped in and convinced her to play hockey.
After seeing her take a year off from hockey, Coley feels fortunate to share her senior year with the teammate that got her involved in the sport.
“She’s a very special part of this team,” Coley said of Wahl. “She tries so hard even though she’s new. She’s gaining that confidence every day. It’s amazing that she came out and did this for us. She just means a lot to this team and to all of us.”
“They’re super understanding,” Wahl said of her teammates. “Everyone has been really nice and supportive of me stepping up. I’m the only goalie, so I feel like this team needs me in my position. I like being there for my team and my friends. I need to stay healthy and be at practice every day for them.”
On Tuesday night, Wahl stopped 52 shots in a 22-0 loss to Fargo North-South. It was the latest in a stretch of tough games for the Lakers. However, Wahl only has one regret about coming back to the game of hockey.
“I have always loved hockey, and I wanted to make the most of my senior year,” Wahl said. “I wanted to come back to this team, and I knew we were short-numbered. I’m glad I came back. The only regret I have is that I didn’t play goalie sooner.”