By Mick Hatten
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — There is a view of hockey players born in Minnesota is that they are born with skates on their feet and begin skating before they can walk.
Emma Polusny was born into a non-hockey playing family and did not start playing the sport until — gasp — she was 9. She had friends encourage her to try hockey and she admits that the game did not come easily to her when she started.
“I was playing in U10s and I was a skater and I was a terrible skater, terrible stickhandler, couldn’t shoot, couldn’t pass, but I had fun with it,” Polusny said with a laugh. “After that first year of U10s, I started splitting time as a goalie and I continued splitting until I was 11 or 12, playing both (hockey) player and goalie. I didn’t commit to playing just goalie until I was at least 12.
“By that time, a lot of people I was playing with had already been playing hockey for seven years,” said Polusny, who is from Mound, Minn. “Minnesota, it’s really common that as soon as they can walk, they’ve got the skates out on the pond. That wasn’t the case for me. But I think because I was the one that chose hockey — it wasn’t something my parents chose for me — that is part of the reason why I continue to love it so much today and it continues to be something really important to me in my life and to me as a person growing up.”
The late start has not kept 20-year-old goalie from some pretty big accomplishments. Polusny helped Mound Westonka High School reach its first two Class A state girls hockey tournaments in 2013 and 2017 and she was an All-WCHA Third Team selection as a freshman for St. Cloud State in 2017-18, when she set school records for goals-against average (2.20) and shutouts in a season (4) with the 10th-best save percentage (.934) in NCAA Division I.
Polusny is also making her way up the ranks in USA Hockey. In 2018, she played in her first game (against Sweden) for the women’s senior team in the Four Nations Cup. This summer, she was the No. 3 goalie for the senior team that won the gold medal at the IIHF World Championships in Espoo, Finland, and then was named to Team USA for the Under-22 Select Team. For the U-22 team, she played in two games against Canada in August, helping the Americans win two out of three in a series in Lake Placid, N.Y., stopping 37 out of 40 shots (.925 save percentage).
“I think this was another big step for me because I was never part of the (USA) Under-18 team growing up,” said Polusny, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds. “Last year was my first year of being invited to try out for the U-22s and I didn’t make the cut.
“This year was awesome for me to make the Under-22 team and get to play Canada for the first time. It was kind of an awesome experience to join the rivalry that’s existed between the U.S. and Canada. If you can be a part of that rivalry in any way, it’s a pretty cool experience.”
During the three-game series against Canada, Polusny split time with Northeastern goalie Aerin Frankel. Splitting time with another goalie has not been unusual for Polusny in college.
When Polusny joined the Huskies, goalie Janine Alder was coming off a season in which she played 31 games and was named to the All-WCHA Rookie Team. Alder, 24, has been a member of Switzerland’s last two Olympic hockey teams and has been a mentor for Polusny.
“Trying to replicate what you see from her as a young goalie, it really creates good habits that start making the possibility of being invited to things with USA Hockey possible,” Polusny said. “If I didn’t have Janine as a goalie partner these past two years, I don’t know if I’d be the same goalie I am today because I think she’s somebody who has a contagious work ethic and personality.
“We always joke that I taught her how to have a little bit of fun with it, but she has taught me how to treat hockey very professionally and tries to hold herself to a higher standard than anyone else because she represents her country (in goal).”
The two goalies have nearly split playing time the last two seasons: Polusny has played in 38 games; Alder has played in 33. During the offseason, head coach Eric Rud left the Huskies to become an assistant men’s hockey coach at Miami and was replaced by one of his assistants, Steve Macdonald.
It does not sound like Macdonald is going to change much in terms of naming a No. 1 goaltender this season.
“They have such a good, positive relationship where they really push each other to be better,” said Macdonald, who was an assistant coach for the Huskies the last five seasons. “It’s going to be a situation where they’re helping each other improve. That positive competition and rivalry is going to help propel the team forward. We want to put our best team on the ice and we’re just lucky enough to have two goalies to pick from who are among the best in the world.”
Polusny said that her time with the national team has helped her improve her focus during games. She is hoping that translates into more wins for St. Cloud State, which was 10-25-2 last season.
Polusny’s time with Team USA has also provided the Huskies with an example of what is possible.
“When you see them put in all the extra work, it’s nice to see them get rewarded by being able to go represent their country,” Macdonald said. “She’s been a huge piece of our program since Day 1 when she got here and this (being on national teams) has been something that she’s been working toward. To see her have that opportunity and do well (in the U-22 series) was a proud moment for us.”