Editor’s Note: February 15-17 is Hockey Weekend Across America, presented by USA Hockey and CCM. Each of the three days of Hockey Weekend Across America features a special theme, including Wear Your Favorite Hockey Jersey on Friday; Try Hockey Day on Saturday; and Celebrate Local Hockey Heroes on Sunday.
When you think of the ‘hockey heroes’ who have come out of Northeast PA, you likely think of names like Dennis Bonvie, Marc-Andre Fleury, Brooks Orpik and Tom Kostopoulos. These players, among numerous others, have left a significant impression on the hockey landscape locally since the Penguins came into being in 1999.
But now, a homegrown heroine is looking to inspire the next generation of local hockey players and fans.
Paige Semenza is currently in her senior season with the Ohio State University women’s hockey team. A native of Pittston, her introduction to the sport came innocently enough right in her hometown.
“I used to go to the Ice Box up in Pittston just to go to public skates,” she recalled. “A friend of ours offered me some hand-me-down equipment and he asked me if I wanted to play. I said, ‘sure, I’ll give it a try.’”
Like many other youngsters interested in the sport, Semenza started off by taking part in learn to play classes at the rink, and honed her skills suiting up in in-house leagues. The fact that she was one of only a handful of girls playing the sport at her age level didn’t hold her back.
“I was kind of on an island,” she said. “Maybe there were one or two other girls playing. Then as time went on I became really interested in playing, so I played with the women’s (Pocono) Pirates…I played with the Wyoming Seminary girls, just to stay in girls hockey, because it’s so small. And especially in Pennsylvania, there’s not many teams you can play with.”
That fact led Semenza to Stowe, Vermont, where she attended the North American Hockey Academy, a high school for girls interested in pursuing the sport more seriously.
“A month into your high school year you would transfer out and you would go to this school and enroll there,” she said. “You would play hockey for five months, and then after that you would enroll back in your other school. It was a group of 40 girls that made two hockey teams, a Red team and a White team.
“You play against some of the best club teams there are out there for high school. The competition would get better and better every year, and it really gets you ready to go to the next level.”
Semenza spent three years at the school, which not only gave her great experience on the ice, but helped her to grow outside of the rink as well.
“You create a family with these girls,” she said. “At first it was really hard. I would get home sick. And there were times throughout every year you’d get homesick, you just want to go home and visit the family. But overall it really helped me to be away from home.”
Her time playing with the NAHA helped showcase her skills to college teams as well.
“There were a couple of schools that called and emailed me. From there I picked four that I was really interested in,” Semenza said. “Those were Ohio State, Mercyhurst, University of New Hampshire and Boston University.
“Ohio State was my last visit, and I knew as soon as I stepped on the campus that this was where I wanted to go. It just felt right, I fit in, I met the team when I went on my official visit that following month after that. It felt so right.”
It wasn’t an easy transition to the college ranks, though.
“My freshman year, I was the little, scared, innocent kid. All of the freshmen were at that time. We were just trying to get adjusted, learn the ways of the team and how things go. You really have to gain the respect and gain the ice time that you get.
“I didn’t play much the first half. It was mainly fourth line, third line. You sit the bench a lot. In practice you keep working for it and working for it. Then come the second half, I started to get better and I started to learn the game better. And I started gaining more ice time and earning more ice time. I started getting points, I started putting numbers on the scoresheet and started making an impact. To see that helped build my confidence.”
Semenza was named an assistant captain prior to her junior campaign, and once again as she entered her senior season. And while her college career is soon coming to an end, she looks forward to passing on her experience to other young women looking to get involved in the sport.
“I would love to coach younger girls and get involved with a younger group,” she said. “Younger girls, you have such an influence on them, and it’s impactful, it’s meaningful to me. I would love to do that.
“I think you can really have an influence on younger girls, especially in a sport that’s not so big for us, but it’s becoming bigger. You see these players and where they go, making the Olympics and all of these accomplishments. I think it has a big influence on younger girls. And I would like to give back to the sport that I love.”
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