BY RANDY SCHULTZ – (Photo: Emily Janiga center) – Emily Janiga thought she had accomplished everything she could do in ice hockey. The East Aurora, NY native had a successful hockey career in high school while attending Nichols School in Buffalo.
From there it was on to Erie, PA and Mercyhurst College where success seem to follow her with four outstanding seasons with the Lakers. She topped that by being drafted by the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and helping them win the Isobel Cup in 2017.
What more could there be for Janiga to prove? The answer came in the summer of 2017 when the 24 year-old forward accepted the opportunity to serve as a sport ambassador to Team China, a women’s development program for hockey aimed at the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing, China.
While it may have looked like a relatively easy decision to make, Janiga had to think about it for a short period of time. And for a good reason.
“Growing up in the little community I did, I really hadn’t been to far from there my whole life,” said Janiga, the daughter of Leonard and Mabel Janiga. “Sure, I had gone to Mercyhurst which was just a couple of hours from my house.
“And I had been to Mexico once for my sister-in-laws bachelorette party. But it wasn’t for an extended period of time. I had been back and forth to Canada for hockey games. But this trip to China was going to be for several months.
“I really felt I had to leave that comfort zone and always being near to home. So I accepted the opportunity.”
Janiga will be the first one to also tell you that a second thought about her decision went through her mind following her 14 hour flight to China.
“It was culture shock,” responded Janiga, the 2015 College Hockey America (CHA) Player of the Year. “That’s the only way I can describe it.
“I remember getting off that plane in Hong Cong and seeing nothing but people. Everywhere! It was just overwhelming.”
In addition to her role as a sport ambassador, Janiga also signed a contract to play pro hockey with the Vanke Rays, one of China’s two pro hockey expansion teams that began play in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League for the 2017-18 campaign.
“It was a great opportunity for me,” said the 2014 and 2015 All-CHA First Team member. “I could continue playing the sport I love while teaching it to players just being introduced to the game for the first time.”
But Janiga admitted that it wasn’t as easy as one would think when she first arrived in China.
“There was a big difference in food and language,” commented Janiga. “That was quite an adjustment to make. Going out to get groceries was an experience. And the city I lived in, Shenzhen, has something like 12 million people living in it. For someone who grew up where I did in a town that has less than 7000 people that was a big adjustment to get used to.”
But there was always one thing that kept Janiga calm.
“Hockey,” stated Janiga, with a smile.
“Hockey is hockey, no matter where you play it,” she continued. “And being able to develop the sport and helping it grow in another country like China, is a great opportunity.
“Working with Chinese players that had good skills, was a good experience. It was a great feeling to watch these players grow as players every day. It was a lot of hard work, but I really didn’t mind that.”
Hard work is something Janiga is quite used to. Having grown up on a 1000-acre farm, with the main crop being sweet corn, the hockey forward knew what early hours were like both on the farm and playing hockey.
Janiga recently signed a contract with the Beauts to play for them again for the 2018-19 season. She admits that she is a bit of a different person coming back to her roots.
“I really think I grew as a person with the time I spent in China,” concluded Janiga. “It was a great experience to help grow the game in another country. It was also a chance to raise the awareness of women’s hockey.
“In the end it was an awesome experience for me. I know I will have a different feeling for the Chinese when it comes time for the 2022 Winter Olympics, especially with hockey. While I’ll still be pulling for Team USA, it will be interesting to see how China does. And I know I will have had a small part in their success. That’s a great feeling.
“I think I’ve also become a better person. I have a different outlook on life. I stepped outside my comfort zone.
“It was an awesome experience.”
(Photo by Janet Schultz Photography)