Leah Sulyma

Inuvialuit goalie Leah Sulyma scores on both sides of the border

Inuvialuit (Western-Arctic Inuit) goalie Leah Ceone Sulyma is getting her fill of American history while going to school on a full hockey scholarship at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.

Big-city life with its unpredictability is a change from Sulyma’s quiet, outdoorsy childhood in Inuvik. The 19-year-old loves Boston, but admits, “I do miss the north. I like how secluded it is.” Whenever she can, she heads up to Northwest Territories (NWT) and goes to a cabin to fish, hunt and visit with her extended family.

Sulyma is proud of her roots and of playing hockey for Northeastern. “A lot of people support me still from up in the north, and I’m very proud to represent the people from Inuvik in Boston because not many people have gotten out of there and have done this before,” she explains.

As an unofficial ambassador, she quickly discovered that Inuit are highly exotic to the average American. “I get all the crazy questions all the time, like ‘Do you live in an igloo?’ Sometimes I just tell them I used to ride polar bears to school.”

Sulyma gravitated to hockey at the age of nine because it was something new for her to do in a small town. “My dad signed me up one day. I went and I just fell in love with it,” she remembers. “Competition has a lot to do with it. I really, really liked it because a lot of my friends were guys, and it was just a way to have more fun with all my friends.”

She set her sights on becoming a goalie and discovered she had a gift. She describes her favourite aspect of goal-tending as “making an unbelievable save, whether in practice or in a game.”

Sulyma also excels academically. In 2004, she moved to Edmonton to attend St. Francis Xavier Hockey Academy, a high school well known for its hockey program. “It was really hard at first but my mom was gung-ho about it,” says Sulyma. “I realize now that it was the best thing I could possibly have done, for school and my hockey career.”

Sulyma appreciates the opportunity to be an Aboriginal sport role model. “I think it’s important because people need to see that when you put work into something, whether it’s your own life or sport, you can succeed.”

It wasn’t a smooth ride. Because she lived in Alberta and her parents were in NWT, Sulyma couldn’t play in the first tier of women’s hockey. Instead, she played in the second tier – and shone.

Whether in NWT, Alberta, or on her Northeastern Huskies team, Sulyma’s list of achievements and awards is impressive. At the 2002 Arctic Winter Games she won gold with the NWT boys peewee team. In 2004 and 2006, she won silver and bronze respectively with the NWT women’s team. She’s been selected three times to the Canadian National Aboriginal Team. In two games against Ontario South at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships, she allowed only 11 goals on 184 shots. 

In Boston she was voted Team MVP, named five-time Hockey East Rookie of the Week and Rookie of the Month for December, 2007. She ranked first in Hockey East and fourth in the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) with 973 saves and a 0.913 conference save percentage, putting her in the top 20 nationally in the U.S.

The assistant coach of women’s ice hockey at Northeastern, Linda Lundrigan, scouted Sulyma at the 2007 Canada Winter Games. Despite the fact that her team was outmatched, in every game Sulyma threw her heart and soul into preventing the opponent from scoring. “She plays with athleticism,” says Lundrigan, “and her focus is to stop the puck.”

Sulyma considers her scholarship to Northeastern her most important achievement, because it’s brought her hockey career to the next level, and helped her gain an academic education. In addition to a challenging hockey season that has Sulyma on road trips with the team two or three times a month from October until mid-March, she’s pursuing a five-year program. She’ll graduate as a business major with a focus on accounting and finance in 2012. “I really like the business world, so it’s a good fit.”

Sulyma appreciates the opportunity to be an Aboriginal sport role model. “I think it’s important because people need to see that when you put work into something, whether it’s your own life or sport, you can succeed.”

Appearing on a poster is not a new honour for her. In 2004, Sulyma lent her image to a 2004 pan-Arctic anti-smoking campaign featuring “Leah the Goalie.”

“I believe that if you want to be a true athlete, if you want to be competitive in anything, you obviously need to restrict yourself from smoking and doing drugs, because it won’t help you at all.”

When it comes to her own sources of inspiration, Sulyma lists her mother, who has always supported her in striving for excellence and her grandfather, who has tackled many challenges to achieve success, before she mentions a sports hero – Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy. “I love his style of playing and I just love how he was composed on the ice as a goalie. He had a lot of confidence.”

Healthy living and hard work are her two key strategies for achieving her goals, which include competing in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and playing women’s hockey professionally. She might even venture overseas to play on a men’s team, like Canadian female athlete Hayley Wickenheiser. 

Luckily, there’s no rush to make such big choices. “I have three years left to decide whether I should do that or not,” says Sulyma, showing the smooth confidence of a Patrick Roy.

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