As Amber Sealey stood at the Queen’s bench after scoring her first career goal last season, her sister Alisha wrapped an arm around her.
The gesture was quick, barely perceptible to the 100 or so spectators at the Memorial Centre that evening, but when it comes to the Sealeys, it’s one of many small moments where you realize how close the sisters — and defenders on the women’s hockey team — are.
For Alisha — a fourth-year Gael and two years older than her sister — different emotions come about when playing with her sister.
“When she scored her first goal, I wanted to cry,” the elder Sealey said. “There’s the positives, like the good moments where she scores. I’m more excited than I would be for other members of the team. At the same time, if she gets hurt or something it really affects me too. It goes both ways.”
It makes sense that Alisha would have the emotions. She doesn’t hesitate to call Amber her best friend growing up, adding that they still are today.
Talk to the pair for 15 minutes and it instantly becomes apparent how close they are — and how similar.Both humble and quiet, and in moments between responding to questions they look at each other and laugh.
On ice, it’s the same story. Both sisters are blessed with keen hockey senses and exceptional awareness, relying on their positioning and understanding of the game to make plays at both ends of the rink. As two of the taller Gaels, the Sealeys use their reach advantage to break up plays with stick-checks while defending the rush.
While the two play the same style now, Alisha said that wasn’t the case when they were in minor hockey.
“Amber started as a forward, actually, and I was a D[efence], so I’ve always thought that I was more defensively-minded and Amber, when she came to D, was more offensively-minded,” she said. “Now we’ve kind of merged to be fairly similar.”
Raised on a farm in the small town of Fergus, Ontario — about 25 kilometres north of Guelph — Alisha and Amber have been nearly identical in their paths to Queen’s. Both spent time playing for the Kitchener-Waterloo Rangers of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), including a year as teammates.
They also took the same path off-ice on their way to becoming Gaels. Alisha received the Chernoff Family Award — one of the top academic scholarships at the University — when she entered Queen’s in 2012. Two years later, Amber was also a recipient.
Academics play a large role in the Sealeys’ lives, as the two engineering students were named Academic All-Stars by the University last year. According to Alisha, it’s been a focus for the two sisters for years.
“We’ve been preparing for this all our lives,” she said. “I think I can speak for both of us when I say we’re students first, but obviously there are times where sports come first, when we have to miss classes and stuff.”
One of those times was during the Gaels’ trip to the 2013 CIS tournament, one of the few experiences Alisha has in the uniform without her sister. Those games at nationals helped sell Amber on joining her sister at Queen’s. She had already been pretty certain, but as Alisha puts it: “[the tournament] helped build our case, for sure.”
While Alisha was on the ice, Amber recalls being in the stands, wearing her older sister’s jersey and wanting to join her at Queen’s.
“It was pretty exciting. I mean, I wasn’t playing but still I was like, ‘Wow, Alisha’s at nationals. I could maybe do this too in two years,’” she said. “Just kind of made me see in the future I could be doing this with Alisha, instead of just watching.”
She added that as soon as Alisha went off to Kingston, she wanted to head to Queen’s as well.
Amber said she looked to Alisha as a mentor growing up. Whenever she tried something new, her sister was the one she went to for advice and tips.
It also gives her someone to look up to on the ice. Like Alisha in 2012-13, Amber was named to the OUA All-Rookie Team last season, after notching seven points in her first year with the Gaels and making the quick jump to the CIS level.
Like Alisha, she’s also garnered a reputation for disciplined play. In 129 games at Queen’s, the two have combined for just 22 penalty minutes.
“I always feel like I let the team down, if I cause us to play a person short for two minutes,” she said. “I always just try to be aggressive as possible without crossing that line and getting a penalty.”
It’s one of the reasons their coach, Matt Holmberg, brought the pair to Queen’s. Originally scouting Alisha when she was in grade 12, he said Amber’s play in her first year in the PWHL had put her on the school’s radar as well.
When he first met with the Sealey family about the possibility of Alisha coming to Queen’s, he came away from the conversation impressed by more than just her play.
“We obviously were really liking what we saw on the ice, but at the same [time] really liking what I was learning about her and her character and her make-up off the ice,” Holmberg said. “It wasn’t long after that that we extended a commitment to Alisha and, thankfully, she accepted.”
When it came to Amber, Holmberg said while it was nice to keep the sisters together, the decision was ultimately about bringing in a strong hockey player.
“We brought Amber in because we wanted Amber Sealey to be here,” he said. “We didn’t need to make a sister connection, but it’s been great having that.”
Since coming to Queen’s, both have taken on larger roles, including time on the power play and penalty kill. While the sisters have natural chemistry, they’re rarely on the ice at the same time.
But while they aren’t patrolling the blue line together, the two still have on-ice moments where they have understandings that come from being sisters. In his vantage point as their coach, Holmberg gets to see these moments more than most.
“A lot of their little sister moments can be nothing more than a glance or a quick little fist bump or tap on the shin pads,” he said. “While that may not seem out of the ordinary, knowing the two as I do, there’s deeper meaning behind it.”
When Queen’s season wraps up this year, it will also mark the final time Alisha pulls on a Gaels’ sweater. In her four years on the team, she’s developed as both a leader and a player, Holmberg said.
He named her one of the assistant captains this season and said her lead-by-example style on the ice has benefitted the Gaels. He called her one of the “most consistent [defenders] we’ve had for years.”
“In my mind she has been an OUA All-Star for the last three years,” Holmberg said. “Obviously those that vote might think differently or only look at points perhaps, but the impact she’s had on our team on and off the ice for the last four years has been huge.”
He added that Alisha will be doing anything to take home another OUA banner and earn another berth at the national championships before she graduates.
If Alisha Sealey does eventually bookend her Gaels career with appearances in the CIS tournament, she’ll be sharing it with the sister who wore her jersey and cheered her on three years ago — this time as teammates.
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