Boston Pride defeat Buffalo Beauts in dramatic home opener

Last Saturday, the Boston Pride opened at home with their third game into the season against the Buffalo Beauts. I didn’t know what to expect from the Beauts, who’ve had substantial roster movement over the offseason, although I knew I’d see a strong showing from the Pride, who remain undefeated this season thus far. That said, I definitely didn’t expect a thrilling progression from a third-period tie to OT to shootout to sudden-death shoot out. Saturday’s game was fast and gripping despite remaining scoreless until the second period.

Before puck drop, team staff unfurled banners that will hang in the rafters at Warrior–one celebrating the Pride as 2015-2016 regular season champions, another celebrating their Isobel cup win, and a third honoring injured teammate Denna Laing that bore her number on the Pride, “24.” Laing appeared on the ice in a new Pride jersey to pose for a photo with her teammates. For the first faceoff and puck drop, Laing joined the other five members of the 2015-2016 roster who have not rejoined the Pride this season: Corinne Buie (in her new Beauts jersey), Kelly Cooke, Kelsie Fralick, Cherie Hendrickson, and Casey Pickett (who has has returned to the Boston Blades). Harvard alum Dempsey acknowledged missing the Pride’s former home, but said of Warrior, “I”I feel like the crowd brought the energy tonight… it’s nice to feel like the place is packed. It’s a great sheet of ice.” Amanda Pelkey, who works at Ristuccia, the Bruins’ former practice rink, was excited to be at Warrior, too, although she’d like it if the Pride could also practice at Ristuccia.

Then Buie skated off to join her new teammates, the rugs were rolled up, and the game was on. The Pride (a.k.a Team USA) are a tight unit who have well-established strategies and plays, something that showed in their strong preseason showing against Team Russia, who many of the Pride played against at the IIHF World Women’s Championship earlier this year. This tactical approach works effectively against known opponents like Russia, this iteration of the Beauts proved a challenge for the Pride to surmount. While the Pride plays a slightly conservative defensive system, the Beauts’ defensive movements seemed a little more fluid, especially when it came to generating traffic in their own zone. The game was characterized by constant turnover and end-to-end movement. Despite leveling 42 shots on goal to the Beauts’ 17, the Pride could only match them in goals during regulation time. Some of the Beauts’ defensive strength was Beauts goaltender Brianne McLaughlin’s outstanding performance, but their ability to generate plays on the fly stymied the Pride’s usual tactics. Pride goaltender Ott agreed, saying of their new lineup, “You don’t always know what to expect of their players.”

Jordan Smelker was the Pride player who scored that second period goal, crediting linemates Brianna Decker and Zoe Hickel for their help. “They’ve got a great defensive lineup, they have lots of national team players [Megan Bozek, Emily Pfalzer, and McLaughlin],” she said of facing off against the Beauts. “We just knew that we had to keep on them and go hard on the forecheck but not too hard, just stay on them and tire them out.” Close to the end of the third period, Shiann Darkangelo scored the Beauts’ only goal, assisted by Buie and Sarah Casorso. Pride goaltender Brittany Ott said of her strategy for starting a new season against a fresh crop of players, “You have to be crisp at all times. I just tried to play simple and remain focused on my own game.”

Darkangelo’s goal tied the game, sending the Pride and the Beauts into 5 minutes of four-vs-four, scoreless OT–then an equally scoreless shootout–and finally a sudden-death shootout round. Amanda Pelkey ultimately netted the winning shoutout goal for the Pride. “You kinda watch to see how she moves with other people,” she said. “I was talking to Zoe and I was like, ‘Honestly, I think we should just go five-hole.’ Like, for me, it’s either I go five-hole, get the goalie moving and then shoot five-hole, or go deep back-end, but there was too much snow to do that and a couple girls already tried. So I was like, ‘oh, what the heck.'” Well, that was a heck of a shot.

Coach Bobby Jay had only praise for the Pride’s performance. Undefeated in the preseason, the Boston have continued their winning streak with three regular season wins in eight days. That lead will certainly be challenged as the largely fresh lineups of the other three teams in the league develop. Ott said, “Towards of the season playing these teams a bunch of times you kind of get to learn a little bit about these players and their tendencies.” It’ll be interesting to see how the Beauts fare in future matches against the Pride as the Beauts’ chemistry and systems develop and the Pride grow more informed.

Next up for Warrior Ice Arena (and Watch This Hockey): tonight, the Pride take on New York.

Minnesota Has One Whole Professional Basketball Team And They’re Selling Tickets

Did you know Minnesota has a professional basketball team? It’s true, one whole team. They’re based in Minneapolis, they’re called the Lynx, and I have a half season package to see them 8 times this year! So should you, because summer without hockey is hard, and there’s no way you have anything better to do with your time than watch Maya Moore own everyone on the court.

One of the things I love about the WNBA, in fact, is that they have a dedication to showmanship that does double time as a community-focused way to introduce new fans to the sport. If you go to a Lynx game, you’ll be reminded – whether you know it already or not – to stand up until the first Lynx point is scored. Their half time activities range from charmingly mundane during the regular season to genuinely entertaining during the playoffs. And then, of course, there’s the game itself: fast-paced, athletic, fun, and full of tense moments.

The WNBA is also at an interesting point in its life as a league. Their commissioner of five years, Laurel Ritchie, stepped down – very soon after the NBA’s Adam Silver offered some ill-timed criticism of the league’s progress. Even a league that’s 20 years old is not immune from the questions of profitability and sustainability that routinely plague women’s sports. The offseason’s also brought some good news, though. Diana Taurasi, fresh off a year spent playing in Russia (and sitting out the 2015 WNBA season), is back with the Phoenix Mercury. The Lynx will enter the year defending a championship. It all starts May 14th, and I will personally be there with bells on.

Also, God, the farmer’s market starts again the week before. Cabin fever is real.

The Home Stretch: New York Riveters Take a Run at Redemption

The less said about the February 7th game pitting the New York Riveters against the Boston Pride, the better. At home in Brooklyn, the season-long Riveters slump continued as the Pride blew them out in a 6-1 finish that briefly catapulted the Pride to #1 in the league. Even though the Riveters’ discipline (not always their strong point, particularly in high-scoring losses) held out, with the team only taking three minors throughout the game, they were unable to capitalize on any of the eight penalties assessed overall against Boston. The lack of power play goals was particularly frustrating as the Pride took five of their eight penalties in the second period, including a six-minute stretch during which the Riveters were playing 5-on-4 or 5-or-3 and still failed to score. I’ve been uncomfortable criticizing people for doing things that I can’t do myself (i.e. ‘playing professional hockey’ ‘playing hockey at all’ ‘lacing ice skates properly’), but playing almost half of the period with the player advantage and yet failing to score is particularly egregious. Unfortunately, it was on this particularly unflattering note that the Pride and Riveters parted for the regular season—whether or not they’ll face each other in the playoffs remains to be seen.

The lone Riveters goal in that match-up came from Belyakova early in the game, marking her fifth of the season. Her growth this season has been, uh, one of the few fun parts of being a Riveters fan. Luckily, this past weekend’s game against the Buffalo Beauts provided a glimmer of joy in a sea of defeat, like a beautiful shootout lighthouse. The Riveters’ final home game and their third-to-last of the season, the game was also the Beauts’ opportunity to clinch third place in the league. You can guess what that would have meant for the Riveters… that’s right, another first-place draft pick!!!

But as you may have heard, in the game of hockey it is a good idea to believe in miracles. (You can rip the Miracle references from my cold, dead, cliché hands, y’all.) And so, in a back-and-forth game that, frankly, looked like it could have gone either way, the Riveters beat the Beauts in the shootout, 4-3, on Valentine’s Day. Love is real.

Though, actually, I’m not sure it could have gone either way. The Beauts way outshot the Riveters (41-29, and 6-3 in overtime), including 16 shots in the first period alone, and it seems only right that Nana Fujimoto was named second star of the game. The Rivs’ Fardelmann opened up the scoring early in the first period, a goal that wasn’t answered until the next period, when the Beauts scored twice in three minutes. The third period opened with the Riveters down a goal—never somewhere they like to be, but considering they’re usually down 3-4 goals at that point… not bad. Less than halfway through that final frame, the Rivs’ Fritz-Ward scored to tie it up, but Buffalo pulled ahead again a minute later. With the score sitting at 3-2, the Riveters needed to find their urgency and their legs on the power play, especially after the last Pride game (of which we will no longer speak. That way madness lies). Bray Ketchum came out swinging on the power play to score the tie goal, forcing overtime. (And there was much rejoicing.)

Overtime yielded nothing, but an anxiety-producing shootout (is there any other kind?) brought two good shots from Ammerman and Dosdall, which was enough to lift the Riveters over the Beauts for a 4-3 final. Deep breath. A win. What a feeling.

This exhilaration, however unfamiliar and lovely it may be, is also probably shortlived—because as soon as you do the math (for me, this will be several days of confused squinting later), it’s all there. The numbers don’t lie. The only way the Riveters could overtake the Beauts in points would be for the Riveters to win both of their next two games outright and the Beauts to lose both in regulation. In any other case, (OT losses, etc) the Beauts can match or easily overtake the Rivs.

Do I doubt that the Riveters can do it? Frankly, yes. They would have to improve their win percentage an improbable amount and do so in a streak, including a final game against the Connecticut Whale (who have been in continuous contention with the Pride for first in the league over the last few weeks). I think the Rivs are tired and injured and cold and their rink is really far away and also, probably, they are simply not the best team in the NWHL. In fact, it seems pretty likely that they’re the worst. In this big, weird, dubiously financed, confusingly managed experiment that has been the inaugural NWHL season, someone has to be.

And yet I’m still all in on this team—through the next two games, through the playoffs and (hopefully) beyond. The Riveters aren’t done yet, and neither am I. Maybe one day they’ll reward that faith. And maybe someone will finally #GetCelesteBrownAGoal2k16.

(Celeste Brown is the only Riveters forward to have played all 16 games and not have a goal. Obviously, goals aren’t the only thing that matters in hockey, but Celeste Brown seems chill and I personally would like this for her. This is my #JohnScottMVP moment and also the hill I will die on.)

Catch the Riveters against the Beauts again on 2/21 on the road in Buffalo. Keep the faith, y’all.

Supporting Denna Laing, Supporting Your Community

This Sunday, the Boston Pride will face the Connecticut Whale for their final home game this season at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center. Past Pride home games have recognized veterans, breast cancer survivors, and an organization raising awareness for youth mental health (DIFD). In the same vein, the Pride are now rallying around teammate Denna Laing, who experienced a severe spinal cord injury during the inaugural Women’s Winter Classic on December 31st. Sunday’s game has been declared “Denna Day,” during which proceeds from a silent auction, chuck-a-puck, 50/50 raffle, Denna Laing player t-shirts, and bracelets will go to benefit Laing. Denna Day will be focused on Laing, but a league representative has said that the NWHL has been in communication with national organizations that support people with spinal injuries. Hopefully, we’ll see more information about community involvement from the league in the longterm.

While direct assistance is important, people with injuries like Laing’s rely on accommodations mandated by the government so that they can continue to participate fully in their communities and live independently. These accommodations include things like curb cuts, wheelchair ramps, prioritized parking spaces, as well as services like transportation and acute medical care. You can help Laing today by contributing to The Denna Laing Fund; by advocating for people with disabilities in your community, you can help her for the rest of her life.

Here are some ways you can get involved if you’re in the United States (and in Massachusetts)!

1) Find your senators and representatives [GovTrack]

2) Keep an eye on upcoming federal legislation, including these important bills:

S. 2427: Disability Integration Act of 2015

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) asserted the right of individuals with disabilities to participate fully in community life and live independently. The Disability Integration Act of 2015 seeks to enforce and expand the reach of the ADA, focusing on community support and services for individuals with disabilities. States need to consider the ADA as a civil rights mandate. This includes prioritizing services for individuals with disabilities within their budgets, focusing on integrated living solutions, and minimizing institutional placement.

S. 2001: TIME Act

Did you know that businesses which have been certified by the Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division can legally pay individuals with mental and physical disabilities below the minimum wage? Yes, even in Massachusetts. The TIME Act seeks to abolish subminimum wages, allowing a three-year period for businesses to transition to paying workers a fair wage.

S. 1604: Transition to Independence Act
Many individuals with disabilities do not receive support in sustaining or achieving independent living; instead, they are steered toward subminimum wage work, day programs, and institutional residency. The Transition to Independence Act seeks to provide incentive for states which are Medicaid buy-in states to find employment opportunities in integrated settings for individuals with disabilities who receive Medicaid-funded services.

3) As well as this problematic bill:

H.R.2646 – Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015
This bill is a sweeping action that defunds community services, limits HIPAA protections and the protection and advocacy agencies, and would substantially increase institutionalization and forced outpatient treatment. The National Council on Independent Living’s ADA/Civil Rights Committee explains more here (under “The Murphy Bill”).

4) If you’re in Massachusetts, now is a great time to learn about the state budget for fiscal year 2017, which is under construction right now.

Read more about FY 2017 funding for services for people with disabilities at the Arc of Massachusetts.

Buffalo Beauts at the 2016 NWHL All-Star Game

Buffalo Beauts general manager Linda Mroz’s best hockey memory involves, of all teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs. She was able to attend the last game at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and meet legends of the sport, like Don Cherry of Hockey Night in Canada, and one of her heroes, Leafs great Doug Gilmour.

She remembers the feeling of awe upon being able to see a player she idolized from afar, in the flesh in front of her. And she still remains grateful to the Sittler family, who was able to bring her to the game and make that evening one she won’t ever forget.

On Jan. 24, Mroz was able to make that feeling a reality for a group of under-14 girls’ hockey players who had competed for the Harborcenter Cup ahead of the NWHL All-Star Game and Skills Competition, asking Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan to meet and take photos with the star-struck girls.

“They were over the moon,” she said of the girls’ responses. “They couldn’t stop thanking me and the players. It was unbelievable to be able to give these girls that feeling of meeting their heroes.”

Having those heroes be women, finally, after decades of fighting for representation and a level playing field for the sport, made it even better. That’s what Mroz is working for, as the GM for one of the Founding Four teams in the National Women’s Hockey League — among other things, a chance to give young female players in Western New York and beyond the chance to see, and be, their own role models.

Eight Beauts players participated in All-Star Weekend on Jan. 23 and 24, which included a media day and a “Skate with the Stars” session at Harborcenter Saturday before the on-ice events Sunday. The names included Olympians Meghan Duggan, Megan Bozek and Brianne McLaughlin, as well as rising homegrown talent like Emily Pfalzer (who served as a captain of her own team) and fan picks Devon Skeats and Hayley Williams.

For any hockey player, the opportunity to represent your team amongst the cream of the crop of your league is one that should rarely if ever be passed up.

But the Beauts All-Stars got an added bonus by playing in their own rink, Harborcenter, in downtown Buffalo. That meant showing off their shots, hands, and speed in front of a crowd with a large number of their own fans, not to mention enjoying the creature comforts within their facility.

“We’re all more used to playing here than anywhere else,” Kelley Steadman said of Harborcenter. “We also have the best fanbase in the league, by far, so being at a rink you’re comfortable with in front of your home fans was awesome.”

It was certainly home sweet home for Steadman, who won the shooting accuracy contest for Team Pfalzer and then took the MVP award with two goals in the two-period 4-on-4. But she wasn’t the only Beaut who shined on the ice — Devon Skeats skated an impressive 13.06 seconds in the fastest skater and also scored on a wild diving play for Team Pfalzer, while Hayley Williams scored the lone goal for Team Knight, who got steamrolled, 9-1.

Meanwhile, Meghan Duggan and Megan Bozek duked it out for the hardest shot, with Duggan maxing out at 80 miles per hour and Bozek taking the prize with an incredible 88 mph slapper. Brianne McLaughlin had a solid performance in net for Team Knight despite being on the losing end, and in doing so, she had an entertaining duel with good friend Steadman.

“We play together every day at RMU [Robert Morris University, where both work], and we’re around each other all the time, so going in we knew there would be a duel,” Steadman said of the showdown. Eventually, Steadman got the last laugh with a goal on McLaughlin.

Meanwhile, the other Beauts on the ice were having just as much fun. Skeats, who was voted into one of the final four All-Star spots by the fans, said she and her teammates were having a blast making up goal celebrations (and indeed, she ended up taking part in the hilarious “grenade” celly started by goal scorer Emily Field).

“The whole weekend was an incredible experience, and I am so happy I could have been a part of it,” she said via email.

Williams, also a vote-in, said it was an “amazing feeling” to be able to play with the best in the league.

“The majority of my Beauts teammates were on Pfalzer’s team, so to be able to build friendships [with some of the other players] was great,” she said.

Williams has also been building an affinity with the city of Buffalo; she shares an apartment here with four of her teammates, including Skeats, and both are enjoying what the 716 has to offer.

“Everyone’s very nice here, very welcoming,” Williams said. “Buffalo’s such a big hockey town, but small enough to really hype up [the women’s game] and get people here.”

Although the crowd at the All-Star Game wasn’t Harborcenter’s largest (about 1,000 people in an 1,800-capacity arena), the fans who showed up were loud and passionate, according to everyone who was on the ice.

“We all wanted to give the fans a good show, and I think we did just that,” Skeats said of the fans’ reaction overall.

But this was as much for the players and the league as much as it was for the fans, and Mroz did her best to ensure they had everything they needed. She called planning the fundraising dinner held the Friday before All-Star Weekend “like planning a wedding without the benefit of the cash at the end of the night.” A few calls to friends for raffle basket donations and other bits helped out — “Buffalo really is a city of good neighbors,” she said — and NWHL sponsor Dunkin’ Donuts also pitched in by donating hundreds of donuts decked out with the league’s branding.

From there, it was making sure everything was set down to the smallest details for the rest of the weekend, from the Skate with the Stars event Saturday night to the actual on-ice festivities — including having Seymour Knox IV, whose family brought professional hockey to Buffalo, drop the puck.

“That was my favorite moment,” Mroz recalled of the ceremonial puck drop. “It was awesome to talk to him about the growth of hockey, especially women’s hockey, here in Buffalo. He was so excited to be here, cheering on the players during the skills competition and everything.”

Having an icon of hockey in the 716 in the building was the cherry on top of an incredible opportunity to show off all the progress Buffalo’s made so far in becoming both a hub for the sport and a resurgent city.

“It was a chance to showcase the Harborcenter to everyone — not just to the women coming here, but to show everyone what Buffalo is all about,” Mroz said, referring to the continued development of Buffalo’s waterfront and downtown. Canalside, directly adjacent to Harborcenter, has been the site of plenty of events year-round, and businesses and traffic are starting to be more of a presence again along the city’s main drags. (For a bit more information on Buffalo’s attractions, check out my piece prior to the All-Star Game on what to do while you’re here.)

The appeal of Buffalo as a hockey hub in particular wasn’t lost on NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan, who said during media availability at the All-Star Game that having a presence in the Queen City wasn’t even a question.

“Buffalo was a no-brainer for us when we were picking our Founding Four teams, and it was a no-brainer again for our All-Star Game,” she said. “The Harborcenter does such a great job of hosting events, and the city of Buffalo is a hockey town — they’re so passionate here… when we were looking at our schedule for the All-Star Game, we didn’t even have a backup.”

That assuredness proved to be a great moment for Mroz, an Amherst native and coach of the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association girls’ varsity hockey team when not managing the Beauts. Though she stopped playing before the NWHL transpired, being a part of it in such an executive way brings a special thrill.

“In high school I was voted most likely to be on parole,” she joked. “To be the general manager of an NWHL team is unbelievable.

“Twenty years ago, this was unheard of. Now, I have sophomores, juniors, seniors who I can see pushing into playing in college, and who might one day be playing for me in about six years or so… For young athletes able to make it to the game and see the talent these women have, they’re able to have actual heroes now. I think it’s pretty amazing.”

What To Do In Buffalo While You’re Waiting For The NWHL All-Star Game

So you want to go to the NWHL All-Star Game. You’ve got your tickets, your jersey, and you check to see where it’ll be. And you realize it’s in Buffalo, New York.

I know, I know. If there’s anyone who KNOWS what people say about this town, it’s me, because I hear them say it every time I mention where I’m from and where I’m living now. “You moved from BROOKLYN… THERE?”

Yeah. I get it. A fraction of the population, ten times the snow, and nothing to do. Right?

Well… not really.

In the six years I’ve lived here (seriously, I can’t believe it’s been that long), I’ve heard Buffalo referred to as “wasteland,” “Southern Canada,” you name it. I’ve also seen it undergo a subtle transformation from the snowy little speed bump you pass on your way to Niagara Falls and Toronto, to a city with somewhat higher aspirations.

That doesn’t mean Buffalo has its issues; there are many, and a lot of them deal with things largely outside the realm of hockey (like jobs, gentrification, etc.). But you don’t care about any of that right now — you just want to know what there is to do before and after the All-Star Game. Well, you’re in luck.

  • First of all, there’s plenty of food options. Right inside the HarborCenter building (which is easily accessible from the train station, bus depot, and a short drive down the 33 from the airport), you have (716), the hot spot for pre- and post-game eats and drinks. I’ve been a couple of times, and I’m actually going to have my birthday party there in a couple of weeks. The drinks and atmosphere kind of make up for the food, in my opinion (that isn’t to say the food is bad — it’s just okay). But once you get a load of the giant screen you can check out games on, I think you’ll be sold.
  • If (716) isn’t for you, check out Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, located just a short walk down from the arena. This place has excellent food and pretty good beers (the Blue-Eyed Blueberry Blonde and Don Cherry Cherry Wheat are my favorites).
  • In fact, there are plenty of brewery options in Buffalo, which prides itself on local products (just look at Beauts captain Emily Pfalzer, a native of nearby Getzville). Big Ditch on East Huron, Resurgence on Niagara Street, and Flying Bison on Seneca Street are all close by. I’ve heard tell Big Ditch has more variety and great food in addition to their beer, while Resurgence and Flying Bison offer cool snacks to pair with your brews. (Resurgence also plays pretty great music — I took my friend Maria there and that night they had R&B and hip hop jams that took me right back to middle school.)
  • If you fancy braving the cold and snow for a walk along the water, Canalside is the place to be. Buffalo’s made awesome use of the space during the winter, offering fitness classes and public skating, among other things. Last weekend was Canalside’s Chillabration, featuring live entertainment and food on top of everything else it has to offer. During the summer, there are concerts, boot camp, yoga, Pilates, Zumba, and tons of water activities on the canal. Their Fourth of July celebrations are also lots of fun.
  • Walk a bit further down and you’ll find the Naval and Military Park, which features three ships, a museum, and the Liberty Hound, a cool little pub. Right now, the Park is closed to tours until March, but you can still take some pretty sweet photos with the giant ships in the background.
  • Finally, Buffalo RiverWorks over on Ganson Street has everything — sports, food and drink — under one roof. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s looking gorgeous. Oh, and did I mention you can also catch roller derby there? Yeah, Buffalo has FREAKIN’ ROLLER DERBY. Get excited.
  • If you’d like to explore outside of downtown, there are a couple of great neighborhoods developed around some of Buffalo’s main drags. The Delaware District features some of the beautiful mansions millionaires once lived in; Allentown, the heart of Buffalo’s LGBTQ community, features some cool variety stores and art galleries; and the Elmwood Village has everything from bookstores and boutiques to bars and even a little greenery in the form of Bidwell Park. Also, don’t overlook Grant Street — it features two of my favorite used bookstores, Rust Belt Books and West Side Stories, plus a ton of cool shops owned by a diverse group of entrepreneurs. Buffalo has a growing refugee population, and Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI), Inc., has done a lot to help support them and their businesses.

I realize now that I could go on for quite a bit about the stuff Buffalo has to offer, because believe it or not, it’s quite a bit. This place is small and a little out of the game, but it’s full of pride and willingness to prove itself — kind of like its NWHL team.

Anyway, if you do decide to make a weekend of it, consider checking out the stuff listed above, and don’t be afraid to do a bit of your own digging. And of course, don’t miss puck drop for the All-Star Game at 2 p.m. sharp at HarborCenter.

#14strong

A lot of transitional events get celebrated with a party. Marriage, birthdays, graduations. Put on a special garment and be, by the virtue of occasion or ceremony, transformed. The Women’s Winter Classic was marketed, during the three days between announcement and event, as one of these transformative and transitional events: the first women’s outdoor game on a grand stage, the first meeting of the CWHL and NWHL, partnering with the NHL to bring this dream to fruition. CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress talked about the role of the lengthy relationship between CWHL and the NHL in creating this opportunity; NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan spoke about all of the little details that went into making the game happen, right down to the signage. Later, players from Les Canadiennes and the Boston Pride would talk about the wondrous moment of stepping out onto the ice and looking up at the expanse of Gillette Stadium around them.

Denna Laing is one of those players. She posted on the Facebook page her family has created about her experience at the Winter Classic: “the best day of my life.” Most of the photos attached to the post show Laing with her teammates in their jerseys; one shows her prized gold pumps, Winter Classic hat, and coffee in her Winter Classic dressing room stall. In the first period of the game that followed, Laing fell and suffered a significant spinal injury. At present, she has limited mobility in her upper body and no feeling below the chest.

Of course, if you’ve been following women’s hockey, you know all this. You might not have seen Laing’s injury, because the Women’s Winter Classic—for all its pomp and circumstance—was only seen by a handful of people either in the stands or watching along via Periscope, but you’ve no doubt read the articles. The tragedy of Laing’s injury has arguably provoked more interest and coverage from mainstream media than the game itself. Across social media, hockey teams and fans are posting their support of Laing with the number she wore at Princeton, tagged #14strong. NWHL players are wearing a yellow sticker with #24 on their helmets, the number Laing wore for the Boston Pride. A friend of the Laing family started a fundraiser on GoFundMe that reached over $43,000 in donations before it was suspended at the request of the Laing family, who have their own donation page set up at dennalaing.org.

I didn’t see Laing’s injury in real time, although I was at the Women’s Winter Classic covering the event for Watch This Hockey. It was difficult to see the players on the ice from the high vantage of the media seating at Gillette. I’d been distracted for most of the first period, trying to figure out whether it was better to watch the close-ups on the big screen above the field or squint at the ice, where the players looked like festively-attired ants. That confusion wasn’t why I missed Laing falling, though—I was tweeting.

Real life has a way of interrupting narrative.

Like the Women’s Winter Classic, profound injury leading to disability is also a transitional event. We have stories we tell about disability, too, many of which have already been trotted out on Laing’s behalf. There is a short leap between the tragedy of injury and the “tragic” existence of people with disabilities. If Laing wants to describe her injury as a tragedy and her recovery as a challenge, her experience is hers to own and define, but we should be careful how we generalize disability as an obstacle to be overcome. People with disabilities are people before they are stories. There is no obligation for anyone with a disability to be a heroic example for the world.

Unless, of course, you’re already a heroic example for the world. You’re part of a groundbreaking event; you’re playing for a league whose tagline is History Begins; you’re a female athlete of extraordinary ability in a world where “role model” is one of the key marketing attributes for people in your profession. You’re Denna Laing, posing for a photo with your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. You’re on NHL ice in the middle of the Patriots’ home stadium with the broad sky above you. It’s the best day of your life.

When people talk about the tragedy of Laing’s accident, that tragedy isn’t just about the loss of Laing’s mobility or her athletic career—frequently, those things are incidental. The emotional note they hit is the loss of the dream of Denna Laing who skated onto the ice at the Winter Classic: the dream of the female athlete taking center stage. Laing, herself, isn’t lost at all. Like all of us who live with a disability, she will go on to have a life that may not include hockey but will be as meaningful and valuable as the life of any non-disabled person. Like all of us who live with a disability, she will regain autonomy not through hashtags or short-term fundraising efforts, but by long-term communal support and collective action.

Let Laing’s teammates on the Pride mourn the loss of her place at their side, but stop talking about her like she’s dead. Let Laing define her own experiences. Don’t donate a couple of bucks, chuck a puck, and check out. Learn how you can be a disability advocate and ensure that people with mobility impairments like Laing’s have full access to your community. Most of all, don’t make Laing into a symbol of whatever you feel about female athletes, women’s hockey, or the Winter Classic. Let Laing tell her own story.

A First Step: CWHL & NWHL Meet at the Women’s Winter Classic

The Boston Pride and Les Canadiennes prepare to shake hands and depart the ice
The Boston Pride and Les Canadiennes prepare to shake hands and depart the ice as Scotiabank and Dunkin Donuts advertisements loom overhead.

After twenty-seven minutes over two periods of play, the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League and Les Canadiennes of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League concluded the first Women’s Winter Classic with a 1-1 tie at Gillette Stadium on Thursday afternoon. The stands were nearly empty at the game’s 2:00PM start, but attendees for the alumni game began to trickle in and fill the stands while the players were on the ice. The game play was fast and chippy, with frequent turnover and without stoppage. Despite a sobering pause to remove fallen Pride player Denna Laing that ran out the clock on the first period and truncated the second, the game felt over almost as soon as it began. NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan described the game as “an unbelievable milestone for women’s hockey to have the opportunity to be on such a grand stage”; CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress called it a “showcase.” As an exhibition game, the Women’s Winter Classic left me wanting more. As the start of negotiations between the two leagues? For both the teams and the leagues involved, that’s a very promising opening.

While the Montreal-Boston animosity on which both cities thrive is the heart of the men’s game today, it followed neither NWHL nor CWHL players off the ice. “All these ladies have played with or against one another, whether it’s the Olympics, college—players on both teams from [Boston University], from Harvard, [Boston College], Wisconsin,” said Pride coach Bobby Jay. “They’ve all played each other.” Les Canadiennes’ Marie-Philip Poulin, who graduated from BU this spring, enjoyed playing against her Terriers teammates Shannon Doyle and Kaleigh Fratkin, both on loan to the Pride from the Connecticut Whale. Several members of the Boston Pride’s roster are former players for the CWHL’s Boston Blades, including Blake Bolden, who scored the Pride’s lone goal today and led the Blades to the Clarkson Cup in March of this year. (Les Canadiennes, then the Montreal Stars, lost to the Blades in the Clarkson Cup final.) “I was just really excited to get a chance to play against them again,” said Bolden.

For the players, an outdoor game is a callback to childhood, to the origin of what drew them to play hockey. Kelly Cooke spoke eloquently of her childhood rink at Philips Academy on Boston.com yesterday. Poulin, who took home Olympic gold from Sochi and Vancouver, said that compared to international play, the outdoor game was “a little more exciting.” “I didn’t get enough. It was so amazing, I could do this for the rest of my life,” said Bolden. Her Pride teammate Marissa Gedman agreed, “I really didn’t want to get off the ice.” Prior to the game, a member of the press questioned Rylan about the outdoor game’s impact for upcoming players like Gedman, as opposed to a veteran like Les Canadiennes’ Chu. “I wouldn’t even discount how Julie Chu and the players who’ve played on the Olympic stage feel, too, because the Olympics happen once every four years, and that was the whole point of starting this league, providing a stage and platform for them to shine between Olympic years,” said Rylan. “This is just another one of those platforms, and fortunately it’s 2015-16, so a non-Winter-Olympic year. So I think that it’s going to be huge for the Julie Chus of the world and also the Marissa Gedmans. They’re all on cloud nine.”

Another person on cloud nine was Cassie Campbell, the Vice-Chair of the CWHL board, who spoke to her own league’s focus on that same Olympic gap. “How do we bottle that Olympic movement in the other three years? How do we get that excitement?” Campbell said. “We do that with parity. You watch our leagues play—
you can’t bottle the Canada-US emotion, but you can bottle the caliber of play. We’ve got that now in our leagues, and it’s come a long way.” That caliber of play was evident out on the ice today, for all twenty-seven minutes the players got to shine.

Let’s talk about those twenty-seven minutes. Originally, the Women’s Winter Classic was intended to be two fifteen-minute periods with no stoppage of play, starting at 2:00pm and wrapping up well before the commencement of the Alumni Game at 3:30pm. According to Andress, that time was deliberately chosen to draw the attention of people as they came in to find their seats for the alumni game. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to draw the fans in for the women’s game, but people are going to come in early to see the alumni game, therefore coming in early for the alumni game, they get the opportunity to see the women’s game and go, ‘Oh, what’s that?'” she said. “Too early, you get no fans.” Ice quality was also a concern.

That same concern arose when Boston Pride forward Denna Laing fell on the ice behind Les Canadiennes’ net and didn’t get up. Play stopped while the clock on the first period ran out. Ultimately, Laing was removed from the ice on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she remains overnight with her family. While speculation that ice quality was the culprit began immediately—apparently some of the mens’ players had complained earlier in the day during practice—ultimately the answer given by Coach Jay was that Laing had stepped on a dropped stick and lost her footing. The clock for the second period was shortened from 15:00 to 12:00, but play resumed as soon as the ice was cleared. Kim Deschenes of Les Canadiennes had scored the first goal just a minute before Laing went down; Bolden tied it up for the Pride with just minutes to go in the period. The clock ran out, and that was it: the first Women’s Winter Classic was done.

The Women’s Winter Classic wasn’t shown on television or streamed, although it was watched by some via Periscope; it’s hard to judge just how many people it reached. Ultimately, its impact is likely to be greater backstage. Three NHL teams already partner with their CWHL counterparts; this is the NWHL’s first official connection to the men’s league. The NWHL and CWHL worked together to pull off this event. Additionally, despite the very short notice that prevented the attendance of many people who provide regular coverage of women’s hockey, there was a broad range of media in attendance at the Women’s Winter Classic. Many had questions about collaboration between the two leagues or a possible merger, which were met by polite demurrals by all parties.

For the CWHL and NWHL, the Winter Classic isn’t a merger, or a marriage, and maybe not even a true meeting of the minds. “It’s a first step,” as Rylan said. The three-month lead-up to the Women’s Winter Classic was frantic and fraught, as Patrick Burke related earlier this week in conversation with Jen Neale of Puck Daddy. Planning an event on a scale like this requires immense amount of logistical footwork, which is ambitious even before taking into account that two leagues with a short yet contentious relationship have to coordinate and cooperate. Yet, cooperate they did, negotiating teams, rosters, and the myriad of compromises necessary to get the game underway for New Year’s Eve. Andress and Rylan even posed for a photo together in front of the Women’s Winter Classic step and repeat. Did they seem particularly comfortable with each other? Well… that’s hard to say. Lines of communication, however, are open.

And, for now, the score between the two leagues is a tie.

New York Riveters Roll Over the Buffalo Beauts, 7-3

The miserable weather in the Buffalo area Sunday afternoon perfectly mirrored the outcome at HarborCenter, as the New York Riveters rolled over the Buffalo Beauts, 7-3. Meghan Fardelmann scored a hat trick, and Janine Weber and Lyudmila Belyakova scored two apiece, while Nana Fujimoto made 32 saves.

Buffalo iced just 12 skaters against the Riveters, as those with commitments to Team USA — Emily Pfalzer, Meghan Duggan, and Megan Bozek — were at evaluation camp for the Women’s World Championship. Shelby Bram was also away due to playing with Team Canada at the Nations Cup in Europe, while Kelly McDonald sat out for reasons unconfirmed (but potentially injury-related).

Head coach Shelley Looney also had to juggle her lines as a result, placing three forwards — Jessica Fickel, practice forward Annmarie Cellino, and Tatiana Rafter — on the blueline. While they did as well as they could have, jumping into play and moving the puck well in transition, there were momentary lapses in play where New York was able to thread through both defenders and score quickly, illustrating just how important both Bozek and Pfalzer are to this Beauts squad.

“We had [Lindsay] Grigg and Paige Harrington, our two D, running every other shift, and the three forwards basically rotating through that second slot,” Cellino said. “I noticed my legs were pretty much gone at about 10 minutes into the second period. Once you got that rest in the intermission, that was huge.”

The first period was relatively tame, unless you count the shower of stuffed animals from the stands after Buffalo scored its first goal for the Teddy Bear Toss, benefiting a local charity. Janine Weber had turned on the jets and burned two Beauts on her way to her first goal of the season, to put the Riveters up 1-0. But a couple of minutes later, Kelley Steadman responded with her own solo effort on the power play, tallying her seventh and making it rain fur over the glass. A late goal by Meghan Fardelmann put a damper on the Beauts’ good vibes, however, and they ended the first frame down 2-1.

The second period was all Riveters. Belyakova led the charge with her two goals (also her first two of the year) as New York pulled away, scoring three straight and chasing Brianne McLaughlin from the net for the third time this season. Fardelmann scored again as well, as New York took advantage of a depleted and tired Beauts defense, rushing hard and crashing the net on both McLaughlin and her reliever, Amanda Makela. The two teams also got increasingly physical, with at least one of Belyakova’s goals coming at the tail end of borderline interference calls.

A shot by Kourtney Kunichika banked off either Fujimoto or her defender, Gabie Figueroa, to make it 5-2 before the second intermission started. But by this point, with the Beauts running out of steam, another comeback seemed unlikely.

In the third, the Beauts were able to get back on par with the Riveters possession-wise, but only one more goal — a backhand floater by Devon Skeats — found its way past Fujimoto. Fardelmann completed her hat trick, earning herself the second star of the night (behind Steadman, the teddy bear goal scorer). Makela finished her evening with 15 saves.

Steadman and McLaughlin both steered clear of using the short bench as an excuse for the outcome.

“We just didn’t have it tonight, which happens,” Steadman said. “We can’t really blame it on people not being here because if you look at their roster, their talent level is pretty similar to what our talent level is here.”

Undoubtedly, it has been a story of slow starts and inconsistencies on both sides of the puck for the Beauts. That being said, not having your top blueliners on the ice would hurt any team, to say nothing of one with an already-thin defensive corps.

McLaughlin mentioned there was “a little more talking, a lot of — not yelling at each other, but yelling in a positive way, where to be, trying to trust people will be in the right spots.

“Every game we play is a different roster, unfortunately, for us, and the same with today, so we’re getting used to that, at least,” she continued.

Getting used to it hasn’t been easy for the Beauts goalie, however; she’s borne the brunt of the Beauts’ struggles all season, and Sunday’s game was no different. She had to fight through odd-man rushes and screens galore, finishing with five goals allowed on 22 shots. But she remained upbeat, saying, “You kind of have to have a sense of humor about it.

“We all just have to go out there and do our jobs. For me that was the hardest part, just trying to figure out where everybody is, and finally I just shrugged it off and said, ‘I’ll just play my game and whatever happens, happens.’”

The Beauts will have another chance to make things happen in a positive manner Jan. 3 against the Boston Pride. Puck drop is set for 3 p.m. at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center.

Boston Blades Skate Out 2015 With A Whimper, Not A Bang

Boston Blades Sadie St. Germain and Rachel Farrel on the ice.
Boston Blades teammates Sadie St. Germain and Rachel Farrel wait to take a shot on Genevieve Lacasse during warm ups on Saturday, December 21.
By the time the Boston Blades concluded their six-game series against Brampton Thunder on December 6, they seemed to be finding their feet, if not yet a win. They’ve struggled both defensively and offensively in front of the net–Genevieve Lacasse broke a record for saves during a CWHL season this Saturday night, and she’s now made 741 over a total of 16 games, posting a SVP of .917–but their team was beginning to look like, well, a team. Captain Tara Watchorn was upbeat and confident when I spoke to her on December 6, which is the last full game she played for the team.

Since she left the Blades’ game against the Inferno on December 12, Watchorn has played the first half of one game (against the Furies on December 19) and been scratched from the roster for two because of an upper-body injury. Defense Dru Burns and forward Megan Myers have also been late scratches for the last two and three games, respectively, for personal reasons. Without them, the Blades look disorganized and disoriented on the ice. Their defeats by the Calgary Inferno on December 12 (4-0) and 13 (4-1) weren’t surprising–Calgary is leading the league–but their collapse against the Toronto Furies this weekend was less expected.

While the Toronto Furies do have the terrifying and capable Natalie Spooner on their roster, they’ve been just above the Blades in the CWHL standings for most of the season. The Blades’ only victory (in overtime) so far this season was against the Furies back in October. Toronto should have been the closest to an even match that the Blades have faced so far this season. Instead, Boston saw a single goal (from Megan Shea in the final minute) on Saturday in their 4-1 loss to Toronto, and a shutout by Sonja van der Bliek on Sunday that left the score at 4-0. That shutout happened during a game in which Boston had zero penalties and Toronto had four minors, including two that overlapped, giving Boston a precious 37 seconds of 5-on-3 advantage. What happened? Everyone ended up stuck behind Toronto’s net, along with the puck. Reader, I screamed.

There are a number of factors that led to the Blades’ collapse against the Furies this weekend, most of but not all of them on the blue line. The absence of key players Watchorn and Burns made the deficits of other players more glaring. According to Burns, the Blades are playing 1 – 2 – 2 system, but for that to work, those last two players have to actually stay back and keep the puck in the offensive zone and out of their own. I spent a lot of Sunday’s game against the Furies trying to pick out the Blades’ defensive players who weren’t Sarah Duncan. Frankly, it was difficult to tell when they were engrossed in the offensive fray and scrambling for the puck.

This defensive confusion magnified the consistent issue plaguing the Blades this weekend, which was their inability to hold onto the puck. Missed passes combined with repeated-chip-and-chases led to frequent turnover and movement from zone to zone. The Furies were visibly faster and quicker to react, shutting down scoring chances from the Blades both by creating traffic in front of the net but also by constantly intercepting stray passes. The Blades’ inability or choice not to carry the puck into the offensive zone failed them time and time again. By the time Megan Shea scored the Blades’ lone goal this weekend and dove into a shower of falling teddy bears (yes, it was the Blades’ teddy bear toss this weekend) on Saturday night, the onlookers were all concerned what to do with the bears if Christina Kessler managed a shutout for the Furies. Should we throw them to Lacasse, like a bouquet? Should we throw them at Kessler and attempt to smother her? No offense to Kessler, who blocked 29 of 30 shots on Saturday–I’d have felt the same about any other goalie in her position, smack in front of the Blades’ opponents’ net.

While I have all the sympathy for the Blades, my concern for their progress this season has risen again. While Burns and Myers should soon return to the Blades’ bench, Watchorn’s extended absence has already caused a major setback for the team. They’ve worked so hard to craft the cohesion I saw against the Thunder, both building a team nearly from scratch and facing a heavily front-loaded schedule for the season. The Boston Blades have played more games than any other team in the league–16–and have only eight more to go, six of those against Les Canadiennes, who will be a formidable opponent.

Toronto Furies players Natalie Spooner, Tomomi Kurata, Sonja van der Bliek on the ice at NESC.
Toronto Furies Natalie Spooner, Tomomi Kurata, and Sonja van der Bliek (in teammate Sami Jo Small’s jersey) idle on the ice during warmups at NESC on Saturday, December 19.