Looking Back, Moving Forward: Q&A with the Buffalo Beauts’ Devon Skeats

This is part of a regular offseason feature on Watch This spotlighting each of the players on the Buffalo Beauts, who made a surprise run to the Isobel Cup Final in the NWHL’s first season. Check out our Q&As with Kelley Steadman and Brianne McLaughlin as well. We move next to forward Devon Skeats, who came flying out of the gate after missing a month and a half of the season due to visa issues (along with four other players). Skeats was nearly a point-per-game player in her first season (14 points in 15 regular season matches), and her speed and skill nicely balanced her line with Hailey Browne and Kourtney Kunichika. Here’s what she had to say looking back on her first NWHL season:

 

If you could pick one word to describe the Beauts’ first season, what would it be?

Memorable. I think we all had an incredible journey together this season. We were such a hard-working, never give up type of team and we accomplished a lot this season together. We had a rough start and faced a lot of adversity over the course of the year but once we came together as a team I felt like we were unstoppable. I’m so proud of my team for making it to the Isobel Cup finals it was definitely an experience we won’t forget.

 

It was a long wait for you to get onto the ice, especially considering you were one of the first players to sign and ended up being one of the last to experience her first game. But you ended up having a really solid year. What were some highlights for you personally?

I experienced many highlights during [my] season with the Beauts. A couple of my personal favorites were: when the fans voted me in to participate in the first ever NWHL All-Star Game, as well as beating the Connecticut Whale in the [playoffs] after going 0-6 in the regular season.

 

Back at the beginning of the year, there was a lot of talk about Buffalo as a hockey town and how hockey fans would embrace their new local team. What can you say about the relationship between the Beauts and their fans in their inaugural season?

I feel as if I can speak on behalf of the whole team in saying that we felt we had the best fans in the whole league. We would go out after our games in the lobby and talk to our fans and sign autographs for them — we certainly had a very interactive relationship with them. We are very appreciative of their support during the season.

 

Not only did you have a good year, but your entire line with Kourtney Kunichika and Hailey Browne was one of the strongest on the team. Looking back, what was it about playing with both of them that made you guys better as a unit?

I was really fortunate to be put on a line with both Kourt and Brownie. They are incredibly talented and hardworking players, so it was easy to build chemistry, and we’re all really good friends off the ice as well so that helped with the camaraderie on the ice.  

 

Going from fourth place to Isobel Cup runner-up is an impressive feat for the Beauts. What do you attribute the late-season and postseason success to? What are you proudest of your team for accomplishing in that playoff run?

I simply attribute it to our team coming together and playing as a whole. Throughout the season we possessed a relentless work ethic, [and] we carried that on over to our postseason play. Combining both that and playing with our full roster did a lot for us. I am so proud of my team [for] coming back after losing to the Whale in the opening game of playoffs and beating them in the next two to buy us a ticket to the Isobel Cup.

 

How did it feel to finally beat Connecticut, especially in such a clutch moment in the postseason? Also, what do you think you and your teammates can take away from your loss in the Cup Final to the Pride?

It felt incredible and so deserving. We had such an unlucky run against them in the regular season, losing in shootouts and OT with them. Our record with them did not reflect anything about the Beauts — we knew we could beat them, and we did just that when it mattered most. We are all really proud of ourselves about making it as far as we did and all we can do is take the defeat and use that as ammunition for the next season.

 

Moving ahead, what do you look forward to most in your second NWHL season (provided you come back to the Beauts)?

I really look forward to hopefully wearing a Beauts jersey again and representing such an incredible city in the 2016/2017 season, and to bring the Isobel Cup home to Buffalo.

 

Late goal by Boston Pride ends Buffalo Beauts’ regular season with loss

The Buffalo Beauts finished the season with a solid effort, but not a win, as Jillian Dempsey scored on a power-play opportunity late in the third period to lift the Boston Pride to a 3-2 win over the hosts at Harborcenter Sunday afternoon.

Buffalo came out strong in the first, playing the Pride to a near-draw in shots and possession and keeping Boston’s best shooters largely out of the face of Brianne McLaughlin. Boston’s Brittany Ott had to fend off numerous offensive chances as well, particularly ones by Meghan Duggan and Emily Pfalzer (a running theme throughout the game).

After getting stonewalled by Ott and the Pride defense for much of the game, the Beauts broke through in the second, as a giveaway up the middle came to the stick of Hailey Browne. Her snapshot popped over Ott’s glove, giving the Beauts a 1-0 lead. Corinne Buie answered just 45 seconds later with a low shot that snaked through McLaughlin’s pads. Then, a falling Brianna Decker made a second effort in front of the Beauts net that found its way behind McLaughlin, putting the Beauts behind with about 14 minutes to go in the frame.

As it turned out, the Beauts needed about 10 minutes to make it a game once more. Meghan Duggan put home a rebound on a shot from teammate Megan Bozek, in mid-air to knot the score at 2 before time expired in the second. It was a beautiful goal and one a long time coming, as Duggan had had several chances either blocked or steered wide of Ott’s crease.

Unfortunately, the momentum from her goal didn’t last long. In the third, Boston took it to Buffalo’s defenders with strong entry into the zone, dominant possession time and effective defense to keep the Beauts from getting close to the net or sustaining zone time (in fact, the Beauts were outshot 11-4 in that final period). Dempsey’s goal came with just under six minutes remaining in the period; Zoe Hickel took the puck in the left corner, drawing Pfalzer to her from in front of the net, which left Dempsey open to get into position at the back door and put away Hickel’s pass before anyone else could pick her up. It was a momentary lapse that ultimately cost Buffalo a win that didn’t mean much in the standings, but could have sent them to Connecticut on a positive note.

Despite the end result, the Beauts were pleased with the way they played throughout the game.

“I think they weren’t expecting us to come out flying like we did, and we had them back on their heels in that first period,” McLaughlin said of the effort. “Moving forward into the playoffs, that’s the perfect game — what we just did.”

Playing Boston at Harborcenter helped the Beauts come full circle from where they started in October (also on home ice, and against the Pride). However, this team is leaps and bounds above where they were when the puck first dropped. Much of that, both McLaughlin and forward Devon Skeats asserted, was due to the team needing time to get used to each other, something that was difficult to do with five key players missing for over a month due to visa issues. Dealing with having high-scoring forwards out of the lineup, like Duggan or Kelley Steadman (who had a commitment at RMU and missed Sunday’s game), is also a factor; however, the Beauts managed to be competitive despite those issues.

“We’ve gotten used to that,” McLaughlin said. “There always seems to be one of our key players missing per game, so we just kind of put it on each other to step up and fill that role.”

And they’ve found secondary players, like Skeats (who scored nine of the Beauts’ 54 goals in the regular season) to do just that. Though she came in late, she had an impact very quickly, and she says she’s happy with what she and the Beauts have been able to do in their first season.

“We’ve all come together as a team, and I think we’ve been pretty successful this year,” she said. “I know we had a bumpy start, but now I think we’re coming together and we’re all really ready for playoffs.”

Those playoffs start Friday, March 4, with Buffalo heading out to Chelsea Piers CT to play the Whale. It will be a best-of-three throughout the weekend, with the tiebreaker game set for Sunday evening if necessary.

Two- and potentially three-game weekends are not what the Beauts (or any team) are used to, but that aside, the team is sure of itself heading into the postseason.

“I think every girl in this room knows that we can beat any team in this league, so it just reassures our confidence,” Skeats said. “I know the game didn’t really go our way tonight, sometimes that happens, but we’re definitely ready for next weekend.”

Buffalo Beauts First Practice and Media Day

The tattoo on Buffalo Beauts forward Erin Zach’s left arm reads, “Nothing is impossible.” As a member of Western New York’s first-ever paid professional women’s hockey team, in the first modern paid women’s hockey league in North America, it certainly rings true.

The Beauts stepped onto the ice as a unit for the first time Wednesday evening at the Harborcenter’s First Niagara Rink. In a session lasting about five and a half hours, players got fitted for equipment and skates, took headshots, did video introductions, spoke with the media and then, after a dinner break, finally got out to practice.

Everyone seemed animated and anxious to get onto the ice, a sentiment confirmed by goaltender Brianne McLaughlin when asked about it in the players’ press conference.

“It’s like when you’re looking forward to vacation and time is going by really slow, and then when you’re on vacation it’s going to go by really fast,” she said, laughing alongside new teammates Zach and forward Devon Skeats.

Brianne McLaughlin trying out goalie pants and shells. #buffalobeauts #NWHL

A photo posted by Angelica Renee (@reinadelaisla) on

In fact, McLaughlin, Skeats and Zach were the first to sign with the Beauts, who have 18 players altogether on their roster (three as of yet unconfirmed due to unfinalized contract negotiations). A lineup heavy on speed and offensive skill, it also boasts a considerable amount of regionally-based talent including three former RIT Tigers in Zach, forward Kourtney Kunichika and defender Lindsay Grigg. Goaltender Kimberly Sass actually hails from the Buffalo area; she graduated from Williamsville North High School and is currently working on her thesis in architecture at the University at Buffalo. Playing with the Beauts allows her to continue school while playing the game she loves. “It’s a dream come true,” she said of the opportunity. “Growing up in the area and getting to play professionally after college… I didn’t think I was going to be able to play again.” Faced with the decision to either focus on her career or leave behind all she knew to try and play professionally in Europe, Sass chose her career and stayed in hockey by way of coaching and playing in state tournaments like the Empire State Games. Now, she has the chance at the best of both worlds. “Once I heard of the league, I knew this was something I had to be a part of,” she said. “With it being a month away, I just can’t wait till October when the games actually start. “Seeing friends and family in the stands will be quite the experience.” Also part of the experience: playing and learning under another pioneer of the game in Shelley Looney, one of the two head coaches for the Buffalo Beauts. Looney played in Nagano, Japan on the 1998 Olympic team that won the U.S. its first-ever gold medal in women’s hockey (in fact, she scored the game-winner in the gold medal game). Now director of the Buffalo Bison Hockey Association, which is a youth travel league, she is also working alongside former NHLer Ric Seiling behind the Beauts’ bench.

Head coaches Looney, Ric Seiling, and GM Linda Mroz. #buffalobeauts #NWHL A photo posted by Angelica Renee (@reinadelaisla) on

During practice, the coaches worked in tandem, with Seiling starting drills and Looney occasionally halting play to provide feedback for players. According to them, this will be the plan throughout the season; rather than splitting duties, both coaches will work together to help get the best out of their players.

Looney believes the time is ripe for a pro women’s hockey league stateside.

“As a former player, back when I played there wasn’t an opportunity,” she said. “I think it’s time now for women’s hockey to be at the forefront here in the United States. The skill and talent level are there. We’ve just got to get it out to the public and show them the great product we have.”

Buffalo is also a prime location for a women’s hockey team. Putting aside any misgivings about the winters here, the people in the 716 area code are passionate about their hometown sports. As Zach jokingly pointed out: “The Sabres sell out all the time, and they’re… not very good.” There are also plenty of female players in the area hoping to either continue playing or get into the game, as evidenced by the number of developmental organizations that cater to both boys’ and girls’ hockey.

Moreover, the Beauts’ home arena, Harborcenter, couldn’t be any better. Sabres owner Terry Pegula financed the state-of-the-art facility, which is right next to First Niagara Center in the heart of downtown Buffalo. Its location is excellent; it’s just off the Metro Rail, the light rail system connecting the suburbs to downtown, as well as being close to multiple major bus lines. In addition, it’s brand-new — the rinks were opened in November 2014 and the Marriott hotel attached to it opened just this August.

Harborcenter provides what Seiling says is the best arena in the league and a huge selling point for any player thinking about coming to play for the Beauts.

“I don’t think anyone from any visiting team will be walking out of here going, ‘Boy, I’m glad we play where we do,’” he said. “They’re going to want to come and play here.”

Once on the ice, the speed of the Beauts was what stood out. Skeats (who turned heads during May’s free agent camp) and Kunichika utilized it perhaps the most, while 5-foot-11 Paige Harrington (the tallest player on the team) used her size and reach to power down the ice, showing off nice hands in the process. Meanwhile, McLaughlin rarely missed a beat in net, making point-blank stops on several skaters during scrimmage play.

#BuffaloBeauts #NWHL

A video posted by Angelica Renee (@reinadelaisla) on

Players and staff alike think the spirit of this inaugural squad will have much in common with the spirit of Buffalo itself — blue-collar.

“There’s a lot of hard-working players that we have collaborating on this team,” Looney said of her new squad. “I think you need a little bit of everything, and that’s what I think we’ve been able to get here. We have a lot of smaller, quicker players, and I think that’ll catch a lot of other teams off guard.”

The Beauts will be able to prove that with their season opener Oct. 11 at home against the Boston Pride. Puck drop is at 3:30 p.m. at the First Niagara Rink in the Harborcenter. Season ticket packages for all four NWHL teams are now available.

 

For more photos and video of the Beaut’s first practice, check out Angelica’s Instagram account.