Buffalo Beauts Season Preview

With a full roster finally set and one week before Buffalo’s first-ever modern professional women’s hockey team hits the ice against the Boston Pride, the Beauts are looking quite good indeed.

Most recently, the team announced the final three of its free-agent signings, and all of them are tied to the U.S. National Women’s Team (including two 2014 Olympians). Defensemen Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer, along with forward and Team USA captain Meghan Duggan, signed in Buffalo, boosting both the profile and the talent level of this inaugural squad.

Here’s the roster, broken down by position, for the 2015-16 season:

Forwards:

Shelby Bram
Hailey Browne
Meghan Duggan
Jessica Fickel
Kourtney Kunichika
Hannah McGowan
Devon Skeats
Tatiana Rafter
Hayley Williams
Erin Zach

This is a smaller but pretty fast offensive corps looking at it off the bat, which should bode well for their breakouts into the zone and their transition game. Players like Devon Skeats and Kourtney Kunichika demonstrate speed and a willingness to start and follow-up on a play by driving to the net. Duggan’s great shot, strength on the puck and impressive overall pedigree (she won three national championships and the Patty Kazmaier Award as a member of the University of Wisconsin and can fill a mantle with the international hardware she’s won) will only help.

Defense:

Megan Bozek
Lindsay Grigg
Paige Harrington
Kelly McDonald
Emily Pfalzer

Holy puck-movers! Pfalzer and Bozek in particular are incredible rushing defensemen, as evidenced by high point totals and records to match for their respective schools (Boston College for Pfalzer, Minnesota for Bozek). Getzville native Pfalzer can capitalize on nearly any opportunity you can give her and has great skating and puckhandling skills. Bozek and Paige Harrington add size to a smaller, thinner D corps.

Goalies:

Amanda Makela
Brianne McLaughlin
Kimberly Sass

The calm, collected McLaughlin is all sorts of fun to watch in net. She’s an excellent athlete, staying square to most shots and utilizing smooth lateral movements and strong footwork to catch rebounds. Of the two remaining netminders, I’ve only seen Sass, who plays a bit more aggressively but still maintains good positioning. Overall, this looks to be a good group in net.

Practice Players: (all forwards)

Courtney Carnes
Annmarie Cellino
Maggie Giamo
Kara Goodwin

Two former Buffalo State Bengals (Carnes and Goodwin) make up half of this small practice group. Goodwin was a standout during her college days, scoring 59 goals in 77 games. West Seneca native Cellino was Player of the Year her junior season (2008) at Middlebury College for the New England Small College Athletic Conference. SUNY Cortland alumna Giamo was actually drafted by the CWHL’s Toronto Furies coming out of college, but doesn’t look to have played a game (at least, not from my research).

The Buffalo Beauts and the Boston Pride face off for their first regular season game at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at the HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo.

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.

 

Draft Recap: Buffalo Beauts

Wisconsin’s Burke headlines well-rounded inaugural draft class for Beauts

Buffalo’s been a little down on its hockey luck lately especially when it comes to drafting potential stars, but the Beauts made the most out of picking last in the NWHL’s first-ever draft on Saturday.

Wisconsin D Courtney Burke became the Buffalo Beauts’ first draft pick, selected fourth overall. The junior from Albany, NY is a product of Shattuck-St. Mary’s and USA Hockey (as part of the silver-medal winning U-18 team in 2012). She can put up points, but has shifted to more of a supplemental role in college, excelling at moving and distributing the puck on a Badgers team with one of the best defenses in the nation. Last season she tallied 24 points in 40 games and was a +20.

The Beauts weren’t done after Burke. Their second pick, Sarah LeFort of Boston University, is a forward with back-to-back 50-point seasons on her resume; in fact, last year she was second only to Marie-Philip Poulin in goals and overall offense. She also did well on the power play, with 14 of her 50 points (7 G, 7 A) coming on the player-advantage. From the highlights I’ve seen, she does really well in transitions and can score from pretty much anywhere on the ice.

With two skater positions covered, the Beauts shifted their attention to the crease, snagging Amanda Leveille from Minnesota. Leveille is one of the top two goalies in the nation with a 1.18 GAA and a .948 save percentage, and she has been a key part of a dominant Golden Gophers team. She put up an impressive performance in the Championship game, withstanding late pressure from Harvard’s offense to clinch her second championship ring and Minnesota’s third in four years.

Two forwards and linemates from Mercyhurst rounded out the Beauts’ inaugural draft class. Emily Janiga and Jenna Dingeldein went 16th and 20th overall, and each of them provides excellent offensive support. Both are large forwards — Janiga at 5’11, Dingeldein at 6’1 — and each produced at a point-per-game pace or over this past year for the Lakers. Janiga led both her team and College Hockey America with 45 points over 35 games, and has the lucky bonus of being selected by the team basically in her hometown (she’s a native of East Aurora, about 20 miles southeast of Buffalo proper). Dingeldein is no slouch, with exactly one point per game to Janiga’s 1.29 and an average pace of 1.04 points per game over three seasons.

Suffice it to say the Beauts are going for a well-rounded approach — dynamic offense, capable defense and bar-down goaltending — and provided all of these players sign, it’ll be interesting to see how this will pan out for Buffalo in 2016-17, once they’re eligible to play. Stay tuned for more regarding free agent signings and other happenings at the Harborcenter as the summer progresses.

Buffalo Beauts Summer Training Camp Recap!

More than two dozen hopefuls for the first professional women’s hockey team in Western New York gathered at the Harborcenter in Buffalo Saturday and Sunday to participate in the Buffalo Beauts’ training camp. Saturday’s session was a skills assessment complete with individual and group drills, while Sunday featured a scrimmage.

[Photo kindly provided by  Kaitlin S. Cimini]
[Photo: Kaitlin S. Cimini]
A sizable crowd turned out to see NCAA standouts and former local stars alike put on a show for a chance to get on the permanent roster, or to snag a practice spot. These players included RIT’s Celeste Brown (one of four former Tigers who attended), sisters and Buffalo natives Annemarie and Brigitte Cellino, and Devon Skeats, an Ontario native who most recently came off of a season spent in Austria. Skeats in particular showed incredible speed in her individual assessment, as well as good hands and a tremendous level of awareness on the ice. Meanwhile, Emily Pfalzer, a former standout at Boston College and a native of Getzville (part of the Town of Amherst 25 minutes outside Buffalo proper), stole the show in the scrimmage, playing well on both sides of the puck.

Two CWHLers also made it to this camp. The Furies’ Tanis Lamoureux (who spent four seasons with Elmira College, just two hours from Buffalo) and Erica Howe of the Brampton Thunder each had decent showings. Two other goalies in the camp (Lauren Dahm of Baldwinsville, who played at Clarkson, and former Colgate Raider Susan Allen) also showed up well against their potential future teammates.

A peculiar roster error showed Jenelle Kohanchuk — yes, she of the Furies and Team Canada — as being at camp. Further evidence on Twitter (including tweets from Kohanchuk herself) proved this false. A Beauts team representative said she apparently registered for the camp but did not attend for reasons unknown as of yet; however, it seems pretty evident from her tweets that she’s staying a Fury for as long as she possibly can.

Those who did show up, though, were thrilled at the possibility of joining a team that could well serve as the pioneers of paid, professional American women’s hockey. Brown attended all four camps and is committed to helping the women’s game achieve its true potential.
“My career at RIT was fabulous and I could really not ask for more, but to have this opportunity to play in this new league and to really grow the female sport is an honor, quite frankly,” she said. “To see girls come from all over with a whole bunch of different talents is a lot of fun, and I think we’re going to catch at least the Northeast by surprise right from the start.”

[Photo kindly provided by  Kaitlin S. Cimini]
[Photo: Kaitlin S. Cimini]
Beauts general manager Linda Mroz, a member of Niagara University’s now-defunct women’s hockey program from 1999-2003, was pleased with the turnout and the caliber of play from her potential new players. Much like Brown and others involved with the NWHL, she sees the new league as paving the way for players in generations still to come.

“I’m like, where was this 10 years ago? I’d have been all over this,” she said. “This is fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?

“We’re going to be able to push for the girls in high school hockey, travel hockey… the whole of women’s hockey is going to grow, especially here in Buffalo, where there are so many opportunities for girls to play now, and now with the Buffalo Beauts here, their dreams are just going to be over the top.”

(If you’d like to check out videos of the practice, Angelica has several on her Instagram. Check them out!)

A Unique View From The Bench

If you’ve seen a North Dakota women’s hockey game this season, you may or may not have noticed an interesting sight in the tunnel of Ralph Engelstad Arena: one of the team’s backup goaltenders, sitting in a chair facing the ice, huddled over a smartphone.

That goalie, usually redshirt freshman Annie Chipman, isn’t goofing off. She’s giving the 1,600 people who follow head coach Brian Idalski a unique view of the game – her own.

Chipman took over Idalski’s Twitter, @UND_WIH, in December 2014 after a conversation with teammates Lexie Shaw and Lisa Marvin in Marvin’s hospital room. In late November, the sophomore forward’s pickup had stalled on a Grand Forks road, and she was filling it up with gas when a speeding car hit her, resulting in serious injuries to her right arm and knee that may keep her from playing again for a long time. Her teammates visited her to chat and try to take her mind off of her long road to recovery.

“We were all just talking, trying to cheer her up, and we were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we live-tweeted the games for you so you could stay updated?’” Chipman recalled.

Idalski overheard them and decided to give her the reins, allowing her to flood his timeline each gameday with goalie selfies, goal updates, and quirky observations like this one:

It’s an unusual sight to see for some; although the fans at the Ralph have caught on pretty quick, the sight of her on a phone while her teammates play has prompted some questions in visiting arenas.

Misunderstandings aside, both she and her coach say the feedback has been nothing but positive.

“A lot of people are saying how funny it is to follow along,” Chipman said, adding that fans will sometimes follow her tweets during games and wave at her from the stands.

“They make it their own,” Idalski said of his players using his Twitter account. “It’s been entertaining to see them let their personality shine through.”

The fact that UND is enjoying a good season — 16-11-3, 12-9-3-2 in the WCHA and riding a seven-game undefeated streak before losing to Minnesota Feb. 7 – also helps temper some of the concerns others might have about focus.

“If I were 10 years younger, I probably wouldn’t have understood it,” he said. “But I think it’s a credit to these kids’ maturity – they know what they have to do, they work hard, they have fun when it’s time to have fun and focus when it’s time to focus.”

A Twitter veteran compared to most coaches (he joined in 2009 and “embraced Twitter from the word ‘go’”), he also sees social media as way of getting to potential new players. The way Chipman uses it, he said, offers a more personal look at the program, separate from the official @UNDWHockey Twitter.

“Anyone who follows the Twitter gets a good sense of our program with regard to what goes on during game days,” he said. “With recruiting starting earlier and earlier, it’s a good way to get our brand out there.”

Branding has become increasingly important in the Information Age. Everyone is trying to distinguish themselves, and social media is a good way to do that. When it comes to hockey, some teams, like the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and Los Angeles Kings, have used humor to draw in followers and fans. Others have kept it cut-and-dry, posting recaps and highlights, which is serviceable if not distinctive. On both sides, for the most part, social media is seen as separate from the players themselves. So what about blending the two?

“I don’t know if anyone else would do that, really,” Chipman said. “At least not anyone running it now. Some people don’t get it. I think once a newer generation, like ours, comes in, we’ll see more of it.”

Still other organizations, such as most CWHL teams (with the exception of Calgary and possibly Toronto), are still trying to figure out Twitter and other social media platforms. The Inferno recently turned over their account to defenseman Jacquie Pierri, letting her give fans a day-in-the-life account of what players do, but most other teams stick to previews, recaps and promotion of their organizations and the league. Establishing a brand online is a crucial first step toward gaining exposure for these teams, due to the immediacy of the medium, and perhaps focusing more on the player perspective is a way of seeming more approachable to potential fans or even potential players.

UND has certainly achieved a good balance of straight coverage and player perspective, and it’s something Idalski is proud of.

“I don’t want to see other teams do the same thing,” he said. “Just let them keep doing the same boring thing they’re doing, and we’ll keep having fun doing it.”

2014 CWHL All-Star Game Recap

Nearly seven thousand women’s hockey fans of all ages and genders filled the Air Canada Centre in Toronto and an international audience watched at home from Sportsnet One in Canada and NHL Network in the United States, as the Canadian Women’s Hockey League made history with its first-ever All-Star Game. Charline Labonte’s Red team came from behind to win over Jessica Campbell’s White team, 3-2.

White dominated much of the play in the first period, throwing everything they could at the net, but came out of it with just one goal by Natalie Spooner (Toronto). Labonte was solid with 10 saves on 11 shots in the opening frame. Her only goal against went through the five-hole, as Spooner got her to open up the pads despite Red forward Tessa Bonhomme’s best efforts (she threw her glove at her Furies teammate from the bench during Spooner’s rush).

The White team would double its lead in the second period on a beautiful set up from Hilary Knight to former Boston Blades and Team USA teammate Kelli Stack, getting past Christina Kessler of the Furies. That was Knight’s only point of the game, as she was all over the ice and managed to get a couple of good opportunities in front of Red’s goalies but could not capitalize.

The Red team, meanwhile, had steadily built up momentum throughout the second period, with Calgary’s Rebecca Johnston and Jenna Cunningham and Brampton’s Jamie Lee Rattray getting some great opportunities in front of White goaltender Delayne Brian (Calgary). That momentum finally turned into results in the beginning of the third, as a 2-0 deficit turned into a 3-2 lead on goals by Stars CWHL co-founder Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux (Montreal), Rattray and Johnston in the first two minutes.

After that, it was up to Erica Howe to deliver in net – and did she ever. The Brampton Thunder goaltender turned aside chances by Knight, Campbell and Calgary’s Brittany Esposito, among others, sealing the come-from-behind victory and providing fans and viewers with a performance worthy of her All-Star nod.

The event ended with a skills competition, as Red and White competed in the Fastest Skater and Breakaway Challenge events. White proved to have the faster skaters, while Red took the Breakaway Challenge.

How Do International Tourneys Affect the CWHL?

The CWHL resumed regular play last weekend after spending the first half of November on hiatus, as 22 of its best players travelled to Kamloops, B.C. for the 4 Nations Cup — but don’t be fooled. The league was far from idle as it spent the tournament spreading the word about professional women’s hockey, both to its existing fans state-side and potential fans worldwide.

“It’s a great opportunity to showcase our players,” said CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress of the tournament. “Any player [in the 4 Nations Cup] who isn’t playing in the CIS or NCAA is in our league. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to expose the game across the world.”

Some of the names on the rosters and scoresheets, like Boston’s Hilary Knight (USA; three goals in the tournament) and Calgary’s Rebecca Johnston (Canada; four points), were familiar from February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. Others, like Brampton rookie Jamie Lee Rattray (Canada; three points), might be more familiar to those who watched her play in college. Regardless, the presence of these players help build a brand and strengthen what Andress refers to as a “grassroots” movement to make pro women’s hockey a successful venture for young girls growing up with the game.

Part of that effort includes working with hockey’s national bodies in North America — USA Hockey and Hockey Canada — to find out when camps and events are being held, in order to ensure the league’s players can participate. Another part of it is using the powers of social media, posting news and information about the tournament on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to reach the broadest audience possible. Lastly, the games were broadcast on TSN in Canada, giving the tournament and its players nationwide exposure and perhaps spurring new viewers to research the CWHL.

The combined approach has worked; through the first two weeks of November, the @cwhl_insider account saw a 5 percent growth in followers, and marketing and communications specialist Jennifer Smith said via email that the league expects that growth to eclipse 10 percent by the end of the month. That’s partly thanks to the announcement just after the 4 Nations Cup of the CWHL All-Star Game, to be held in Toronto on Dec. 13. Boston Blades GM Aronda Kirby also said she noticed the @BostonCWHL handle gain a couple of hundred followers during the tournament.

“The media is covering it more, there’s more attention being paid to women’s hockey,” she said. “They write more articles about it, and we post them to our websites. It feeds the marketing machine.”

All of this contributes to turning the CWHL into a viable league for young women and girls to aspire to play in, and eventually work (much like in the NHL) toward international tournaments, something Andress is excited about.

“We want our players to grow up through this grassroots movement,” she said. “We want them to say, ‘Hey, I want to become a professional women’s hockey player, and in doing so I will get the chance to represent my country.’”

Of course, with the positive exposure comes a set of challenges. These tournaments feature compressed schedules — the 4 Nations Cup in particular has teams playing four games in four days — and with that comes a risk of injury and fatigue. There is also the prospect of taking time away from work — it’s a known fact that CWHL players aren’t paid for their play, and thus have full-time jobs in order to eat and pay the bills. The fact that they sacrifice some things to participate, Andress said, is a testament to how much they are willing to do just to play the game.

On a team level, Kirby mentioned the timing of the tournament, just a couple of weeks after the start of the season, which doesn’t allow for a lot of time to build up steam. It hasn’t seemed to slow down the Blades much — they are currently in the midst of six straight weekends playing without a break, and started off with a convincing sweep of Toronto. However, the constant play could contribute to some fatigue later on.

Another disadvantage that comes with being in the States and trying to follow your players from Boston? Limited access to broadcasts. While FASTHockey provided free live streams of some of the games on Hockey Canada’s 4 Nations Cup page, others (mainly the games Canada was playing in) were unavailable for viewing in the U.S. without resorting to illegal streaming or a paid website — and not everyone has the money for those.

“The only option seemed to be to buy a live stream of the game,” Kirby said. “We were texting everyone, asking, ‘Where’d you get the game?’ It was a little inconvenient.”

With that said, the tournament did generate some good conversation about women’s hockey. So does that mean more of them could be a boost for the female game?

Yes and no. Andress mentioned that there are two different goals inherent in tournaments versus leagues like the CWHL or NHL. While a broader fanbase is created in international tournaments, which pit country against country, the fact that these leagues feature players from all over the world creates more of an individual following.

“If you’re watching a Team USA game, you’re more likely to root for a player from your favorite team,” she said. “If you’re, say, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, you’re going to be a Maple Leafs fan regardless of what player is wearing that jersey — Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, whoever.”

There’s also the idea of parity, something the CWHL can boast for the most part. There are plenty of talented players in the league who didn’t make the 4 Nations rosters, but could at any given time.

From a revenue standpoint, Kirby thinks tournaments featuring CWHL players stateside could have benefits, with some conditions.

“If the revenue could go somehow to the players or the clubs, that would be beneficial,” she said.

Overall, events like the 4 Nations Cup do their part to increase exposure of women’s hockey and the seven-year-old league that aims to become the premier place for female players to take their talents. Andress stressed the idea of retaining the fans that come to see these tournaments.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to wait once a year, or once every four years, for these games,’” she said. “They happen in your backyard every weekend.”