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.”