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.
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.
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.
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.