Betty Jouanny is recovering from ankle surgery. The 5-foot-2, 120-pound forward for Brynäs IF of the Svenska damhockeyligan (SDHL), the top women’s league in Sweden and one of the premier women’s leagues in the world, recently had five pins and one plate inserted into her right ankle. Jouanny, frustratingly, suffered a season ending broken ankle January 11th against league rival Leksand IF. Even tougher to swallow, the injury occurred just a week after her twenty-fifth birthday. And while such an injury could understandably be demoralizing to anyone, Betty Jouanny asserts in a social media post to her friends, family, teammates, coaches and fans that, “The difference between who you are and who you want to be is the work that you put in. I am just working hard to make my comeback. Everyday is not easy; it is mentally hard but you can’t change what happened. It is in this period that family and friends are very important – when you can’t use your legs, you can use your arms. If you want to train you always can; no excuses . It is just your motivation and the work that you put in”. Betty used a photo of herself doing pullups in a full leg cast to accompany this post. Like she said, no excuses.
And I am very fortunate that Betty Jouanny has afforded me an interview while she is just a matter of weeks into her recovery. We talk about her life, about her hockey roots, and about her future aspirations for her personal career and for women’s hockey.
Although Jouanny plays in Sweden, she is actually from France. Born in the city of Annecy, she spent most of her life growing up in Chamonix; just over an hour’s drive away. As Jouanny tells me, “my town Chamonix is the most beautiful place to go skiing in all of Europe”. Having looked at photos of her hometown, it is easy to see why. Originally a gymnast, Jouanny gave hockey a try and instantly fell in love with the sport at the young age of six. “In Annecy I first did gymnastics, but after I moved to Villard-de-Lans I received a flier to try hockey. I gave it a go, and loved it immediately. I played hockey at Les Ours de Villards de Lans (an elite hockey school in that city) from the ages of six to nine with the boys. It was very good for me because it is a very big hockey club, and I was fortunate because they formed me into a good player”.
I am able to make a connection with Jouanny in more ways than one. While I have visited France three times myself and have a sincere love for her country, we find common ground with our hockey interests too. “I have two favorite hockey players”, she tells me. “Patrick Kane because of his stickhandling (Kane being from my hometown of Buffalo) and also T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals (Oshie is currently one of my favorite players in today’s NHL)”.
In 2008 at the age of 15, Betty Jouanny began representing France in major international hockey tournaments; something that she has continued to do for nearly a decade. The first one being the 2009 IIHF World Women’s U18 Division I championships which were held in her homeland in the city of Chambéry which took place from December 28th, 2008 until January 2nd, 2009; just days before her sixteenth birthday. In four tournament games, Jouanny had 2-assists and France would take the silver medal at the tournament. “I am always incredibly happy to represent my country every time I have the opportunity to do so. It is an honor to represent my country, and I am very proud because I love to play with the French team. All athletes dream to play for their countries, so when you have the chance to do it you must to do it 200-percent!”.
Building off of that first U18 tournament, Jouanny was named team captain of the 2010 squad and she would absolutely sparkle. While France would take another silver medal, this time in Piestany, Slovakia, it was Jouanny’s performance in tournament play that fully speaks to her words on giving 200-percent. She would average a goal per game, as she scored 5-goals in 5-games to go along with 3-assists as well. This would make Betty France’s leading scorer for the games, and would place her in the top-ten for overall scoring by players participating in the tournament. To Jouanny though, being given the captaincy is an even greater individual honor. “I did score a lot of points in that tournament, which was good for me. But to be named captain it is amazing. Yes, it is just a letter on your jersey, but you must show the right way for you team. Be an example both on the ice and off. This was my last year with the U18 team, and I loved it because I like to have responsibilities. It is an honor to have the “C” when you represent your country; it means that the coach and the players believe in you”.
Since her last U18 tournament, Betty Jouanny has played for France in six Women’s World Championship tournaments, taking bronzes in 2012 and 2015, silver in 2011 and 2016, and the gold medal in 2013. Within those tournaments combined she has appeared in 29-games and registered 5-goals and 9-assists for 14-points. Asked to name her most memorable of the six tournaments, Jouanny opts for the most recent; the silver medal finish in 2016. “That tournament was definitely the best because a silver medal in the Group-A Division I tournament was the best result ever for the French women’s national team”. In this particular tournament Jouanny recorded a single assist in 5-games. To me, it speaks to her character that she would pick a tournament where the team and country faired their best, as opposed to any other tournament where she may have had better numbers statistically. Jouanny has firm beliefs when it comes to how an athlete should compete and doing what is best for the team. Character builds character in others and in sports programs. At only 25, it is obvious that Jouanny will be able to impart her experience and ideals into younger players on the French national team.
And hopefully that will happen at the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Jouanny has already participated in one Olympic qualifier tournament for France in 2013 (a goal and 2-assists in 3-games), but unfortunately due to her injury, it does not appear that she will be readily available to help her team for this year’s qualifying tournament to decide who goes to the ’18 Winter Games. “To play in the Olympic Games is the dream when you are an athlete. Every time when I would watch the Olympics on TV I would say to my parents that it is my dream to play in the Olympics, and that I don’t want to stop my hockey career without having played in an Olympic Games. So we (Team France) have the qualification tournament in Japan in February, and if we win we get to go to the Olympics. Obviously I cannot go because of my broken ankle. I am devastated but this is sports, and I can’t do anything about it except carry on”.
This reminds me of another post on social media that I saw Jouanny make recently, and I know that she is keeping everything in perspective. Jouanny said, “sometimes you don’t decide what happens in your life; you just must to accept it. You just need to think about the future and your comeback. If you want something and you work hard for it, the hard work always pays off. It is your motivation, your mindset and what you want. Stay strong – never give up!”.
Describing herself as a player, Jouanny tells me, “I am a stickhandling player that creates the game around me. I work hard going both ways; both offensive and defensive zones. I have a strong physical capacity”. That being the case, it is no wonder that Brynäs IF eagerly sought her services. Jouanny has played for Brynäs IF for four seasons now and has demonstrated some extremely solid play for the hockey club. I became curious to know how she ended up with the team, considering that she is from France and did her university studies at Université de Montréal in Quebec, Canada. “I had already wanted to play hockey in Sweden, so when I finished my university in Canada I wrote to Brynäs to ask if they were interested in me. I sent them a video of me, and they responded that yes, they were definitely interested. So I am very happy to play my fourth season with the team. I get to play with some really strong players like Sara Grahn, Anna Borgqvist, Lina Bäcklin, and Josephine Holmgren; all of whom have already played in the Olympic Games”.
One of Jouanny’s most recognizable strengths when she plays is her ability to win face-offs. For example, if you look at Jouanny’s favorite tournament – 2016’s Group-A Division I silver medal winning tournament – she finished eighth overall in face-offs for the tournament winning 53.25-percent of the draws that she took. If you go even further back though, to when she captained the 2010 U18 squad, she finished one spot out of the top-ten (eleventh overall) and was the leader in face-offs for France with a percentage of 45.77-percent. Needless to say, winning face-offs is a major attribute of Betty’s and something that she has developed over time. She teases me though, and refuses to share her secret. “The face-off is my best strength as a center. I train a lot during the summer to perfect it, but it’s my secret and I am not going to say what I do”, she smiles and laughs.
While playing for Brynäs IF, Betty has tallied 23-goals and 26-assists for 49-points in 111-games. Her finest season with the team, before her injury, came during her second season when she rattled off 10-goals and 7-assists in 28-games. “That was my best season for sure. But I am disappointed because this season I already scored 12-points in 24-games, and I really would have liked to get to the 20-point mark, but my season is over. But – I am going to do it next season for sure!”. I love her determination and I wholeheartedly believe that she will pass that point plateau; no question at all.
I have never had to recover from a major injury like Betty Jouanny is currently doing now. I would have to imagine that I would not have the fortitude or the same positive outlook that she is imbuing in her recovery. But I guess that is part of what makes Betty so different from many athletes. A “never say die” kind of attitude; like trying to chisel through granite, there is just no breaking this girl. Like she said earlier, take her leg – she still has an arm.
Jouanny tells me the most important things that she has learned in life through hockey. “Respect – Work – Be Humble – Live and Share Together!”. With this outlook, she will be back on the ice in no time. “The two most important things that I want to achieve in my career are to win the World Championship and to go up to the Elite Group, and to go to the Olympic Games”, she says. When the Olympic qualifications are being played in Japan come February, you can count on me rooting for France so that Betty Jouanny gets to realize her dream of the Olympic Games come 2018. And when they take place, she will be back and readier than ever. In my mind, seeing the photos of her workouts and her recovery, I feel as if she will be a steel butterfly of sorts. She will shed her cocoon, and have taken her game to a whole new level.
Best of luck in your recovery, Betty, and see you on the ice soon!
She just turned 13-years old the day before our interview together, and yet she is already the starting goaltender for her high school’s girls varsity – yes, I said varsity – hockey team. Considering that the girls’ team is actually a composite of three separate high schools (Kenmore West, Kenmore East and Grand Island high schools in the suburbs of Buffalo), it is even more remarkable that seventh grader Ellie Simmons is the top netminder. Both figuratively and literally, she is “heads above the rest”. Not only is she the starter, but at her tender age Ellie is already 5-feet, 8-inches tall. Taking into account that she has a few more years to still grow, her size combined with her ability to cover the net is enough to make hockey coaches drool.
If that weren’t enough, Ellie Simmons is one cool kid too. We are sitting at a Panera with her goalie coach (Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann) on a school night, and after Ellie has just pulled out an overtime win against Monsignor Martin. She is upbeat, smiley, and very polite. With a firm handshake and presenting herself most well, you would think Ellie Simmons is much older than her age. And as she warms herself up with some mac n’ cheese and hot cocoa (after all, it is January in Buffalo), we begin to talk.
“I practically grew up in the rink”, Ellie tells me about the beginnings of her becoming enthralled with the game. “Both my older sisters played hockey, so I always went to all of their games. They were both role models for me. There was a big age gap, and I looked up to them so much that I wanted to start playing too”. Ellie’s older sisters, Kaitlyn and Grace, are 21- years old and 19-years old respectively; Kaitlyn being a fellow goaltender, while Grace is a defender. Even Ellie’s father is a goaltender, while her mother played soccer but shares a strong appreciation of both games. “I originally started as a skater too, because my sister Grace was the first of us to start playing hockey. She’s a really good defender, so I wanted to be just like her. But when I was about 8-years old my team needed a goalie. I ended up playing goalie full time, and it was great because my dad could coach me too”. Mr. Simmons tended net collegiately at Le Moyne College in the Syracuse and still continues to play recreationally. With such a strong foundation of sports, specifically deep hockey roots in her family, it was natural for Ellie to fall in love with the game too.
When naming off her “hockey heroes”, sister Grace is at the top of Ellie’s list. “Even though she is a defender and I am a goalie, it’s her work ethic and her determination that I really admire. She knows when she does something wrong, and she immediately tries to fix it. Grace is my role model for her character, and for how far I want to get with hockey”. Grace Simmons is a NCAA Division-III defender for the University of Southern Maine. This helps to set some high standards for me”, Ellie says. With Grace only being in her freshman year at the university, Ellie hopes to make it up to Maine and see her big sister play sometime soon, although this is definitely challenging considering how busy her own hockey schedule is.
Simmons has her own dreams of playing hockey collegiately when the time comes. Asked which school would be her “dream school” to play for? “Penn State. My sister had a tournament there one time, and their rink is just amazing. Their campus is like a town all by itself”. While the men’s team just recently became the top collegiate team in the nation for the first time, the Division-I Nittany Lions women’s hockey team is still relatively new. Coached by Josh Brandwene, the program’s first season was 2012-13. I have a hunch though that they would be very much interested in a goaltender of Ellie Simmons’ character and caliber.
Goaltenders are often considered unique and to have personalities or characteristics that make them at least a little different than skaters. For Ellie Simmons, this is part of what piqued her own interest in the position. “When I was a younger kid, it was kind of fun to be different from everyone else”, she explains. “To be that one person who has to put on the pads”. Thus far, it is a lot more than just donning the pads that have made Ellie Simmons become a standout. In this current 2016-17 season in the Western New York Girl’s Varsity Ice Hockey Federation, the seventh grader has played the third most minutes out of eighteen goaltenders in the league with over 470-minutes between the pipes. On top of that, she has compiled a stat sheet of some truly stellar numbers; a 0.915 save percentage with stopping 257 of 281 shots, a 2.29 goals against average, and a record of 6-4-1 which includes 3 shutouts. Keep in mind that this is her very first year of playing high school hockey, which conceivably has five more years to go.
The success that Ellie Simmons is achieving at such a young age has by no means gone to her head. Ellie possesses a strong sense of humility. What she enjoys the most about playing hockey are the variety of emotions that the game is able to invoke into those who play it. “The ways that the game makes you feel. It can give you so many different emotions”, she tells me. “You can be happy, sad; it can even be scary at times. Playing the game is intense, and you really have to focus on what you are doing”.
Saying all of that, Ellie knows that in order to achieve success in hockey, especially as a goaltender, players have to find a means of keeping themselves in check. If hockey generates a wide variety of emotions, it becomes more of a balancing act; not letting your highs get you too high, and not letting your lows get you too low, all while playing at a highly competitive level. “You cannot let your emotions get the best of you. If you get scored on, you just have to move onto the next shot. You have to look at it from the perspective of playing from shot to shot. If you get caught up in your head, you are not going to be able to make the next save”.
If you have not already gathered it by now, it is important to note that Ellie Simmons is very much down to earth. There is a self-awareness to her, and she recognizes that she still has a long ways to go in her career, even at this level. There really is not a true sense of pulling ahead from the rest of the pack. Ellie Simmons works her darndest out on the ice, but understands that the competition level will only increase. “As you get older, the competition for ice time to play in the net increases. Right now my goalie partner and I share the net duties, but I know as we get older we are going to have to start competing with each other for the net. You have to always keep it friendly and remember that you’re both trying to reach the same goal; so you have to help each other”. Some very wise words from this young lady.
Outward from the crease, some of Ellie’s teammates and her competition at the high school level present an array of challenges as shooters. I ask her if this is a somewhat intimidating for her. She handles it as cool as a cucumber. “It was a little scary at first, but once I started taking the shots it did not really get to me anymore. I know that they are all great players. Some of them are playing Tier-I 19U hockey. The placement of their shots was particularly scary initially, and how hard they were. But the more shots I got from them in practices, I became more used to them by the time the games started.”. And now for Ellie, these shots are kind of old hat for her. It was also helpful that her teammates, despite being older, were accepting of her and welcoming. “With both of my sisters having played on the team before, everyone kind of knew me because I was always that little sister that went to all the games. And once we get onto the ice together we’re all just hockey players and age doesn’t really matter”.
In additional to playing on her high school team, Ellie also plays for the Buffalo Bisons girls travel team. Hence, her receiving close tutelage from Buffalo Beaut Kelsey Neumann who is a goalie coach for the program. What Ellie considers to be her most memorable hockey game she has played in thus far actually comes from her time with the Bisons 12U girls team, when she played her first game. “I had just played on 14U non-tournament bound for the Tonawanda Lightning (another local youth hockey organization), and I had just joined the Bisons. We were playing a tournament in Boston (Massachusetts), and it was my first game ever playing with the team. I didn’t really know any of the girls yet, and it was kind of scary at first. I knew too that the game would set the tone for the rest of the season. I ended up getting a shutout in the game and my team played really well too. It was also really nice to meet all of the girls at the time as well”.
Getting to work up close and personal with “Coach Kelsey”, Ellie and Neumann have formed a bond that is far more like sisters than that of coach and student. In fact, Neumann may as well be a third older sister to Ellie. “Coach Kelsey has been through all of this before. She grew up playing hockey, and she knows what you need to do to get as far as she has. She is a friend you can talk to, and she knows the difference between when you can joke around and have fun, and when you have to be serious”. And while Ellie certainly has gained valuable knowledge from Neumann in terms of goalie techniques and positioning, it is how Neumann carries herself as a person and her sense of morals that ring truest with her young goaltender. “Coach Kelsey is really built on the same idea that my parents instilled in me too, that it is more important to be a good person than it is to be a good hockey player. Even after hockey is over, you still need to be a human. Coach Kelsey shows that by her actions too, and sets examples for us of how a good goalie can be a good person”. And seeing the two of them side by side, it is obvious from body language alone the high regard that Ellie holds her coach within.
Let’s say that Ellie Simmons does end up going to Penn State and playing NCAA hockey. Then what would be next after that? Does she too dream about playing professional women’s hockey in the NWHL someday, just like her coach? “I would love to play in the NWHL! It would be so fun. The league is a big showcase for amazing women’s hockey players. It would be something that is really nice”. Both Ellie and I marvel over the fact that right here in our own backyard, we have some of the best women’s hockey players in the world. Something that we both share a mutual appreciation of, and that we are well aware of how special and unique that opportunity truly is.
One of the most vital ways for the NWHL to be successful is to continue to grow the game for the next generation of players; ones like Ellie Simmons. But it is maybe equally as important to include the young girls on the periphery; the ones who are on the fence about playing hockey in the first place. I ask Ellie to share with me her two cents on encouraging young girls who may be hesitant to give hockey a try. “Go out and try it. Might feel a little scary at first, but once you get over your fears of falling down and things like that, it is just fun and you get to meet so many different people. Most of my friendships are from hockey. And hockey teaches you so much more than how to play the sport. It teaches you character, and how you should act on and off the ice”.
Having met her and borrowed about an hour of her time, I am certain that Ellie Simmons will continue to exceed expectations throughout any avenues of life that she may pursue, but particularly in her hockey career. I still cannot get over the fact that as a seventh grader she is the starting goaltender on a varsity high school team in a hockey town like Buffalo. I am admittedly a bit awestruck by this. Ellie attributes a lot of her ability to keep a level head to her mom, whom she also wants to give a special shout-out to. “My mom definitely keeps me in check sometimes”, she says with a laugh. “If I have a bad game sometimes, she’ll be standing there making funny faces at me”. Having a mom who can help you smile when you are having a down moment is definitely a good mom.
I am anxious with anticipation to see where Ellie Simmons career goes from here, and would love to look back on her hockey résumé by the time she is my age. I know full well that she will have a long list of accolades. She undoubtedly gave an excellent first interview, and I feel proud to have made this young lady’s acquaintance. So when she ends up making it to the Frozen Four someday or becoming an NWHL first round draft pick for the league’s newest expansion team, just remember that you heard about her here first.
There are two photos that I saw of Kelsey Neumann from after the Beauts game that exemplify who she is. The first, a photo out in the parking garage of the HarborCenter by her car; her arms around four of the young players that she helps coach for the Buffalo Bisons girls U12 team. Despite the disparaging 3-0 loss (1/14/17) to the New York Riveters, and that it was fast approaching 11 o’clock at night, these little ladies waited for Neumann to complete her interview with me so that they could meet up with their coach. There is a clear confidence and belief in their faces as they stand alongside a coach who obviously matters deeply to them.
The second photo is that of Neumann flanked by her loving parents. Both of whom smiled to me and said hello as I walked out with Kelsey from the locker area, and were wearing Neumann #31 Beauts jerseys too. You can tell that the support has been there since day one. Neumann’s dad she lists as one of her “hockey heroes” (her brother too) and an inspiration for getting her interested in the game to begin with. Neumann jokingly tells me that I should have let her mom conduct the interview, as she knows the details of her daughter’s entire hockey career like the back of her hand. Joking aside, there is plenty of truth to that statement as well and she means it because her mom could recite the history of her daughter’s on ice career arguably better than Neumann could herself. Both “Mom” and “Dad” were sounding boards and participants in helping Neumann prepare for the interview and recall the past.
I look at both of these photographs, and it is easy to see that Kelsey Neumann touches the lives of so many. Family. Friends. Teammates. Players. Parents and their kids. The next generation of hockey players. They hold Neumann in the highest regard, and she touches the heartstrings of all of them. I am fortunate that on a January night, when the rink is just about vacant by the time we are finished, Kelsey Neumann affords me the opportunity to learn more about her life firsthand.
“I was actually born in California, and then moved to San Antonio, Texas. It’s a real ‘hockey hotbed’ too” – and I believe her for a second – “yeah, we had one ice rink”, Neumann says. I laugh at her dry delivery. “I was on skates before I could walk, and then when I was about 4, I wanted to play. I have an older brother and he plays. In San Antonio, they didn’t have Mini Mites or Timbits, so I was a four year old girl, the only one out there, playing with nine year old boys”. Talk about being in some deep water, but the opportunities in that particular region were limited. “After the first year I played forward, and I was like ‘I don’t want to play anymore because they never pass it’, but my mom told me to stick with it. And I did, and from there it was no turning back”.
Following in the footsteps of both her father, who, fun fact, as a goalie himself was one of the few high school players and the only player from south of the Mason-Dixon line that was invited to the 1980 Olympic tryouts for Team USA, and her brother, Neumann would transition into the goaltender position. “My brother was going to goalie camp, and I didn’t want to sit around the rink and be bored for a week. So the week before I told my parents that I wanted to try it. They found the gear for me. My mom put my pads on the wrong legs the first day. Then, at the end of the week I won the shootout challenge at the camp. After that week, my parents knew that they weren’t going to retire with any money”, she recalls with a grin. Neumann’s parents sought opportunities for their children to play at the highest possible levels, even if that involved moving the family. After starting hockey in San Antonio, they would move upwards of 4-hours plus to Dallas, Texas. From there, the family moved even further north to a more traditional hockey market in Michigan where Neumann played Boys AAA hockey. Eventually the family would move to Madison, Wisconsin and Kelsey would play for the Madison Capitals; a year of which was spent playing with US Olympian and fellow NWHLer Amanda Kessel as a teammate, prior to both players leaving to play in other boys programs and attending prep schools. From start to present, Mr. and Mrs. Neumann did all that they could to promote their children’s love for hockey, and it is amazing to see the progression over time.
A major stride in her development as a goalie came from the unique opportunity to receive tutelage from one of hockey’s all time greats. “I trained with Vladislav Tretiak for a few summers and got to learn from him firsthand”. A 1989 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame and the current president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia, Tretiak won three Olympic gold medals and ten gold medals at the World Championships; not to mention a handful of silver and bronze as well. Tretiak is widely considered one of the greatest goaltenders to ever play the sport. “Tretiak used to run a camp in Minnesota”, Neumann tells me, “and my parents found it. My brother and I used to go to the camp every summer. Originally we went to his camp in Toronto when I was 7 or 8, and initially he wasn’t going to let anyone do the camp who was under 10. But because I was a competitive gymnast previously, they realized that I could handle the rigorous hours and let me do it. So, I trained with Tretiak for every summer from when I was 7 or 8 until the age of 14 or 15”.
Though Tretiak may be at the top of her list of hockey heroes, as well as some more recent netminders like Montreal’s Carey Price and another goaltending great in Curtis Joseph, Neumann is quick to point out that she considers her brother to share that same podium of motivators, and considers his presence in her life to have contributed greatly in where she is today. “Watching my brother growing up, he’s two years older, and he really pushed me to be better. I have him to thank for a lot of it”.
Throughout her high school years, Neumann would become the starting goaltender for three seasons with the North American Hockey Academy (NAHA) Winter Hawks. “I went to NAHA from my sophomore year until my senior year of high school. At the time, NAHA had a full-year program. Typically, you start off at home. Then after Labor Day you take your schoolwork and all of your curriculum with you to NAHA, and stay there until about February when you go back to your home schools and home teams. But when I was there my three years we had a full-year program. We would get there a few weeks before Labor Day, have a tournament Labor Day Weekend, and then we would get done at NAHA about the first week of May”, she recalls. Definitely a huge focus on playing hockey and learning the game. During her time with the program, Neumann compiled some staggering numbers. A career goals against average of 1.16, 0.930 save percentage, and a total of 54-shutouts. Absolutely stellar statistics. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I definitely have Bill and Jesse Driscoll (Director of Hockey and Head Coach of NAHA respectively) to thank for that experience. Without NAHA, I think it would have been a lot more difficult for me to get into college”.
Neumann shares with me that as someone who has learning disabilities, the one-on-one tutoring that was given to her at NAHA made a remarkable difference in her academics and her confidence level as she geared towards a collegiate career as a hockey player and pursuing a degree. “Knowing my own disabilities is part of what led me to pursuing the career that I went into after undergrad. NAHA really opened the door for me for a lot of opportunities to play around the world and around the country”.
Neumann initially began her collegiate career at Clarkson University in upstate New York. “I really liked the “small school” atmosphere. Like I said, having learning disabilities I knew that a big school wasn’t going to fit for me. I went and looked at Wisconsin before my junior year of high school and Hilary Knight gave me the tour. I was like, ‘Okay, this is a great looking school, but it’s huge!’. And then when I went on my tour of Clarkson, I really liked the atmosphere”. As someone who received his bachelor’s at Canisius College in Buffalo, where Neumann wrapped up her own Master’s Degree, I definitely appreciate and relate to the comfort of a “small school” atmosphere. She goes on to say, “The atmosphere at Clarkson for games is next to none. The community that it is, and even the fact that the University’s president goes to the women’s games as much as he does the men’s games, if not sometimes more, means so much. Even though I ended up transferring, I still follow Clarkson today and it is amazing to see how far that program has come since their first day”. Statistically, Neumann would play in one game her freshman year for Clarkson and have a 22-save performance.
After that first year of NCAA hockey, Kelsey Neumann would transfer to SUNY Plattsburgh and would play with their Cardinals women’s ice hockey program. The experience for her would be a difficult one, but in hindsight it fostered a lot of strength in her for the future. Kelsey most assuredly came out on top of any struggles she encountered at the time.
Speaking on the transfer to Plattsburgh she says, “Being a goalie it’s always tough going into college because usually you have three goalies on a roster. I went into freshman year at Clarkson and had one other goalie partner. Then Clarkson ended up bringing in a U18 Team Canada goalie going into my sophomore year. I was at Clarkson the first half of my sophomore year, and I knew that this girl was better than me. She still plays for Team Canada today, and she is an amazing goalie. So I knew that the opportunities to get a chance at Clarkson would not be what I had hoped for. That is partially what led to me deciding to transfer from Clarkson, and then also academically, Clarkson is a great school and a very hard school. As much as I would have loved to have stayed and graduated from there, I knew that there were certain class requirements, that if I had stayed, I would have been there three more years trying to complete a math class. It is an engineering school and engineering math is not easy. So overall, that is what led me to choosing Plattsburgh. Their support staff there was great. It was great at Clarkson too, but at Plattsburgh I was able to have a little bit more flexibility with the classes and course load”.
Neumann would complete her bachelor’s degree at Plattsburgh, but would resign from playing on the team after her junior year. “Leaving Clarkson, I was part of a big family. I thought that with moving over to Plattsburgh that it was going to be part of another big family. Because of putting in double of what most student athletes have to put in to make sure that my grades are where they needed to be, and with all the help I needed and everything like that, I wasn’t one who had a huge social life outside of practice, work and school. I didn’t really fit with the norm, so that whole idea of coming into a new family like I had at NAHA or Clarkson, it wasn’t that. There were a lot of incidents that happened. It is not fortunate that I was bullied so to speak, but I am fortunate enough to have gone through it because now as a coach I take that with me into when I am coaching. I coach at least three girls teams, between the age groups of the 10s, 12s and 14s with the Bisons. I tell them and I always let them know, you don’t have to be best friends when you are outside of the rink, but the minute you walk into that rink, you are a family and if I hear of anything where so-and-so is picking on so-and-so, whether it is social media, in person, through text messages, if I catch wind of it I put a stop to it right away even before the head coaches get involved. All those girls know, and I talk to them about it all the time, you are a family first and that is the most important thing when you step into the locker room”. Hearing her say this, I feel a sense of comfort in knowing that these young girls have a coach such as Kelsey who not only promotes kindness and a sense of family within the team, but whose words ring sincerely and seriously. It is not just lip service that she is promoting when she speaks about family; she truly means it, fosters it and expects it of her athletes.
Between Neumann’s time with Plattsburgh and prior to joining the Buffalo Beauts, she played for a wide variety of teams seemingly everywhere. But more importantly, she would recapture her love of the game and that integral family aspect once more. “After my junior year when I resigned at Plattsburgh, I ended up on a women’s team out of North Carolina. My first year with them I felt that family bond again right away and they were very accepting. I am actually still with them, even though I can only make the games usually. I’ll travel around and meet them at tournaments. Being from North Carolina, they do not have an opportunity to practice often, but when I am with them I feel like I have never left. Then, when I moved to Buffalo for grad school at Canisius I started doing pickup games at the Northtown Center. I also got asked to sub for a men’s team, which led to me playing on some other men’s teams. So here and there I play on men’s teams when I am able. I still fill-in if and when I can, and I have even played out (out from her normal goaltender position) on some of them too over the summer. But playing on my women’s team from North Carolina was something that really helped me after my junior year. They helped me to realize the love of the game again and what family meant, which is really what I needed going into this (the NWHL). They have been so supportive of me pursuing this dream that some of them feel that they are living it with me”.
So how did the opportunity of being a goaltender for the Buffalo Beauts come about for Kelsey Neumann? She explains, “I moved to Buffalo about four years ago to attend grad school. I moved over to the Bisons organization last year (a minor team organization in Buffalo) and Shelley Looney (Olympic gold and silver medalist for Team USA) is the head of that. I let her know last year that I knew she had a Canadian goalie, and that the Canadian players couldn’t always come over for practice, so if they needed a goalie that I could be available. She ended up texting me and I started practicing with the team regularly at the beginning of last year. When I signed up for the Beauts tryouts this year, I was able to use Shelley as my reference because she has seen me play. So, ultimately I think that I have Shelley to thank for this opportunity to be a Beaut”, Neumann smiles. Nothing wrong with that, right? “No, and I actually idolized her as a kid. I still have a picture of she and I when I was nine, just after USA won the gold medal”.
And now that she has made it to the NWHL, I became curious to know what it is that Neumann hopes to accomplish in her career in this first ever professional women’s league. But in Neumann’s words (as if I could have expected anything else from her) it still comes down to her family-first and team-first nature. “Honestly, I want to do whatever is best for my team. I want to make sure that as I am getting better, that I am helping them to get better. Whether that is pushing myself harder in the weight room, pushing myself harder on the ice, taking extra games where I can with men’s teams, I am prepared if, God forbid, something should happen to a goalie partner. Ultimately, I would love to become a fulltime contracted player next year. If that’s in the cards, then it’s in the cards. If not, I’m still happy being a Beaut and I truly love being a part of the team. Being able to help anyway that I can, as much as I can, then I am going to do that”. You can see this even in Neumann’s body language. As I watch her on the bench during the action of the game, you can see her intense focus on the play; she is emotionally and seriously invested in the game and her team.
On the ice for the Beauts (and when she is coaching too for that matter), one attribute of Neumann’s that makes her so effective is her vision of the game. Almost like a chess match. The fact that she has a Russian hockey legend as a hero, I liken her vision to that of another Russian great, “The Professor”, Igor Larionov, even though he was not a goaltender. But like Larionov, Kelsey Neumann is able to read the play a few steps ahead; seemingly reading the future of how the play will transpire. “I see the whole ice”, she says. “I stand back, and I can see everything. I can see the play developing, and I know before the player even knows where that puck is going to go. It can be frustrating at times, because you know what is going to happen, and then you see it, and you’re like, ‘hey, I called that’. But ultimately it helps me be a better communicator for my team. I have been told that I am very vocal when I am on the ice”, she laughs.
If you follow the Buffalo Beauts at all on social media, you have likely seen “The Adventures of McLevman”, an absolutely hilarious portrayal of antics using stereotypes of goaltenders in the form of videos. “McLevman” being a combination of the three Beauts goaltenders last names of Neumann, Amanda Leveille, and Brianne McLaughlin, and an homage of course to the character known as “McLovin” from the film “Superbad“. “The Adventures of McLevman” videos have taken Kelsey Neumann and her compatriots, mind you in full goalie gear, to supermarkets, shopping centers and classrooms. If you have not seen their videos yet, you need to check them out! Visit their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/mclevman
So Kelsey, how did this whole “McLevman” thing come about and what has the reaction been like from the public? She enlightens me. “So ‘Lev’ and I were just talking about this in the locker room. I told her that I had an interview, and she was like, ‘About what? Is it about us?’, and I confirmed that yes, there was a question about us. It actually started when she first got her Brian’s pads (a particular brand of goalie equipment). To break them in, and apparently there is a picture Lev has to prove this, she is walking her dog outside in full goalie gear”, we’re both laughing by this point. “Her and I never met before this season. First practice, she comes in and instantly it was like we had known each other forever. Which was an amazing feeling to have, especially with one of your goalie partners. Then, we are standing out there, waiting to get out on the ice for our first practice together. We were all talking about Lev’s picture, and so we decided to recreate the picture and I opted to be the dog. We are always at each other’s houses, so from there, we decided that we should sit down and write out goalie stereotypes and weird things that people think goalies actually do. It’s been hilarious! And it’s been fun for us. I’ve been able to involve some of the kids that I coach into it too. We both got a little excited too that Garret Sparks (Toronto Marlies goaltender and Maple Leafs prospect) friended both of us on Facebook after seeing our ‘McLevman’ videos. So for the most part it has been very positive and very fun to have other people think it’s hilarious too. We went to New York City about a month ago and there was guy there who printed out the photo of all three of us laying in and around the net, and he asked the three of us to sign it for him. He took a picture with Bri and I. It’s those kind of things that are really fun”. In this day and age, people need to laugh more. Spread some laughter and levity. The “McLevman” trio are definitely able to make that happen.
Neumann has actually been able to incorporate the “McLevman” videos into her own classroom, using the classroom space and even some of her students to help with the video. “I teach at Journey’s End; it’s a refugee school. It’s all adults, and it’s interesting for me because I always knew that I wanted to do special ed or some type of teaching, because I was passionate towards learning about my own disabilities. I was told that I was never going to make it to college. I went from being told this in seventh grade, and then actually going to college and graduating with a really good GPA. From there, I went onto grad school and graduated with a dual Master’s, and I was inducted into honors societies. I knew then it was now my turn to give back. I was asked to work at this refugees school. It initially started out as a long term subbing position, but now it’s turned into a permanent part time position. I have level one students, and they are mostly just two months into living in the country, so it has been a lot of fun getting to watch them grow and to see them actually learning the language”.
Coinciding with what she is able to accomplish as both a coach and as a teacher, Neumann sees the fact that she is a Buffalo Beaut providing more opportunity for her to be a role model for others, especially the next generation of women’s hockey players; the little girls whom she presently coaches. “I have been with Ellie, my 14U goalie, for three years now, and she is a little sister to me. The relationships that I can make with the families and the kids that I work with. That’s just one of the biggest things; to become even more of a role model for someone, and not just for the teams that I coach but for other little girls too”. Neumann is even looking towards doing private lessons and group sessions over the summer for little girls who are netminders. Again, more opportunity to give back to the community and be a positive example in the lives of youngsters. One little lady in particular, Jayden, from the New Jersey area, whom Neumann has befriended and has had the opportunity to remain in touch with and see when the Beauts have been on the road, even had some of her own advice for Neumann going into a Beauts practice that she provided through Facebook: “Don’t ever give up. Make sure you have fun. And just work your hardest”. Words of wisdom from a nine year old, and in that moment it was exactly what Neumann needed to get herself up for practice that evening. Thank you, Jayden.
We need to take into consideration the importance of growing the women’s game for hockey players like Jayden, and Ellie, and other youngsters like these. Neumann and I wholeheartedly agree that we want the NWHL and professional women’s hockey to be around for many years to come. That being a professional women’s hockey player is a dream that can someday very much become a reality for today’s nine year old girl. “As much support as we can get”, Neumann tells me. “That is part of why Lev, Bri and me keep doing the “McLevman” videos; to get our names out there. Not our personal names, but our team name. The league’s name. We are always tagging the Beauts. Tagging the NWHL. We are really just trying to spread the word. We post it on goalie pages, we post it publicly. Wherever we can. The more and more that people know about the league, the more it will grow. That is one of the harder things that we have found; we think that everyone knows who we are, and there are still so many people that don’t know about the NWHL”. And Neumann is right; it is necessary to garner as much attention as possible.
If there is one thing I have learned from meeting Kelsey Neumann, it’s that with her it is about more than just hockey. She is able to put it into perspective for me with some parting words. “Responsibility. Responsibility plays a big key in being a hockey player. That dates back to my parents; they have always instilled that in me. Being responsible for yourself, and also your teammates. That goes back to my days in peewee when I played Boys AAA in Michigan under Coach Matt. Each kid was given a different job each weekend. Whether it was washing everyone’s jerseys or whatever. It taught us that there was more than just one person to a team. It taught us that if you are going to be responsible for someone other than yourself, it’s going to be the whole team. You have to own it and buy into that team mentality. Determination and hard work too. That comes not just from hockey, but through my learning disability. Perseverance through being told you are not good enough or not smart enough, and knowing that it was not true. To keep pushing forward and keep doing what I am doing. Coaches who may have told me that I was not good enough may look at me now and think, ‘okay, maybe I was wrong’. I try to teach all of the girls whom I coach that you need to be responsible for yourself and for your teammates. Not everyone can pick up the slack for you. Moving forward, I am here to teach you more than just hockey. I am here to teach you that in life, you are going to have to fight for it. You are going to have people who are against you, and this and that. If you can learn that now at 10, 12 and 14, then you are going to be better off down the road”.
Kelsey Neumann is one of a kind in my book. I am greatly impressed by how one young lady can embody such meaningful ideals, have a heart of gold, and can be such a skillful athlete. And I think that is why she is so deeply loved by all of whom that I mentioned earlier. She is one of a kind. She is a person that you meet only one of in a lifetime. There is no parity with her, and she is someone whom you are better just because you know her. Keep doing your thing, Kelsey. Keep being you. Give us some more “McLevman” escapades. And know that family, friends, teammates, coaches, parents and kiddos see your value as something priceless and a necessary ingredient in their lives.
While she tells me that her favorite hockey players are a fellow countryman and arguably the most recognized player presently in women’s hockey, I liken Henriette Behn’s style of play to more of a robust forward who is not afraid to take a puck to the inside of the thigh or the shaft of a stick plastered across the back. Say, a Tomas Holmstrom. Or a Johan Franzen. She has net presence. “My hockey heroes are Hilary Knight and Mats Zuccarello. I wouldn’t say that I am a sniper, no. I would say that I am more of a hardworking type of player. A player who you can put in front of the opponent’s net to screen the goalie and make space for my teammates”. And thus far in her young career, Henriette Behn has done a very admirable job of that.
Born New Year’s Eve of 1998, Behn’s passion for the game was initially instilled in her by her father. “I was four years old when I attended my first hockey school, and then I joined an actual team later that same year. It was my dad who introduced me to the sport. The fact that he was a hockey coach at that time made me become interested in trying it”. Behn hails from the city of Oslo; the capital and most populous city in the country of Norway.
Though opportunities to play hockey may have been limited to a certain extent, that does not mean that the quality or competition was poor for Behn to partake in. Quite the contrary, actually. “In Oslo there are about five ice rinks so the opportunities to play are definitely there. However being a girl and playing in Oslo of course lessens those opportunities. But in my mind it has only been a positive thing for me. With fewer opportunities to play on girls teams, I have played on boys teams since I was five. This has only been for the better when it comes to my development”.
One of the top hockey clubs in the city of Oslo is Vålerenga, and Behn was able to grow through the ranks of their program since her earliest ages in the game. “I played for Vålerenga’s boys team from when I was five until I was thirteen”, at which age Behn was old enough to play in Norway’s women’s elite league. Having already been a member of Vålerenga for such a considerable length of time, it was only natural that Behn joined their women’s team. “There are six teams in Norway’s women’s league, in the elite series”, she explains. “Vålerenga performed good during the 5-years I played with the team. We always managed to put together a good group of hardworking players who all had a winning mindset. Often our results led us to leading the entire league”. Across those 5-years, Behn appeared in 46-career games in the Norwegian women’s league for Vålerenga and tallied 12-goals and 6-assists.
It was during this time with Vålerenga that Henriette Behn had the opportunity to represent her country in three consecutive Women’s U18 Division-I Championships as a member of the Norwegian national team; each opportunity having been a true honor for her. “It meant a lot to me. You feel a special type of pride when wearing your nation’s jersey, and you naturally always feel very honored when representing your own country by doing something that you love”. I like how Behn recognizes the value of this, and maybe sees it a step further than many athletes. Not only did she have three opportunities (thus far) to represent Norway on the international hockey stage, but she did so – and she was the one to say it – by doing something that she truly loves. Rarer of an opportunity still. When you can combine skill with love and channel it into one focus, one mindset, it is an experience that so few get to feel. And Behn has achieved a trifecta of sorts in that respect.
Behn’s first go-round in this particular IIHF tournament was in 2014 for the games in Füssen, Germany. Barely 15-years old at the time, Behn would play in all 5-tournament games for the Norwegian team. But seeing limited ice time likely due to her age and experience level, Behn more so utilized this first tournament to gain invaluable experience for future tournaments ahead; the likes of which she could not have foreseen the dividends it would eventually pay. “That first tournament was a motivation to me because it was my first time on the national team. The speed in the games and the tempo in general was much faster than I was used to in Norway. So this was definitely something that helped prepare me for future international tournaments”. In the 5-games Behn was held pointless and the Norwegians would finish fourth overall with 2-wins and 3-losses.
Then came 2015. And for Behn and Team Norway, it would be a tournament for the ages. A full tournament already under her belt, Behn tied for the team lead in goal scoring with 3-goals and a whopping 25-percent shooting percentage throughout the tournament. For a second year player on the national team who does not consider herself a sniper, she was on fire. Describing her mindset when she is in the game, Behn tells me “I’m a player who hates to loose; the coach can expect that I always give 100-percent in the games that I play”. The fire in her belly sparked Norway to a 3-1-1 tournament finish and the silver medal at the games in Vaujany, France.
Arguably though for Behn, the most exciting moment of the series came when she scored the game tying goal against Slovakia with only 32-seconds left in the game to send it to overtime; firing a loose puck past goaltender Olga Jablonovska. After an extra session was played and no decisive winner, the two teams went to a shootout which saw the Norwegians come away with 5-4 victory, well on their way to the silver. Describing that pinnacle moment in which she scored, Behn recalls, “That game was thrilling because the intensity was just so high! I remember I was put on the ice towards the end of regulation so that I could screen the goalie. I remember thinking that I just had to score. When I got that shot from my teammate and managed to score on that rebound, that is a feeling that I cannot even describe”.
And how could she? Once again, it comes down to rarity that few ever get to experience. A tying goal against another nation that keeps your own country’s medal hopes alive. But this is a prime example of Behn’s net presence and when it mattered the most. She also is able to put that medal run into perspective for me. “To win that silver medal was an amazing experience. That meant a lot to me and it’s something I will never forget. Our team was strong that season, and everyone was motivated to show what we really could do. I think this team spirit and the fact that I was in really good shape that season led me to having such strong tournament”.
2016 was Behn’s final U18 tournament appearance and Norway could not recreate their success from the year prior. For Behn, recognizing that it was her last tournament at this particular level was a slightly surreal experience even though she enjoyed it as a whole. “I thought it was a good tournament because that year there were many new players in the group. But of course, it was kind of weird knowing it was my final tournament with the U18 team”. Maybe even somewhat ironic too, that her final statistics from the tournament are incorrect, which she jokingly points out. “I had two goals in that tournament”, she laughs; “the stats are wrong”. Officially, the IIHF has her down as having 1-goal and 1-assist in the 5-game tournament. Norway finished fourth overall with another record of 2-wins and 3-losses.
Though these were Behn’s last U18 appearances on the Norwegian national team, they are likely not her last for Norway, nor does she expect them to be. “I was actually in Hungary with the Norwegian national team back in November (2016), so I hope that I will have the opportunity to play for them going forward. This is something I work hard towards and have in mind every time I workout, so it is definitely something that I am striving for”.
So while she is actively preparing herself for the next opportunity to play for her homeland, what is Henriette Behn’s current status in hockey? Färjestad BK; a hockey club in Sweden that is one tier lower than their Swedish elite women’s hockey league. Asked about the decision to leave the familiar confines of Vålerenga, Behn tells me that she opted for Färjestad BK to further develop her skill level. “I was looking for a more challenging season, and wanted to develop myself even more. As a hockey player this is naturally something you always strive for. Therefore, I was contacted by the Färjestad BK’s coach and received an offer to play there this season. I felt like this was an appropriate league for me where I could develop”.
And does Behn hold out hope that Färjestad BK may even be promoted to Sweden’s top women’s league? “Yes, there is a possibility that my team will be promoted to the top league. This is what we are working for during the season, so it will definitely be cool to see how we will do in these qualifications. For my part, I definitely want to work hard to reach this goal. And that is to play in the top Swedish women’s league!”. In 6-games this season with Färjestad BK, Behn has 2-goals and 2-assists.
It is interesting to see how this young lady, who knows her way around the front of the net, has no issues with trudging through the trenches in order to better herself. She gets it. She has it figured out. I do not really like the adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It is far too overused and has lost its meaning. But there is something to be said about paying ones dues (to snatch a different phrase). It seems that Henriette Behn has found the proper niche where she can not only challenge herself physically on the ice, but where she also can have an attainable goal in her sights. And while that goal is an attainable one, it is not something that she can just skate right up to and take whenever she pleases. “Nothing comes easy”, she tells me. “You have to put in effort and hard work to get where you want to. And you have to sacrifice a lot of things to reach your goals. But hard work always pays off in the end”.