“It’s more than just hockey” ~Kelsey Neumann, Buffalo Beauts goalie

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.

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Though it was nearly 11 o’clock at night, some of Kelsey Neumann’s young athletes from the Buffalo Bisons waited by her car in 20-degree weather just to show support for their beloved coach (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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.

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Kelsey Neumann’s parents have been her biggest support network and her biggest fans, and fostered her love of hockey in its earliest stages (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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”.

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Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann making a beautiful glove save. (Photo credit: Michael Hetzel).

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”.

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8-year old Kelsey Neumann with one of hockey’s greatest goaltenders to ever play, Vladislav Tretiak. Neumann was a protégé of Tretiak’s from the ages of around 7 or 8 until 14 or 15 (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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”.

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Kelsey Neumann is very much an adored big sister to many young athletes (Photos provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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.

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With limited opportunities to play hockey in Texas, 4-year old Kelsey Neumann ended up having to play on a team comprised of 9-year old boys, though that obviously did not stop her (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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”.

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Having a heart of gold and a strong sense of integrity, it is no wonder that Kelsey Neumann has endeared herself to so many young athletes (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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”.

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While Kelsey Neumann lists Vladislav Tretiak, Carey Price, and Curtis Joseph as her hockey heroes, she also includes her brother, Justus, in that same category. This photo of Kelsey and Justus together when they were little sums up that relationship quite nicely. (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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.

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A sincere love and appreciation of her older brother Justus, a member of the U.S. military, Kelsey Neumann has been inspired by him since they were childhood goaltenders together (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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.

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Kelsey Neumann, Amanda Leveille, and Brianne McLaughlin, Buffalo Beauts goaltenders are “McLevman!” (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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.

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Kelsey Neumann with Jayden. Neumann is holding a hockey card of Jayden which has been autographed! (Photo provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann).

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.

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A collage of many of her athletes, Kelsey Neumann is loved by all whom she has had the opportunity to coach and teach (Photos provided courtesy of Kelsey Neumann)

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.

Make sure to give Kelsey a follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lilneumy

and on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lilneumy31/

 

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“Net Presence”: Henriette Behn, Färjestad BK forward

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.

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Knowing her way most effectively around the front of the net, Henriette Behn is a highly promising player for Färjestad BK (Photo provided courtesy of Värmlands Folkblad; Photo credit: Håkan Strandman).

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.

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Battling for position against Denmark, Norway’s Henriette Behn (in white) fights to establish position in front of the opposing net (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

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.

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Seen here fighting for a lose puck against Slovakia, Henriette Behn (center in red) is routinely found at the opposing goaltender’s doorstop (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

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”.

 

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Henriette Behn in hot pursuit of the puck while playing for Vålerenga in the Norwegian women’s ice hockey league (Photo credit: Kenneth Myrhe).

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”.

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Here once again Henriette is jousting in front of the Slovakian net, anticipating a deflection or a rebound (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

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”.

Thank you, Henriette! Very well stated.

 

 

 

Emilie Kruse; Norwegian U18, Linköping HC forward

The 2017 Women’s World U18 Divison-I Championships for hockey will be taking place from January 8th, 2017 through January 14th in Budapest, Hungary. Gearing up for the tournament is a 17-year old young lady who is already a three-time veteran of this particular soiree. Meet Emilie Kruse, a forward for Team Norway. “It is always an honor to represent my country, and I appreciate every opportunity that I get to wear the polar bear on my chest”, she says. Kruse is most eager and passionate about the upcoming showdown in Budapest and for the game of hockey in general. “Yes, I’ll be playing in my last U18 tournament. Being a veteran of two other previous tournaments, I will do my best to be a good example and a leader to the younger players. It is important to be dedicated to the game, and willing to sacrifice everything to achieve your goals, and I believe that we as a team are all going into the tournament with this same goal”. Poised and professional for sure, even at 17.

Knowing that it is not necessarily common for a female player to participate in more than two U18 tournaments, I became curious to know more about this young Norwegian. “When I was 3-years old I started to skate with my dad at the rink in my hometown in Norway, and I started to play shortly after that”. Kruse is from the town of Halden, Norway; one of the southernmost points of the country and very close to its border with Sweden. “My hockey life in Halden was always great”, Kruse says. “I got the opportunity to play hockey with boys ever since I started playing. I played with the same team until I decided to move to Sweden”. Kruse presently lives and plays hockey in the city of Linköping, Sweden.

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Hailing from Halden, Norway, 17-year old Emilie Kruse plays for Linköping HC in Sweden (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

Kruse’s love for the game seems greatly fostered by her parents; both of whom were players themselves. And while she cannot quite put her finger on what most drew her to the sport, the fact that it was a “family affair” began to groom her interest from the time she was a toddler. “Since I was only 3-years old, I cannot really tell what made me interested in hockey, but my dad and my mom used to play hockey when they were younger, and even my brother played at the same time as me for a while. So I guess that it just came naturally for me. No one ever forced me to play but of course it had an effect on me when I was younger that my mom and dad used to play. I used to play soccer as well, but that came to an end when I had to pick one of them; it wasn’t even a question which sport I was going to choose over the two”, Kruse tells me.

“I wouldn’t say that there were a lot of opportunities for me to play hockey in Halden”, she recalls from her childhood. “There was really one team, and that was it. Of course, there were other hockey teams nearby, but they belonged to other cities, and for me that was not an option”. From conversing with Emilie Kruse, I garner that she continuously endeavors to develop her hockey skills and that she had recognized at an early age she may need to seek opportunities elsewhere if she wanted to heighten her abilities. “It was when I decided to play with a women’s team that I began to look to other cities and countries to play. I had to play with a team from another city because my team in Halden didn’t have a women’s team; that was when I decided to play with Sparta Sarpsborg”.

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Prior to joining Linköping HC, Emilie Kruse played for Sparta Sarpsborg in her homeland of Norway. (Photo credit: Kenneth Myhre).

Sarpsborg is located in the same region as Halden, Østfold County, and dates back to the time of the Vikings as one of the oldest inhabited regions of the area. Only 30-minutes away by car, the close proximity between the two towns and the increased level of hockey brought about a virtual “no brainer” for Kruse to choose which path to take. “I decided to go to Sparta Sarpsborg because it was not far from home, and the team took me in before I was old enough to play with them”. Emilie Kruse actually started to practice with Sarpsborg a full year and a half before she was old enough to play with the team and with this particular league. “You have to be 13-years old to play in the league. It was an easy choice because I was always welcome with the team, and they were known for having a good team spirit”.

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Anytime that Emilie Kruse is able to don the Norwegian polar bear on her jersey, she considers it an honor (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

At only 5-foot 3-inches and 120-pounds, Kruse’s small stature never gave her reason to shy away from physical play. And although she was even smaller as a 13-year old, she earned herself a bit of a reputation on the ice with Sarpsborg. During her 47-career games with the team, Kruse registered 56-penalty minutes in addition to her 9-goals and 11-assists. She explains her style during those early years and how it has since transitioned: “Especially in my first two seasons in Sarpsborg, I was very small and didn’t follow with the tempo of the game. I was so little, and I got a good amount of hooking, tripping and slashing calls. I would not say that I played a particularly intense style of hockey at the time, but as I got taller and quicker I started to bodycheck. It’s hard to tell exactly why I did that, but it may have had something to do with me playing with boys and girls at the same time; I didn’t separate between two types of intensity in my game”.

I am especially impressed by Emilie Kruse’s own self-awareness as a hockey player, and how she is truly  able to take an inward look at her own game. Kruse goes on to say, “Now I feel that I play a more intense style of hockey. I am that type of player that can be very rough in a duel to win the puck, and especially when we have those really important games. It’s a physical game”, she says, “and I believe that I have to play with an edge to be the best for my team. We have so many good players in the league that I presently play in that being physical is becoming a part of my game. And for me, that’s how I can contribute for my own team”.

Kruse does not have to look far for role models, nor in less obvious corners of the “hockey globe” to find inspiration and further blossom her game. “I know that it’s a very original answer”, she says with a grin, “but if I am picking a hero from the NHL it would have to be Sidney Crosby. I think the overall package that he presents is highly impressive. The way he uses his body to protect the puck, and how he makes it possible to take advantage of his edge control to gain speed. He is naturally a good role model for me because of the way he works on the ice, and the happiness he gets when he is repaid for his hard work”.

In addition to Crosby, Kruse can find plenty of inspiration among her teammates with her current hockey club Linköping HC. Olympians Jennifer Wakefield, Denise Altmann, Florence Schelling, and Swedish legend Pernilla Winberg all comprise the roster. “I have the opportunity to play on the same team as many great hockey players, and I have even gotten to play against some others as well. I had the opportunity too to participate at the IIHF’s High Performance camp this summer, and got to listen to players tell their story and tell us about their careers”.

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With Linköping HC, Emilie Kruse plays for one of the most elite hockey clubs in the world. (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

And so how did Kruse end up in Sweden to play with one of the most historic hockey clubs in the history of the game (and that’s not just meaning in Sweden!)? “When I was younger my dad always took the family to watch Swedish Elite League games in Gothenburg, and I guess that got me to dreaming about wanting to play in Sweden someday. When I was playing for Sparta Sarpsborg I knew a man named Jens Brändström that had moved to Sarpsborg from Linköping, and he happened to coach me sometimes. He told me about Linköping, and that they were starting a gymnasium for girls, and he wondered if that would be of interest to me. Jens set me up on a tryout that Linköping was having in connection with the upcoming gymnasium, and I was lucky enough to be accepted”. 

For Kruse and her fellow countrywomen, the opportunity to play hockey in Sweden is a bit of a dream come true and is something to be held in high regard. “I think that many girls in Norway really want to play in Sweden. It’s a totally different league with players from all over the world; that right there naturally makes a higher tempo game. Swedish hockey for women is well spoken of in Norway, in general”. Having started with Linköping during the 2015-16 season, Kruse has already appeared in 43-games with the club between two seasons, potting 2-goals and an assist in that time. “Linköping is known for having a great association and for developing young players to become even better, and to be able to play in the US or wherever they would like to play. And for me, it is an honor to be a member of this association”.

In all, that is a vast amount of training, competition and experience for a young player like Kruse to have gained in a relatively short period of time. After all, she is only 17-years old and is playing on a roster with women who have won multiple Olympic medals in some instances. Needless to say, Kruse is enriched with the intangibles needed to be an elite international player herself, and has already made good use of them in two previous U18 competitions representing Norway.

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#18 Emily Kruse (Johansen) celebrates with her teammates for the Norwegian women’s national U18 team. (Photo provided courtesy of Emily Kruse).

2015 brought elation to the Norwegian women’s U18 team. A 3-1-1 finish in that year’s tournament in Vaujany, France gave Kruse and Team Norway an unprecedented silver medal at the tournament. “The silver medal is definitely one of my greatest achievements so far. I did not get much ice time except for some shifts in the first game of the tournament, but it was a unique experience and a motivation boost for the following year’s world championship”. The Norwegian’s tied for the tournament lead for fewest goals against; a mere 9-goals in 5-games. A particularly exciting matchup was Norway’s fourth game of the competition; a heart racing 5-4 shootout victory over Slovakia. The game featured a large amount of heated penalties between the two teams (slashing, elbowing, and illegal hit calls) with the Norwegians coming out victorious on Anniken Olafsen’s game-winning shootout goal. Still feeling a sense of exhilaration as she thinks back, Kruse says “I just remember that I was very nervous because of the shootout, but we won the game in the end and that’s all that matters”.

Another year older brought about a larger role for Emilie Kruse in 2016 for that year’s U18 tournament held in Miskolc, Hungary. Even though they would falter during her second major IIHF competition and end up in a fourth place by tournament end (2-wins, 3-losses), Kruse was a key contributor for the Norwegians. “For me it was a good tournament. I got a lot of ice time. Our coach trusted me and played me all the time. It was a totally different experience from the championship that I had the year before”. This 2016 go-round would see her finish with 2-assists in 5-games and have a plus-1 overall.

Entering into her third and final U18 tournament in only a matter of days, if there is anything that Norway can depend upon it is Emilie Kruse’s preparedness. Between the two prior tournaments and playing on a team as elite as Linköping HC, it is almost unbelievable the amount of experience that this little lady already has pinned to her résumé. But in talking with her too, another couple of things you can depend upon Emilie Kruse is her sense of humility and that self-awareness again as a hockey player.

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Wheeling away from a Hungarian player, Emilie Kruse (Johansen) #18 will represent Norway for third time on the national U18 squad in Hungary January 8th, 2017-January 14th in Budapest, Hungary (Photo provided courtesy of Emilie Kruse).

“I’m a technical player with a lot of energy. Sometimes I still need to remember and remind myself that it is necessary to play a full 60-minute game, and that is something that I have been working on”. This is what I mean by Kruse’s humility; she can critique herself with no issue and is always looking for ways to better her game. “Even though I consider myself pretty young, I have had a lot of opportunities to visit places I would never have seen if it wasn’t for hockey. I have also made a lot of friends from different countries that I will never forget”. Kruse appreciates what she has. No question whatsoever.

Some final words from Emilie to me: “As I said, I am very young, but a thing that I have learned during these years of playing hockey is that nothing comes for free. If you want something, you have to work hard to achieve your goal, and even if you meet challenges on the way you just have to keep going because eventually you will get repaid for your hard work”. Words to live by from a remarkable young woman. Thank you Emilie, and best wishes to you and the Norwegian team in Hungary!

 

Andrea Rišianová: Team Slovakia U18 Women’s Goaltender

“Our team’s goaltending coach came to my mom one day with some goalie pads and equipment and said, “Okay, Andrea is going to be a goalie now. I don’t really know how, but I can tell that she knows it; she can play the position”. That is how her role as a goaltender started. Simple, but intuitive on the part of her goaltending coach. It’s Christmas Eve, and I am chatting with a 16-year old netminder for Slovakia’s U18 national team, Andrea Rišianová.

She hails from the city of Martin, Slovakia. Located towards the middle of her homeland, Martin is the eighth largest city in the country and home to a population of 61,000. Despite the small population, former NHL players Zdeno Ciger, Richard Panik, Robert Svehla, Radovan Somik, and Peter Smrek all call the same town as Rišianová their home. The region is incredibly picturesque, accompanied by strolling mountains, dark green woods, and even waterfalls. “In the city where I was born, the ice rink is located next to our grandparents’ house. I started to skate there, and then got involved with the MHK (Martin Hockey Club) training for children. From there, I just fell in love with the game of hockey”, she says.

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Soon to be 17-years old, Andrea Rišianová is a superb young goaltender for Slovakia’s national U18 women’s team (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

Though Rišianová is only 16 (she will be 17 in less than a month), she has actually been skating for a long period of time. “I was 3-years old the first time that I walked out on the ice, and then I started playing organized hockey on a team when I was 8”. According to Rišianová though, there was not a particular reason that she wanted to take on the goaltending position other than that their appearance was a lot more to her liking than a skating position. “I was just always interested in how nice goalies look out on the ice, and I kind of wanted to try it”, she says.

For Rišianová, she emulates and admires her fellow countryman, Peter Budaj of the Los Angeles Kings. Budaj is presently the longest tenured Slovakian-born goaltender in the NHL, and as of late has found a resurgence of sorts with the Los Angeles Kings; also Rišianová’s favorite hockey club. With top Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick on the shelf due to injury for almost the entire 2016-17 NHL season thus far, Budaj has taken over the reigns as the team’s number one backstopper, and is just about to pass the 30-games plateau for the season. “I love the L.A. Kings and Peter Budaj is my hero. I have watched his career for a long time, and it is unbelievable how much of a star he has become”, Rišianová tells me. By happenstance, I share with her that Budaj’s Kings were just in my hometown to take on the Buffalo Sabres, and I had the opportunity of seeing him play. Rišianová is jokingly jealous, and tells me “if coming to an NHL game from Slovakia were that simple, I would already be there!”, she laughs.

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Making a save while in net for her club team MHK Martin, Andrea Rišianová is constantly practicing and honing her skills (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

I ask Rišianová what she feels are her skills that have made her such an elite goaltender for her country. “I am not the kind of person who admires herself, but I believe that I have good stickhandling skills for a goaltender, and I believe that my movements in net are quite fast”. Even though she is humble, Rišianová has been able to demonstrate her talents on the international scene on multiple occasions during the past year, and the experience for her has been most memorable. “Tournaments with the national team are always so exciting, and I love that!”, she says.

Firstly, Rišianová and Team Slovakia captured a bronze medal at the 2016 Women’s U18 Division I Championships held this past January in Miskolc, Hungary. Rišianová went perfect with 10-stops on 10-shots against Denmark in Slovakia’s second game of the tournament. Sharing the goaltending duties with Adriana Stofankova, Slovakia took third place with a 3-1-1 record at the tournament.

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Andrea Rišianová in heavy action against the Czech Republic (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

After the Division I tournament, Rišianová was featured between the pipes at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. It was at this tournament where Rišianová particularly shined in net. In 3-games for Slovakia she put up very solid numbers of a 2.49 goals against average to go along with .889 save percentage. Included in that was a very tight 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic in which Rišianová stopped 32-shots, a 15-save performance against Switzerland, and a 9-save game against Sweden after she came in for relief of fellow Slovakian netminder Simona Lezovicova who was pulled after allowing four goals. And while Slovakia lost in the February 20th bronze medal game against Switzerland, the tournament was still a great success for Rišianová.

Putting her international experience into perspective for me, Rišianová says, “Every game that I played in Lillehammer was very special for me. To answer what my greatest achievements in hockey are thus far, I would have to say winning the bronze medal in Hungary for the U18 World Championships, and then definitely the Youth Olympic games in Lillehammer”. It would probably be needless to say that these first two international tournaments are the first of many that will come for Rišianová. She most assuredly has the passion and the desire to be a student of the game and the goaltender position, and to continue to hone her skills through constant hard work.

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Winning the bronze medal at the 2016 Women’s U18 Division-I tournament in Hungary is one of the major highlights to Andrea Rišianová’s young career (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

That being said, Rišianová has faced some struggles that she is intent on overcoming in this current season, 2016-17, playing in Slovakia 1st-Division women’s league. Rišianová is the starting goaltender for MHK Martin. Dealing with illness and injuries, her play has faltered at times but she has met these challenges head-on. In 7-games this season for MHK Martin, Rišianová’s numbers have been a 6.21 goals against average and a .773 save percentage in this early part of the season. And while such numbers and struggles could be discouraging to her, Andrea has forged onward and maintains a positive outlook on her game. “The most important thing that I have learned in hockey is that you have to have strong nerves”, she says. “And if something doesn’t go well for you, keep trying and working at it until its perfect”.

On top of that, Rišianová sees the importance of being an advocate and an example for other Slovakian girls younger than her even who want to play the game of hockey. She encourages them that if they have an interest in the game, by all means, pursue it. “Don’t worry about those who may tell you that hockey is a ‘boys’ sport’. There are a lot of girls and a lot of women playing hockey more and more each day, and it’s a really nice thing to see developing”.

It is refreshing to see a young lady like Andrea Rišianová who is not only passionate about hockey, but who also is capable of maintaining her composure and her cool through good times and in bad. The highs of winning a bronze medal and a successful solo performance on the international scene, while trudging through the lows of a challenging season for her club team. Rišianová does not “toot her own horn” over her capabilities, but she also doesn’t lose sleep because she is going through a rough patch. She is a focused and a determined young lady who is bound to be a cornerstone for Slovakia’s national team for many years ahead. Keep up the great work, Andrea!

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Andrea Rišianová will be a strong goaltender for Slovakia for many years to come, much like her hero Peter Budaj. (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová; photo credit Piotr Synowiec).

 

 

 

“Professional in all aspects”: Mark Hartigan, former Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, Atlanta Thrashers, Detroit Red Wings forward

If you look at Mark Hartigan’s accomplishments as a hockey player at St. Cloud State University, you will find that in nearly every instance they are second to none. Hartigan holds the Huskies’ school records for career goals, goals scored in a period, goals scored in a single season, assists in a single season, shorthanded tallies in a season, and most total points in a season. Hartigan holds the distinctions of being a 2000-01 Third Team All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association selection, and bettered that with a First Team All-WCHA selection the following season. Perhaps most noteworthy, Mark Hartigan was a Hobey Baker Award Finalist during the 2001-02 season; the trophy awarded to the top NCAA player in men’s ice hockey.

Taking all of that into account and recognizing the preponderance of those accolades, it would seem that there would be many on-ice moments that would stand out for Hartigan in his mind’s eye. But trophies, goals and selections are not what Hartigan deems as most meaningful from his time playing at St. Cloud State. “Honestly, all the friendships that I created are what stand out the most”, he says. “Lifelong friendships. I believe university is a part of many young people’s lives, and it ends up being a memory that you consistently look back on more than any other life moments with great passion and joy. Certainly an era that I still look back on and talk about”. To have Hartigan sum it up concisely: “Definitely the best time of my schooling and/or my hockey life”.

Hartigan’s “hockey life” has taken him all over the globe. He’s played in the NHL and KHL, and maintained himself as an elite scorer for many years in the American Hockey League. Hartigan even has two Stanley Cup rings that he earned during his time in the NHL. And yet despite a very impressive hockey résumé, Mark Hartigan still seems a bit surprised that I had wished to interview him. “I guess I should ask, how did you hear about me?”. I tell him simply that I remember him quite vividly during his time in the NHL, especially his years with the Columbus Blue Jackets organization. Being that Coumbus’ minor league affiliate for many year’s was the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, and that I am born and raised in Buffalo, the close proximity gave me the opportunity to become acquainted with Mark as a hockey player. To sum it up concisely for Mark, I said: “Basically, if I ran a hockey club, you would be a player I would want on my team”. Fair enough.

Starting to play organized hockey when he was about five years old, Hartigan was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, but calls Fort St. John, British Columbia his hometown. “We moved away from Lethbridge when I was about 7-months old. We lived in approximately 12 different places before I was in grade-3. But I consider Fort St. John my hometown, and where I played all of my minor hockey”. Fort St. John is the oldest European-established settlement in present-day British Columbia, and provided much opportunity for Hartgian to learn his craft outside. “I learned a lot of my skills from the outdoor rinks growing up. I loved being on the outdoor ice. Many hours in the cold”. Likely many youthful hours spent emulating his hockey heroes; the Edmonton Oilers’ version of “Rogers and Hammerstein” – Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, who were his two favorites.

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Mark Hartigan would be part of the Columbus Blue Jackets organization for 4-seasons (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

As Hartigan’s skills developed he ended up playing Junior-A hockey with the Weyburn Red Wings, earning arguably his first noteworthy accolades by being both the top scorer and named as the MVP of the 1997 Royal Bank Cup; the national championship for Canadian Junior-A Hockey. For whatever reason though Hartigan was not sought after by a major junior team.Instead, opportunity would present itself to play hockey collegiately. Hartigan tells me, “I was never recruited to play major junior. Growing up in Fort St. John, it was a small town and I never even knew of the opportunity of being able to play NCAA. Luckily though my hockey abilities improved every year, and the NCAA found me. I had multiple schools recruiting me, but I had an extreme comfort level with SCSU and felt that it was a great fit for me”.

St. Cloud State University saw Mark Hartigan attain all of the aforementioned honors, and he proved that he definitely had the merit and the hockey sense to move onto the professional level. “Luckily I had the option of being able to choose to sign an NHL contract with multiple teams. I again went with my gut-feeling and comfort level when choosing the best possible team for me”. Hartigan opted to sign with the fledgling Atlanta Thrashers franchise, who were in their third year of existence when Mark joined their team for the 2001-02 NHL season. The Thrashers featured a pair of superstar rookies that same year, in Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley; both would be strong incentives for any player to enlist with this particular franchise. “I felt Atlanta had a bunch of good, young forwards that I would be able to fit in well with”, Hartigan remembers.

Hartigan would sign his first NHL contract on March 27th, 2002; shortly after completing school and late in the NHL season. He would quickly be inserted into the Atlanta lineup only 6-days later, and would have the opportunity to show what he was capable of when the Thrashers squared off against the Calgary Flames on April 2nd. The game itself would be incredibly exciting, but would also have a moment that Hartigan laughingly would like to forget. “My first NHL game was very exciting, like I assume it is for all hockey players. Not only was it my first NHL game, but it was being played in one of the closest cities to my hometown, where all of my family could make it to the game. The whole day was a blur and it went by extremely fast. But the game itself went fairly well. A little fun fact though; for my very first penalty in the NHL, I gave a guy a penalty shot. The penalty shot was awarded to Scott Nichol of the Flames, and of course he ends up scoring”, Hartigan chuckles. But how exciting to play his first NHL game and to have his entire family be able to attend!

On a more serious note though, Hartigan would suffer a severe injury in his second NHL game, April 3rd against the Colorado Avalanche, that would end his season with the Thrashers, and pose difficulty heading into his second year and first full professional season. “In my second game I tore two tendons in my hamstring, and they had to be surgically repaired. This injury really did make it difficult to start my professional hockey career. I couldn’t train properly as I had to rehab throughout the summer. So I went into training camp (for the 2002-03 season) already a few steps behind everyone else to start my first full NHL season”.

The injury challenges that hindered his training camp with the Thrashers led to Hartigan initially being assigned to Atlanta’s AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves; a veteran laden team with numerous players Mark’s senior, including longtime NHLers Rob Brown, Steve Maltais, and Dallas Eakins. “When I came into the league I wasn’t your prototypical rookie, as I was a little bit older. And to be honest, the only one I knew out of those older players was Rob Brown. When coming into an older team like that, it’s always a bit more difficult to find your spot and role on a team but after a couple of months I fell in nicely into a top-six forward role on the team, which made for a successful season”. Hartigan would finish fifth overall for Wolves’ team scoring with 15-goals and 31-assists in 55-games, plus a goal and a pair of helpers in 9-playoff games.

That same 2002-03 season, Hartigan would get into the lineup for 23-games with the parent club Thrashers which further proved that he was an NHL caliber player. However, a tumultuous relationship with a newly hired Atlanta coach posed difficulties for Mark to earn a permanent NHL roster spot. Original Thrashers head coach Curt Fraser was fired by Atlanta during the early portion of the season, and after a brief time of Don Waddell serving as the team’s interim, the Thrashers named Bob Hartley, a former Stanley Cup winning coach with the Avalanche, as their new man at the helm. “Unfortunately for me Atlanta hired Hartley. He made it abundantly clear he did not want me on his team because I had played college hockey instead of major junior, and he was looking to make an example out of me any time that the opportunity presented itself”.

And while the hiring of Hartley would signify the beginning of the end for Hartigan’s time in Atlanta, he would still have a shining moment to call his own that same year when he would score his first NHL goal during a December 1st showdown with the Washington Capitals; a 5-4 Thrashers win and the goal coming against Capitals’ goaltending great, Olaf Kolzig. Hartigan recalls, “It was a long and trying road getting up to the game when I scored my first goal. I had been snakebitten coming into the season with the ability to not score any goals up to that point, even in the AHL. If you watch the video of my first goal, you will see my extreme excitement of not only scoring my first NHL goal but of also getting that monkey off of my back. It was a tremendous feeling”. I am fortunate enough to have seen the video of Mark Hartigan’s first NHL goal and he is exactly right; he is grinning from ear to ear and you can see a look of sheer levity and joy.

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Mark Hartigan would have two solid seasons with Dynamo Riga in the KHL; a unique opportunity to play and live in Latvia (Photo credit: Agris Krusts).

Recognizing that the relationship with Hartley would not be improving and that he would be Atlanta’s coach for the long haul, Mark Hartigan looked elsewhere to continue his NHL career. He would find a place for himself with another relatively new NHL franchise, the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was with Columbus that I would first become familiarized with Hartigan’s play. Signing with the Blue Jackets in July of 2003 Hartigan recalls about the decision, “it was a good opportunity for me and it gave me a chance to prove myself with the organization like many players. After leaving Atlanta I felt that I was on a downhill slide out of the NHL, especially after my run-ins with Bob Hartley and how I was his example boy. I was unsure of how the league looked at me and my skills”.

Hartigan would spend four years with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ organization splitting time between the team and becoming one of the top players in the history of their AHL affiliate at the time, the Syracuse Crunch. He would lead the Crunch in goals for the 2004-05 season, and then would lead them in goals and points the following year. In fact, the 2005-06 season with the Crunch would be particularly noteworthy because not only did Hartigan score 34-goals and 75-points, but he did so in a mere 49-games. Such a solid performance that year was enough to vault him into 33-games with the Blue Jackets that same season.

Putting into perspective his time with Columbus and Syracuse, Hartigan tells me, “I had a great career in Syracuse. I believe that I still hold their team record for most career goals as a Crunch player. It would have been nice to have been a mainstay in Columbus but they had a lot of pressure to win, so young depth players such as myself were not high on their priority list. They believed that they needed young drafted superstars and highly touted free agents to get them into the playoffs, which does make sense but unfortunately it didn’t work. They got stuck with a few big contracts of players who were underperforming, which made it fairly frustrating for a bunch of us in the minors watching what was happening”.

Piggybacking off of what Hartigan says, the Blue Jackets did bolster their lineup those years by having the likes of a young pure goal scorer in Rick Nash, a shifty, though oftentimes criticized, Nikolai Zherdev, and perhaps an underrated netminder in Marc Denis. However, they hindered themselves by signing or trading for beleaguered veterans like Sergei Fedorov (as great a player as he truly was), Andrew Cassels, Jan Hrdina and Adam Foote, who were all once highly coveted players but by the time they were brought to Columbus were well past their prime. “This is fairly common with many organizations”, he says. “Unfortunately in the world of business, players’ contracts dictate whether you are on the big team or the affiliate team, rather than the decision being made by how the player is playing”.

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It would be with the Columbus Blue Jackets that Mark Hartigan would spend the majority of his NHL career (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

In January 2007, Hartigan and teammate Joe Motzko (along with a fourth round draft selection) would be shipped from Columbus to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Zenon Konopka, Curtis Glencross and a seventh round pick. Finishing his time with the Blue Jackets, Hartigan had appeared in 48-games with the team and registered 11-goals and 8-assists for 19-points. Thinking back on his time, he says “My best memory of playing with the Columbus Blue Jackets was when I got called up for the last 15 or so games of the year (2005-06) and I ended up scoring 9-goals in 10-games along with a few assists to end the season. But especially in Syracuse, I truly enjoyed the fans and my relationship with the Syracuse community”.

The Anaheim Ducks of ’06-’07 would become Stanley Cup champions for the first time in the franchise’s history. Having been traded to the team that year, Mark Hartigan got to be part of that experience even though his time with the Ducks was relatively brief. And while it is in his nature to have wanted to have been a larger cog in the team becoming  champions, winning the Cup would be extremely special to Mark on a very personal level. Spending most of his time with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate Portland Pirates, in which he would average a point per game (25-points in 25-games), Hartigan would appear in 6-regular season games for the Ducks plus one more during their fateful playoff run to the Cup.

“Getting traded to Anaheim was great as it was a fresh start for myself. I did request a trade with Columbus approximately a month and a half before I got traded. My reasoning was that I felt that there was nothing else I had left to prove with their organization if they were not going to have me with the Blue Jackets. I believed that I had proved myself over and over again in Syracuse. From the time that I arrived in the Anaheim organization up to my day with the Stanley Cup in August, I had many life-changing events occur. First off, during the second round of the playoffs (late-April/early-May) against the Vancouver Canucks my mom passed away from brain cancer, then in June we won the Stanley Cup, and in July I had my first child. The ring and the experience was great but of course it is a little bittersweet. Like all hockey players that are competitive, I would have liked to have had a bigger role in winning the Cup. It was definitely a rollercoaster ride to say the least”. I cannot even imagine the series of emotions that Hartigan experienced in such a short period of time. Highs and lows, and then highs again. It is perhaps too much to ask from one person in a small span like that, but Hartigan was able to come out on top.

That same summer, as if the aforementioned items were not enough, Hartigan signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings in July. Rattle off some of the names from that Red Wings roster. Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg. Kris Draper. Dominik Hasek. Nicklas Lidstrom. Tomas Holmstrom. Kirk Maltby. Chris Chelios. Darren McCarty. Many of them Hall of Famers. And except for Zetterberg, all of them perennial Stanley Cup champions. An opportunity of a lifetime to join a team that encapsulated so much talent and history. Hartigan explains the experience, “I was very excited going into that year with the Red Wings. They were an ‘Original Six’ team, which is very cool. I was going to a team with lots of veterans and veteran experience, so it was very easy for me to fit in both in the American League and the NHL”.

Scoring 3-goals and an assist in 23-games with the Red Wings that year, Hartigan would have another incredibly strong season in the AHL and their minor league affiliate the Grand Rapids Griffins. Even though he played in only 48-games for the Griffins, he still finished fourth overall in team scoring with 42-points (23-goals, 19-assists). “I never questioned my ability at that point in my career. I knew that I was a good player, but I also knew there were things that I needed to work on. You can always improve. I really liked the Detroit organization as they made it clear what everybody’s role was and what was expected of everyone. They gave you the truth, and if it did not work for that player then you were not a good fit for the team. It was always about the team. I learned a lot that year, especially how to be a true professional in all aspects of life”.

The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were the top team in the NHL that season and finished the year with 115-points. And garnered with the plethora of players who were previously mentioned, the Red Wings were well on their way to earning another Stanley Cup title. And for Mark Hartigan, who would play in 4-playoff games with the team and record an assist, it would be a second Cup ring in back-to-back years. And while I know that he still would have liked a larger role in this second run too, both rings are forever his and are something to be admired and cherished.

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Raising the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings; his second Cup championship (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

The championship season with Detroit would be Hartigan’s final year in the NHL. He would opt to play in a far different atmosphere after that, albeit with still an elite brand of hockey. July would continue to be a month of change for Mark, as he signed with Riga Dynamo of the KHL; a team housed in the capital city of Latvia. Former Columbus and Syracuse teammates Duvie Westcott and Martin Prusek also played for Riga. An exciting opportunity in a new and beautiful country! Hartigan explains how the decision to jump to the KHL came about: “After my year in Detroit, I knew that if I was not a full-time NHL player by that point, there was no sense sticking around any longer. I would be lying if I said it was not for the opportunity to be able to make more money playing hockey. You get to a certain point in your hockey career knowing you may only have a few years left, and then the reality of having to get a real job or start a new career is quite frightening. So having the option to make more money, to try and set the family up as best as I could financially, and still play really good hockey – it was a no-brainer; my family and I decided to sign in the KHL. It was also very exciting thinking of being able to play in a different country that I had never been to before”.

Even more so, after testing his skill in the NCAA, AHL and NHL, it was an opportunity to try out his talents in another elite league; one he knew about, but had not previously had the opportunity to experience. “I had always heard about the Russian Super League and how skilled it was, so it was intriguing and exciting to think of the possibilities of playing in that league, which of course is now the KHL. I believe that the biggest difference between the KHL game and the North American game is the coaching styles and their expectations of each individual player. Of course, the ice size is a lot bigger in the KHL too, and that makes it quite a bit different. I am not saying that it is not a job over here in North America, but over there they make sure you feel like it is a job all year long”.

Two separate seasons in Riga saw Hartigan score 36-goals, 25-assists, and 61-points in 100-games, while a season between the two was spent with CSKA Moscow in which he tallied 8-goals and 14-assists for 22-points in 48-games. “I have to say that my time in Riga, Latvia was really great. It’s a beautiful city and country. Truly passionate fans too”. I am particularly impressed with Hartigan’s first season with Riga. He finished third overall in team scoring with 37-points in 55-games, and was second overall in goals for Riga with 22. But on top of that, Hartigan put up a whopping 115-penalty minutes; the highest season-long penalty minute total of his career in a relatively small amount of games, and for a player who was always very productive offensively. Thinking of all of his totals that season, Hartigan certainly made his mark in the KHL too.

There would be one more season of professional hockey for Mark Hartigan’s career. The 2011-12 season he would split between playing in Switzerland with the top Swiss-A league and in Sweden with the Swedish Elite League; again, both highly respected and challenging leagues. Even though Mark was able to produce in both leagues, he already knew that it would be his final year of pro hockey.

“My last year I signed in Rapperswil, Switzerland initially. The story behind it is fairly simple. About the third or fourth game into the season I had hurt my knee which put me out 4-5 weeks. The team was able to bring in another foreign player to take my spot while I was out”, Hartigan says. Most European leagues have stipulations as to how many foreign players are allowed on their roster, while most of the team is comprised of players native to that particular country. “When I came back from injury I played approximately 10-games but could never really find my game, which was really frustrating”.

Hartigan then went and played with Linköping in Sweden. “The opportunity presented itself to be able to sign a new contract with Linköping in the Swedish Elite League, so I took the opportunity of a fresh start. Transferring to Sweden seemed best for myself and for the Swiss team at that point too. It was a good mutual agreement. I pretty much knew that was going to by my last year halfway through that season, as hockey as that point was not fun for me”.

Those moments in life where something that should be enjoyable but for some reason ceases to be, at least in the way that it once was before. Like Hartigan, people come to the realization that perhaps it is time to move onto the next chapter in their lives when it is hard to get up for something that had been a pleasure previously. “I was always a guy that loved being on the ice; first one to the rink and the last one to leave. That year I found myself being the last one to the rink in the morning, and then the first one to leave. I was mentally and physically worn out. It actually wasn’t until last winter (2015-16) that I started watching and enjoying hockey again. I wanted nothing to do with it for a few years”. In the split season, Hartigan played 15-games with Rapperswil and 23-games with Linköping tallying 13-points between the two leagues.

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Mark Hartigan’s two Stanley Cup rings; 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks and 2008 with the Detroit Red Wings (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

Calling it a career on hockey, Hartigan has since moved onto a new career in real estate and has found some great success in that too. Mark also still stays involved with hockey for younger ones as well. “I now live in Fort McMurray, Alberta where my older brother and sister live, and where I grew up part-time as my dad lived there while my mom lived in Fort St. John. My brother is the broker/owner for Coldwell Banker Fort McMurray. I got my real estate license and joined his office. It was a good fit for me and my family. My first year in real estate I was named Coldwell Banker “Rookie of the Year” for all of Canada. I occasionally go out and run practices for the Fort McMurray Junior-A Oil Barons, and I also coach my daughter’s novice hockey team (7-8 year olds).

I like to see how Mark has maintained his hockey roots still, and at the same time he has entered into a new venture where, like his hockey career, he has continued to perform at a high level and be recognized for his talents. Learning this about him makes me feel good to see his successes. “Friendships, professionalism, experience, World Travel, and opportunities” – that is what he tells me hockey has given him. It is nice to see how has capitalized upon all of these personal gains in his life. It is certainly something to be proud of.

When I recall Mark Hartigan’s time with the Syracuse Crunch, I specifically recall his net presence. I felt he was always very solid around the opposing team’s net, and was able to get a quick shot away or be in the perfect position for a scoring chance recognizing how a play was about to develop. After all, he put the puck into the back of the net 224-times during his professional career. A player also does not earn back-to-back Stanley Cup rings by happenstance. There was a reason that Anaheim and Detroit sought Mark’s services for their respective Cup runs. An intangible or two that perhaps coaches in Atlanta just could not see. Regardless, they wanted him on their team. And as I said in the beginning, if I ran a hockey club, I would want Mark Hartigan on my team as well. He would bring professionalism and experience that are uniquely his own.

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The Hartigan family (Photo provided courtesy of Mark Hartigan).

“Levity with a killer instinct” ~Anya Battaglino, Connecticut Whale defender

It’s the morning of the Connecticut Whale’s NWHL home opener and I am speaking with defender Anya Battaglino. The irony being that this evening Battaglino’s Whale will be squaring off against the Buffalo Beauts, and while she is on one end of the phone line in Connecticut, I am on the other end here in Buffalo. Though hearing her talk, indulging in every word of her answers to my questions, I sincerely wish that I were in Connecticut too with the opportunity to see her play tonight.

I have never attributed the phrase “heart of a lion” to anyone before, but I will do so in the case of Anya Battaglino. She embodies it completely, and when you listen to her speak about hockey, about her teammates, about the young kids who marvel at she and her fellow NWHL players out on the ice, you would be willing to enlist and go to battle alongside of her wherever she may lead the charge. And in this day, she is presently helping to lead the charge for the NWHL and growing the women’s professional game. Battaglino certainly has the experience and the wherewithal to do so too.

“I probably started playing hockey around the age of three”, Battaglino recalls. “My brother is four years older, and he started playing around the age of seven”. In some pesky but lovable sibling rivalry, Battaglino had to follow in her brother’s footsteps. “He started playing, and I could not handle not doing something that my brother was doing. I was like, ‘Mom, that’s what I want to do!’ I was tugging at her shirt every time we were at the rink. ‘That’s what I want to do! That’s what I want to do!’. My brother wore number-8, and I was such a little jerk”, and she laughs, “that I had to wear number-16 because I had to be two-times better. I had been a ballerina, I was doing all of the things that little girls do. So what really motivated me to start playing hockey was my older brother. Once my brother started to play, I wanted to play too. I wanted to put myself in his world. I really looked up to my brother, so I started to play because of him”.

A young lady hailing from Massachusetts, becoming utterly enthralled with the game at that early of an age, one would be inclined to think that Anya Battaglino is naturally a Boston Bruins fan. And while she is in fact, Battaglino is quick to clarify that it isn’t entirely across the board. “I am a diehard Bruins fan. But, I am also a diehard Kings fan”, she says. “You’ll find me on either side of a black jersey; whether it is black, silver and white, or black and gold”. Though she loves both the Boston and Los Angeles based NHL franchises, Battaglino also finds herself cheering for the teams of NHL players who played for her alma mater, Boston University. “Especially now that I have played at BU and I have met so many guys who have gone on to play in ‘the Show’. My buddy Brian Strait played for the New York Islanders, so then I was like, ‘okay, I like the Islanders’. But now he plays for the Winnipeg Jets, so I ended up saying, ‘okay, I like the Jets’. But any given day that the Bruins or Kings are on the ice, I am losing my mind over them!”.

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One of the most endearing players in the NWHL, the Connecticut Whale’s Anya Battaglino (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

Having to narrow it down to a single NHL player though, Battaglino informs me that her favorite player in the game today is Los Angeles’ most elite player. “Anze Kopitar is my favorite hockey player”. The two-time Stanley Cup champion for the Kings and the current reigning winner of both the Lady Byng and Selke trophies has even brought about a nickname for Battaglino. “Everyone calls me ‘Anze’, which is actually a nickname coined for me by Kaleigh Fratkin (current New York Riveter, former teammate at Boston University, with the CWHL’s Boston Blades, and the Connecticut Whale). Since I was in college, everyone has taken to calling me ‘Kopitar’ or ‘Anze’ or even ‘Anz’, all because I am a big Kopitar fan”.

Anze Kopitar may be her current favorite hockey player but growing up as a kid in Waltham, Massachusetts, an encounter with a U.S. Olympian brought about major inspiration for the young Anya. “My hockey idol as a young kid was Courtney Kennedy”, she says. “Courtney was on the national team at the time, and they happened to play a game at BU. To this day, I remember it like it was yesterday. We were going through an autograph line, and all of the players were standing up or sitting in chairs signing autographs. Courtney Kennedy took a knee, she put her face right at my level and she said, ‘You can do this if you want to. You know that, right?’. I had to have been about 9-years old, and everyday since that time when I have gotten onto the ice to play hockey, I’ve just thought of Courtney Kennedy saying to me, ‘You can do this someday too'”. Kennedy earned both silver and bronze Olympic medals at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics respectively, as well as a gold medal at the 2005 World Championships.

Beginning in eighth grade Battaglino played five years for Waltham High School and helped her school qualify for the state tournament for four straight years from 2007 until 2010. Strong success at the high school level developed into Battaglino accepting an opportunity to play in one of the most elite collegiate hockey programs, both for women and for men, in all of North America, the Boston University Terriers. “This is going to sound lame, but I loved the idea of playing for a team whose colors were red and white. My high school team was red and white. I was partially obsessed with that, so I will admit that at first it was a colors thing. My biological father started working at BU when I was a kid, and at the time there was a team called the Junior Terriors, and I ended up playing for them. So in my life, I was surrounded by BU. Their program at the time was still fairly new. They actually only started their women’s program five years before I started going to school there. I had actually always dreamed of playing BU Men’s ice hockey. I did not even think of there being a women’s hockey program there when I was a kid. I remember thinking, ‘I want to play in Walter Brown (arena; current home of the BU Women’s Terriers, and former home of the Men’s team as well), and I want to play on the Men’s team because there was no women’s team at the time”.

As fate would have it though, BU assembled a women’s hockey team coinciding with the time that Battaglino was finishing high school and looking to attend college with the hopes of continuing her hockey career. “It all worked out perfectly. They started up a team. They were a good team off the bat, and they were playing right out of Walter Brown. It was my dream come true. I probably could have played somewhere else, or played more ice time at a different school, but I could never even imagine not wearing the red and white and not representing Boston University; I couldn’t even fathom that. For me, BU was a natural choice. And everything in my life was Terriers”. During her two years as a Terrier, Anya Battaglino suited up for 18-regular season games for BU, plus 14 more in the Hockey East playoffs.

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A stalwart defender for the Whale, Battaglino (#4) never second guesses putting it all on the line to protect her zone (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

When asked about special moments or memories during her time as a Terrier, Battaglino is able to pinpoint one moment in particular, though it might not be what one would guess. “It’s so funny because I didn’t even play in the game, but during my freshman year we made it to the National Championship. The whole team before every single game had this routine where we would put music on. Jenelle Kohanchuk would get up and she would dance. And then the whole team would go quiet. I love to dance, and everyone would be quiet, and they’d turn on ‘The Dougie’. I would get up and dance for the whole team”, Battaglino remembers with great lightheartedness. “It was that moment where you knew that the game was so important, and we were all laughing, and I was dancing around like a silly person. It was that camaraderie and that team that just felt right to me”.

Having fun and joining in an amusing pregame tradition as a team extended beyond any specific moments on the ice. When Battaglino thinks back on her time at BU, it was the togetherness that it was really all about. “I think it’s not about being on the ice. It’s not about the shifts, or about the goals, or anything like that. It just came down to the concept of, ‘At what moment did I feel that I was so connected to the team that I would die if I didn’t have that?'”. And in the locker before the biggest possible game, she found that moment as a BU Terrier. Her “favorite” moment while being at BU, as she tells me.

I mentioned Battaglino having the heart of a lion. One could also apply phrases or terms such as “reckless abandonment”, “Tasmanian devil”, or “devil-may-care” when she competes on the ice as a defender. In fact, Battaglino is probably all of that rolled into one. Describing her own best attributes when she defends, Battaglino says, “I have a killer protective instinct. In anything. When it comes to my friends, my family and my hockey. I am not going to be the defenseman that gets a lot of points or does crazy, offensive things. I am such a quiet, stay-at-home defender that I will protect my D-zone with my life”. And she is not kidding. Elaborating more, “Whether that is taking a slap-shot off the throat, or some other crazy situation I have gotten myself in. I will not rest until I have done everything that I could to protect my goalie. I think that’s what makes me a strong defender. When I am on the ice my team knows that I am not going to go end-to-end and score a goal. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s going to be safe”.

This style of play is what has given Battaglino her longevity and has brought about a professional career for her. “I will constantly work to get better. I won’t stop going  all the way out, and I won’t let anything by me without given the hardest fight that I have fought in my life”. In my estimations, Battaglino fits that persona of the player whom you would love to have on your team, but that you absolutely hate playing against. “I make it hard for other players. I definitely make it hard. I am proud that I know what my team needs of me, and I can capitalize on that when I am on the ice”.

This tenacity of Battaglino’s brought about the opportunity to play the highest level of women’s hockey in Canada when she joined the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). “I played two years at BU, but then I stepped away to see where I fit in with hockey. That was a very hard thing for me. I went through this moment of trying to determine what I should do now, and what it is that I want for me. Thankfully for me I was blessed to play with the highest caliber of players. With the Blades, I was on a team that was essentially the U.S. National team”. Throughout their time, the Boston Blades have held such elite U.S. players like Meghan Duggan, Brianna Decker, Hilary Knight, Kelli Stack, Jenny Potter, and Gigi Marvin; some of whom have gone onto play in the NWHL with Battaglino. “After one year of playing with the Blades it made me fall back in love with hockey. It made me work every single day to get better. But not because someone else told me to. I made the decision everyday to wake up and go play hockey, and it made me love the sport again”.

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Anya Battaglino is a player who ceaselessly works to improve her craft (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

The success that Battaglino found with the Blades culminated in the Clarkson Cup championship of the CWHL with the team during the 2012-13 season. “I was playing the best quality hockey that I had ever played in my life. I found myself getting better every single day, and I was making the conscious choice to go out on the ice and enjoy myself”. Having left BU and jumped to the CWHL was in Battaglino’s own estimations a “tough transition” and an “odd story” as she puts it. “When I tell people about my hockey career, they are surprised that I didn’t play all four years at BU. But this was the path that ended up leading me to success. Winning the Clarkson Cup, my name is on the Cup and forever in the Hockey Hall of Fame”. Things work out the way that they are supposed to, and for Battaglino that is no different. She says, “I came to the realization that, am I going to be on the national team? No. But, am I going to play this sport because I love it and I think it does a lot of good for the world; for people, and for kids, and for confidence levels? Yes, I will. I really believe in hockey as vehicle to being a better person and I could not give that up”.

Despite the success that Battaglino found with the Blades, there were moments of doubt that she felt about her own game. It would take some clarity brought to her by her Blades’ teammates that made Anya realize that she had grown immensely as a player and as a person. “I could say that winning the Clarkson Cup was the pinnacle of my time in the CWHL, and although that was special, I will still say that my strongest memory there was more along the lines with what I shared when I felt a part of the team at BU. We were at practice, and I was all frustrated. I felt that I had been playing terrible and I just could not get my legs under me that day. But then Caitlin Cahow and Kacey Bellamy came up to me and said, ‘An, you have gotten so much better. We can’t even fathom how hard you work and why you do it’. I had two of arguably the best defenders in the U.S. at the time coming up to me and giving me the affirmation that I was ‘killing it’, so to speak. Moments like that, and being able to friend people like Kelli Stack, Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight. It was people like that who I really looked up to, and it felt like that team was there to play hockey together. Camaraderie was high, and they were recognizing me for my hard work as a practice player on the team and helping to make them better too”. Battaglino appeared in 21-games with the Blades during her time in the CWHL.

Playing women’s hockey at the most elite level, an even greater opportunity was just around the corner for Battaglino and many of the best players in the game. A new professional league that offered paid contracts to play the game that they love. After the 2013-14 season in the CWHL, Battaglino would become one of the pioneer players of the NWHL during the inaugural 2015-2016 campaign. “I started to get that realization that, ‘Okay, you have to start a career at some point. You’ve got to do something’. Many times when I have had to make a major decision in my life, it is me trying to figure where does hockey fit. Kaleigh Fratkin said to me, ‘An, there is going to be a league. It’s going to start up, and we’re going to get paid for it. What are you thinking?’. And I told her, “You know what, Kal? I’ll throw my hat in the ring. Why not, right?'”, Battaglino remembers. I have often heard that the best thing you can do is the right thing, the second best thing you can do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is do nothing at all. Battaglino, like many of these talented women, followed through on that thought and gave this new league a go.

“I ended up getting my car. I kissed my mom. Packed my car up. Took a job in Connecticut. Why? I don’t know. But I felt like it. And I got the offer from the Whale to be a practice player, and start building on the success that I had started having in hockey. I turned my back on some opportunities that I had in Boston in terms of jobs and careers. But I think at the end of the day I just wanted to give it one last hurrah, and the NWHL gave me the capability to be an adult with a job and a career, but also start to try and look at what the picture was, as to whether I could try to fit hockey in”. During her first season in the NWHL with the Whale, Battaglino appeared in 8-regular season games plus one more in the playoffs. She has also become one of the league’s most beloved players and it is easy to see why when considering her warm personality and her never-say-die attitude on the ice. “A lot of it was just taking a risk on myself, and taking a risk on a new idea”.

That being said, new ideas typically do not come without trials and tribulations. It takes time for fledgling concepts to develop, and they are often built upon the backs and the hardships of those brave enough to venture forth and believe in these ideals. For Battaglino and the players of the NWHL this is not really different, especially considering the current status of the league in which players unexpectedly were told to take very sizable cuts in their pay. “It has been a whirlwind, especially lately. But, it has been one of the best decisions that I have made in my entire life. It takes a lot of commitment. Ashley Johnston and I, both with full-time jobs and hardly any time to connect with one another, end up talking all night long on conference calls. Discussing what are we doing, how do we fix it, and how do we provide the support to the league that they need. My passion takes me so far in this world that I cannot imagine letting hockey fail. Especially when we as people are so wildly passionate about it, and not because it is our fulltime career, but because we just love it”.

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A sincere appreciation of her loved ones is one characteristic of Battaglino that makes her so admirable (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

Battaglino thinks of the younger generation of hockey players especially. And she is careful to point out not just the little girls but also little boys too that love the game. These youngsters are who she wants the NWHL to be a success for. “I see the look on the little kids’ faces when they meet me, and I remember the look on my face meeting Courtney Kennedy. If I can inspire one person to chase their dreams as hard as I have, then I have done my job. I think the NWHL has given me a great portal to say, ‘Hey, these are things that I believe in. This is whom I want to instill my thoughts and messages down to; the people who can take my job and do it better. And really how can I continue to advocate from the inside out. The league is definitely a great platform for that”. I give Battaglino all the credit in the world for this undertaking, and I tell her so. It is obvious when you look around the arena at the young fans attending the games. It makes a difference. Hats off to Anya, and those doing this with her.

So where does the NWHL go from here, and what does Battaglino want for the future of this league? She tells me. “For the next generation, I honestly hope that they will have that buy-in from the NHL. I love the feeling of pioneering. But I will be honest with you – it is hard, and it is trying. There are times that it beats you up and breaks you down, and you just want to cry and you just want to quit. But then there are times when it is really a rewarding feeling. I would want the next generation to just feel the levity of being able to sustain themselves, and have the sense of pride and passion that they’re playing for something that doesn’t have to feel so hard. I want the next generation to be recognized as pro hockey players and looked up to. ‘Hey, you’re on the Connecticut Whale – I know who you are!’. Or to be driving down the highway and seeing a billboard, or watching TV and catching replays of their NWHL game on ESPN or the NHL Network. Those are the little things that I want the next generation to have as validation and acceptance. I think mass media often forgets that there is a pro women’s hockey league, and that any given Sunday you can see the best players in the world. Players like Sam Faber. She is a hockey legend! How does a player like her not have a personal sponsor? I don’t want players of the next generation to worry about things like that”.

“As a pioneer you can get a lot of flack, and a lot of hate. You get a lot of ‘what are you wasting your time for?’. Until someone sees the dream, and suddenly says – ‘let me stand behind you instead of against you’. I want as many people as possible who are willing to stand behind me. To stand behind pioneers like Ashley Johnston. And then to say, ‘Wow! Those women really had it right! We were a bit remiss to ever discredit them'”. Battaglino is dead on with this statement. Dead on. The NWHL features the best women’s hockey players in the world. As a hockey community, to not give these players their due props is a travesty in many ways.

“Little girls and little boys in the stands. It’s both. When we go through the autograph line, I am pretty sure it is 50-50. When I look through the stands and I see a little kid that just has that plastered smile on their face, and who at the end of the game comes up to you and says, ‘I wear number-4 too!’. Last year, I had the kids who came through the autograph line sign me an autograph. So I have a little book, and I am going to do the same thing this year at all of our home games too, because I want them to know what it feels like for someone to want their autograph. That is the best feeling in the world. If I could sum up what it means to me to see them in the stands in one word it would just be, ‘overwhelmed'”. It overwhelms my heart to know their little, tiny faces are getting wider and that their horizons are being expanded by knowing that anything is possible. If you dream it, you can achieve it. If you can see it, you can do it. I want to give them a bigger picture so that they can see more things”. Could anybody have said it any better, folks? I mean, this is what hockey is about!

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Anya Battaglino is one of the biggest advocates for growing the game of hockey for the next generation (Photo provided courtesy of Anya Battaglino).

Battaglino considers what she has gained from hockey. Since the tender age of three until today, it has brought an abundance of key values and lessons into her life. What can she pinpoint it down to though? “I think you could give it a couple answers. Does it make me a better employee, or a harder worker, or does it give me time management skills? Yes. Can it make me a better person in the workplace? Absolutely. Did it make me more understanding? Yes. Did it make me better equipped to handle situations that I wasn’t previously prepared for? Absolutely. But I think the biggest thing in playing hockey that it did for me was give me the self-confidence to be unapologetically myself. Standing up to bullies who made fun of me for playing hockey, or made fun of me for because I was a girl who was playing a boys’ sport. It gave me the confidence to come out and tell my teammates, that I lived this lifestyle that was so regularly frowned upon, and that even if it wasn’t understood that they loved me anyway. At the end of the day it is the capability that I can show up somewhere, be myself, and not feel that I have to apologize for it. Hockey gave me the capability of feeling that I could be my own type of person”.

What can one say to all of that? Anya Battaglino is most assuredly herself, and there could never be any need to apologize for that. Hell, I am better because I now know her. I have already assured her that I for one will stand behind her. I want the NWHL to be a success for many years to come. I want people to recognize how special these “pioneer” hockey players truly are. I know a fair amount of people in the hockey community too. I would ask that they also align themselves and stand behind this league and these players. We all can take an extra sip of courage, believe in a new idea, rally around it and foster it to carry on. Be supporters of the NWHL, and what I see as the game of hockey in arguably its purest sense. And maybe learn to be better people from someone like Anya Battaglino. Unapologetically. I for one cannot thank you enough, Anya.

“Good athletes; good people” ~Todd Simon, former Buffalo Sabres forward

I clearly remember him scoring his first NHL goal. In fact, I am 99-percent sure that I still have a copy of it from back when we used to “tape” hockey games onto VHS. The Buffalo Sabres were in the opening round of the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs, squaring off against the New Jersey Devils. The Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey’s Meadowlands housed Game One, and it would not take long for Sabres’ rookie Todd Simon to open the scoring in the series.

“It was late in the first period, and I think we had a 4-on-3 power play. I remember Coach (John) Muckler putting me out on the ice, and telling me that if I win the faceoff, go immediately to the front of the Devils’ net”. It behooved Simon to follow the instructions of his five-time Stanley Cup champion coach. “Dale Hawerchuk got the puck back at the point, and he flung a wrist shot towards the net. I deflected the shot past Martin Brodeur, but ended up getting smoked by Scott Stevens”, Simon laughs. “So I didn’t actually get to see the goal; just my teammates celebrating and swarming me after”.

The 1994 series between the Sabres and Devils would be a rough and tumble one, and Todd Simon would end up being involved in multiple scrums on the ice involving New Jersey’s fabled “Crash Line” of Bobby Holik, Mike Peluso and Randy McKay. And while Simon and the Sabres would take them the distance of seven games, the Devils would clinch the series on Meadowlands’ ice in Game Seven. The opening goal of the series scored by Simon would be the lone NHL goal of his career. But – it would be one of many that he would score as a professional hockey player.

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Todd Simon would play 15-regular season games with the Buffalo Sabres plus 5 more in the playoffs (Photo provided courtesy of Todd Simon).

Speaking to Todd Simon the evening before the first of December, I tell him that what I find very noteworthy about his pro career was that he produced offensively at every level, and in multiple countries across five professional leagues. If you add up the numbers of his entire pro career, Simon scored 1,079-points in only 966-regular season games. But where it all started for him was as a 9-year old in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “I began playing organized hockey with the Toronto Young Nats in Triple-A. Historically, a lot of great players came out of that program”. Including “The Great One” himself Wayne Gretzky, as well as Hall of Famers Eric Lindros, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy. “I stayed on there until I played Midget at 16 or 17, and then I was eventually drafted into the OHL (Ontario Hockey League)”.

Growing up in Toronto, Todd Simon was naturally a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. “I used to love watching all the Leafs game on TV growing up, and then of course going to the games at Maple Leaf Gardens. As a kid in the 70s I idolized Darryl Sittler. And then of course when the Edmonton Oilers came on board in the 1980s my hockey hero was Wayne Gretzky”. Eventually during Simon’s pro career things would come full circle and he would have the opportunity to face off against his idol Gretzky. Though upon being drafted into the OHL he was not as familiar with his new hockey club.

Wrapping up his time in Midget with the Don Mills Flyers, Simon was drafted 73rd overall in the 1989 Ontario Hockey League draft by the Niagara Falls Thunder. “I really didn’t know much about the team I was going to at the time. But it was my dream to get drafted into the OHL and to be able to continue my hockey career”. An interesting side note to Simon’s being drafted in the 1989 OHL draft is that he was selected four rounds ahead of future longtime NHLer Bill Guerin, one of the Devils’ players whom he became accustomed to facing during his playoff run with the Sabres in 1994.

In what would become his forte for many years of hockey to come, Todd Simon absolutely exploded as a scorer during his two full seasons in junior with the Thunder. Playing in all but one regular season game for the Thunder between the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons, Simon would put up numbers of 125 (51-goals, 74-assists) and 146 (53-goals, 93-assists) point totals. Those numbers easily placed him in the top ten in the OHL for goals, assists and points during those two years. Simon led the entire OHL in points during his final season of major junior, thus capturing the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy as the league’s top scorer that season. And while Niagara Falls would lose in the semifinals during the ’91-’92 playoffs, Todd would average a goal per game during the playoffs for the Thunder; 17-goals in 17-games along with a whopping 24-assists to give him 41-points. “Having success for 2-years in major junior was dream come true”, Simon says. “I had two good seasons, and it was more opportunity to play the game that I love”.

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Todd Simon found a role with the 1993-94 Buffalo Sabres particularly during an opening round playoff matchup against the New Jersey Devils (Photo provided courtesy of Nathaniel Oliver’s personal hockey memorabilia collection).

Simon’s accolades would lead towards another dream coming true when he was selected by the Buffalo Sabres during the 1992 NHL entry draft. It is shocking to me that given the numbers that Todd Simon produced in major junior that he was not taken as a higher selection, as Buffalo chose him in the 9th-round of the draft and the 203rd player overall. Regardless of where he was slotted, he had made it to the NHL. “It was a very special moment for myself and for my family. With Buffalo being so close to Toronto and to Niagara Falls, I knew a lot about their organization. Being so close to home, family could come and watch me play. It was great!”, Simon recalls.

Upon being selected by the Sabres, Simon would receive a 3-year entry level contract and he was assigned to Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate the Rochester Americans. With the Amerks, Simon’s scoring prowess continued even though it was his first season playing professionally and he was all of 20-years old. With 27-goals and 66-assists, Todd would finish second overall in scoring for the Amerks behind only Peter Ciavaglia and ahead of AHL legend Jody Gage. The Amerks firepower amounted to 348-goals as a team during the 1992-93 season, and they would vault themselves into the Calder Cup Finals during Simon’s rookie year. “We were a young team. There were 6 or 7 of us rookies. A few guys came in together from the OHL. We had a good mixture of guys, and definitely getting to play with a legend like Jody Gage was inspirational for younger players like myself. Jody was a great influence for me; just a great veteran who was really good for the young guys on the team. We also had Dan Frawley, and he really taught all of us how to be pros too”.

The fact that Simon would lead the Amerks in scoring with 33-goals and 52-assists in only 55-games during his second year of pro brought about the opportunity for him to make his NHL debut. Late January of 1994, Simon would get a one game call up by Buffalo for a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. “It was a neutral site game against the Lightning in Orlando. I was actually quite nervous. Almost shell-shocked. You look around the locker room and there’s Dale Hawerchuk, Alexander Mogilny, and Dominik Hasek”. Unfortunately for Simon and the Sabres, they would be shutout by Tampa Bay 4-0.

Simon would be sent back down to Rochester until the Sabres brought him back up for the final month of the regular season stemming from a March 12th showdown with the Los Angeles Kings up through an April 14th game against the Washington Capitals. For Simon though, the March 12th affair with the Kings would be yet another dream come true. “It was pretty exciting getting to play in L.A. against Gretzky”, he says. Whether he was invigorated by playing against an idol, Simon was awesome during his game against the Kings. In a 5-3 Buffalo victory, Simon would register his only NHL regular season point by tallying an assist and put four shots on Kings’ goalie Kelly Hrudey.

In total Todd Simon would finish his time in the NHL with 1-assist in 15-regular season games and 1-goal in 5-playoff games. Though his time in the NHL was brief there would be many great years to come. After a third and final season with the Sabres organization in which he once again led the Amerks in scoring with 90-points in 69-games, Simon would make the jump to the International Hockey League (IHL) when he signed on with the Las Vegas Thunder. “My rookie contract with Buffalo was over after 3-years, and I ended up getting a pretty good offer to go play with Las Vegas that I took. We actually had a pretty good team. We had a very solid defense with guys like Greg Hawgood and Ruslan Salei. Curtis Joseph was a holdout for playing with Edmonton so he was our goaltender”.

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Todd Simon during his time with the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder (Photo source: Best Sports Photos).

Despite registering a very solid 26-goals and 48-assists for 74-points in 52-games with the Thunder, Simon would end up being traded to the Detroit Vipers. Though it was a change of scenery for sure, Simon would continue his explosive scoring for the Vipers. “Even though it was definitely a big climate change to go from Las Vegas to Detroit, the Vipers were the best organization in the IHL. My time there would finish with a championship too in 1997”. Continuing his scoring ways with 21-goals and 51-assists – placing him second overall on the Vipers for the 1996-97 season – Simon would be surrounded by some familiar faces and some immense talent. “We had Sergei Samsonov who was 16-years old at the time. We had Jeff Reese in goal. We had a lot of veteran talent too like Brad Shaw, Yvon Corriveau, Stan Drulia, and Jimmy Carson. Guys who were well-established and had spent a lot of time in the NHL”. Simon was also accompanied by former Buffalo and Rochester teammates Wayne Presley and Peter Ciavaglia. This high scoring, veteran laden collection of players culminated into a Turner Cup championship after defeating the Long Beach Ice Dogs 4-games to 2 in the Finals.

Leaving as a champion, Todd Simon would venture forth from Detroit after 1996-97 and move onto his longest stay in the IHL when he signed with the Cincinnati Cyclones. “I loved playing in Cincinnati. It wasn’t really a place that I had been to before, but it was a great team with a great coach (Ron Smith). In Cincinnati it was a lot more laid back compared to Detroit. I played with Gilbert Dionne. We clicked right away, and had a lot of success together”. The younger brother of Hockey Hall of Famer Marcel, Gilbert Dionne was already a Stanley Cup champion, having won it with Montreal in 1993, before he came to the Cyclones. Combined with Simon, the two were a scoring machine together for 3-years in Cincinnati. In 466-games together with the Cyclones, Simon and Dionne combined for 529-points as Cincinnati’s top tandem.

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Todd Simon continued his superb offensive numbers through three seasons with the Cincinnati Cyclones (Photo credit: Saed Hindash)

The IHL began to encounter some struggles in the late-1990s and the league would eventually fold in 2001, quite unfortunately. Recognizing the impending issues with the league, Todd Simon pursued opportunities to play elsewhere and ended up heading overseas to Germany. “I knew that the ‘I’ was having some problems and might fold. I thought it would be good to go overseas to play, as I didn’t feel there was a chance to make it back into the NHL as a 29-year old. And actually a lot of the guys whom I had played with in the IHL ended up going over to play in Germany too around the same time”.

Simon would play in Germany for 7-years, and became most endeared with the city of Wolfsburg where he spent of the majority of his time and the final four years of his time in the country. “Wolfsburg was phenomenal”, Todd recalls. “They had a great soccer club, nice parks, nice schools for my kids. And they had some really great hockey fans too that loved their team. It was a full crowd every night. They’d be singing and waving flags. They really knew their hockey too. You’re heroes to them when you’re winning, but if you’re losing they let you know about it”, he ends with a laugh. All the while, Simon’s scoring prowess never slowed up during his time in Germany; in 339-games he tallied 338-points.

The final season of Todd Simon’s career, 2007-08, would be played in Milan of the Serie A league in Italy; the top ice hockey league in the country. “Wolfsburg had changed a lot. They brought in a new GM, a new coach, and they really wanted to weed out all the import players. I wanted to try something different. Milan was interested, and I ended up taking my family there for a year. It wasn’t the best experience playing there, and after that I called it a career”.

Upon retiring, Todd Simon started his own business with hockey development of young players and began the Todd Simon Hockey program. Simon brings his program to the Niagara Region of Ontario and does a remarkable job in fostering and teaching youngsters. It offers a year-round set of instructions designed to highlight and improve every aspect of a hockey player’s development. Better yet, work with the players is done individually, in small groups and through team instruction, thus reaching out to all types of learning for the kids who partake. Todd does not stop there either. “In addition to Todd Simon Hockey, I also coach two teams – a novice team and an atom team”, he says, “I show the kids how it is important to be good people as well as good athletes”.

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Todd Simon would play his final season of professional hockey in Milan, Italy in the Serie-A league during the 2007-08 season (Photo credit: Carola).

Though the Todd Simon Hockey program is by far an elite means of educating and developing young players through Todd’s own expertise and experience, it does not mean that Todd hasn’t been met with some resistance. Minor hockey in the Niagara Region is somewhat monopolized, and a school like Todd’s is viewed in some circles as “competition”. Todd Simon has received dissuading emails from Niagara hockey representatives stating that he is not sanctioned to be at games or to coach at certain tournaments, as Todd Simon Hockey is not  part of their organization. It is disappointing to see that this would be the case and that the local hockey administration would not be more willing to utilize someone of Todd’s credentials to their advantage. Even more so, it is detrimental to the young athletes who are hindered from capitalizing upon Todd’s talents and knowledge of the game.

But it isn’t as if Todd Simon hasn’t dealt with resistance before. He has actually dealt with it throughout his entire career and has always well-surpassed any challenges. “What I have learned is to never give up and to never listen to everything that you hear. I was never a World Junior, I was never a high draft pick, I was never supposed to make it as a professional hockey player. But I didn’t listen to any of that. I controlled what I could; I used it as motivation. Stick it to those who said that I couldn’t make it”.

Todd scored over 1,000-points professionally. He won championships, was drafted into the NHL and scored a goal. Simon obtained scoring titles, including one of the most coveted in that of the OHL. 16-years as a professional hockey player. And now, he is bettering young kids both as players and as people. Todd Simon most assuredly made it.

If you would like to learn more about Todd Simon Hockey please check out Todd’s website at http://www.toddsimonhockey.com . For those looking to help their young hockey players as the holiday season approaches, please consider signing them up for Todd’s hockey clinic January 2nd, 3rd and 4th of 2017. Registration for the clinic can be found on Todd’s website.

 

“Family, kindness and community ~Emily Janiga, Buffalo Beauts center”

The first true snowfall in Buffalo today – with icy pavement, blustery snowflakes, and all. The Buffalo Beauts just wrapped up a gut-wrenching 5-0 loss to the Boston Pride. A sense of pulling our collars more snug and huddling up for comfort; both literally and figuratively for us Buffalonians and the Beauts’ faithful. Yet here I am, standing beneath the HarborCenter bleachers, outside of the Beauts locker room with Emily Janiga. And she is welcoming and kind, and has a smile that could definitely warm any misgivings felt from the Beauts loss. Emily embodies what the NWHL is about. What hockey should be about, at its very core. She is why people need to go to hockey games, especially Beauts games.

“I grew up in a hockey family. Older brothers that played, sisters ahead of me that played, and uncles. So I kind of just followed in their footsteps”, Janiga reflects for me. Hockey in its purest sense. A family affair. Learning the game from one another and finding common ground as a family that loves the game together. “We actually have every Sunday for as long as I can remember a family skate in the summertime at 7:00 o’clock in the morning. We do a scrimmage against each other. All the aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins’ friends. We have enough to play five-on-five out there. It’s awesome!”.

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Focused and determined on the ice, Emily Janiga served as team captain/co-captain for the Mercyhurst Lakers during her junior and senior years (Photo credit: Tim Brule, Merychurst Athletics).

Janiga, who started playing organized hockey at the age of five or six, and even wore a pair of skates as early as two years old, is from the Buffalo area; originally having been born and raised in East Aurora. “There are actually a lot more opportunities to play now than when I was growing up. I first started playing for the Saints (Western New York’s own Saints Hockey Club) when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Playing on a team with and against girls who were 13 or 14, if not 16 or 17 even. It was a very diverse collection of players. There was just not much around. I played some local guys hockey in the mites league. Definitely as I got older the Buffalo Bisons started developing and I played there. I played on Rochester Edge for a couple years. My last couple of years I ended up going to Burlington Ontario. Definitely as I got older more opportunities developed”.

In Burlington, Janiga would play for the girls hockey club, the Burlington Barracuda as part of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) during her junior and senior years of high school. This playing history of Janiga’s is most interesting, and seems to document the course of women’s hockey over the past decade or two within Western New York. But Janiga is far from your typical player. The elite skill level that she was able to build and maintain was obvious even at an early age; whether it be while playing against players nearly twice her age as a youngster with the Saints, or needing to reach more challenging competition by venturing up north into the PWHL. Like Janiga, a number of players who came out of the PWHL are now in the NWHL; Kelly Babstock and fellow Beaut Kristina Lavoie to name a couple.

Emily and I find almost immediate common ground when I ask her to tell me about any hockey heroes she may have had while growing up. “Family was a huge part, and still is a huge part of me and finding my motivation. I have always looked up to them. But specifically, I grew up watching the Sabres. We had season tickets and we only had two seats, so we each had a turn at going to the games. My dad would take me to one or two games a year. But my favorite Sabres player – Afinogenov”. Go figure – my favorite Sabre too; the only Buffalo Sabres jersey I have ever purchased was Maxim Afinogenov’s. Hearing this affirmation of Janiga’s instantly brings a smile to my face and a laugh, and I feel almost as if I am talking to an old friend. It is funny how things we have in common create bonds that we form with another person.

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#4 Emily Janiga with a scoring opportunity against the Boston Pride’s goaltender Brittany Ott. (Photo credit: Kurt Zwald, via flickr).

“I would always wear the number-61 on my jersey because of Afinogenov when I played as a kid. He was awesome!”, she says. “But as soon as I got his jersey though, he ended up leaving Buffalo (Afinogenov would play one season with the Atlanta Thrashers after not being re-signed by Buffalo in 2009). “Then it turned into every time I bought a jersey the player got traded”, she laughs. “So I had to stop buying jerseys. I bought Pat Kaleta’s, and then he was let go. So there was a family rule made – if anytime there was a favorite player of mine on the team, I wasn’t allowed to buy the jersey”.

Janiga would elect to attend college at Mercyhurst University, and she would become one of the program’s most decorated and accomplished players. Janiga is very humble, though not in a way that is not heartfelt or insincere – when she attributes her many successes to being surrounded by superb teammates, she means it truly and this rings loud and clear to me. “There were a lot of options. It’s hard when you’re thinking about where you want to go to school. When you think about where you want to spend the next four years, there are a lot of factors that play in. Definitely made a few visits all around; some close, some far. And Mercyhurst was the last school that I visited. As soon as I stepped foot onto campus, I was like ‘Mom. Dad. I want to go here’. Everything about it was perfect”.

While there are numerous items that she loves about Mercyhurst, Janiga seems most endeared by the community that comprises the school. “It’s a small community, and reminded me a lot of my high school. I went to Nichols, and that small community feel seemed to transfer over to Mercyhurst. The coaching too, and all of the success that they have had. But more so the community. It was just awesome. Everyone was there to help you move forward. Not just the hockey aspect, but with becoming a better person, to do better in school, and to become an all-around better hockey player”.

The comfort, the sense of home that Janiga found in the school’s community certainly paid immense dividends in how she was able to develop on the ice. When looking at Emily Janiga’s career as a Mercyhurst Laker, she averaged better than a point per game throughout her entire collegiate career; 72-goals and 79-assists for 151-points in only 141-games. That includes a junior year campaign in which she fired away 27-goals in 35-games, her highest goal scoring year out of her four as a Laker, 11-goals of which came on the powerplay while 5-goals were game winners.

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A Boston Pride player looks to keep Buffalo’s #4 Emily Janiga at bay (Photo credit: Kurt Zwald, via flickr).

The list of accolades that Janiga achieved while at Mercyhurst is tremendous, and some of the more noteworthy ones came during that phenomenal junior year when she was named the 2015 College Hockey America Player of the Year, was named a 2015 All-College Hockey America First Team selection, and won the 2015 College Hockey America scoring title. Other honors include a 2014 All-CHA First Team selection and being named to the 2013 All-CHA Rookie Team. During her first two seasons at Merychurst, 2013 and 2014, Janiga and the Lakers made it all the way to the NCAA’s Frozen Four tournament.

Janiga recalls, “The first couple of years making it to the Frozen Four was like, ‘Whoa! Look at this!’. We got to play in front of some really large crowds, and got to play in some huge games. Definitely got a lot of experience through that. One game that I remember specifically was against Cornell my freshman year”. The second overall ranked Cornell faced off against the Mercyhurst Lakers in the NCAA National Quarterfinals that year. “We were the underdogs going into it. We ended up beating them out even though they were higher seeded. We beat them in overtime (3-2) and I was out on the ice for it. A packed stadium. It was just a lot of fun. Definitely one of my most memorable games, especially in college”.

Looking at her numbers alone, I ask Janiga what qualities she possesses that made her such an effective player and an effective scorer for Mercyhurst. She points out that it was that team aspect, that togetherness as a hockey club that drew out her own individual success. “I wouldn’t exactly pin it to anything that I did in particular. I was very fortunate to play alongside some very talented players during my four years there. I definitely have to thank them for all of my success. My first year at Mercyhurst getting to play alongside Christine Bestland.

During Janiga’s freshman campaign, Bestland would tally an astounding 28-goals and 44-assists for 72-points in only 37-games. Flanked by Bestland, Janiga finished third overall in team scoring that year with 19-goals and 22-assists of her own. “That was a great opportunity for me. Any opportunity that I am given like that, I just take it and run with it”. I offer my sentiment that this “taking an opportunity and running with it” is very much apparent when she is out on the ice. Watching her play today, Janiga forechecks tenaciously and is quick to the attack after loose pucks. Any missed play by an opponent, Janiga capitalizes upon almost instantly. Opposing players need to not give her any opportunities out on the ice.

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Ever dangerous, Emily Janiga (shown here playing for Mercyhurst) cuts through the Syracuse defense. (Photo credit: Sarah Crosby)

For a young girl from the Buffalo-area, who loves the game of hockey, who cheered on the Sabres and looked up to Maxim Afinogenov, could she have possibly thought that someday she too would play professional hockey in Buffalo? “No, not at all”, she laughs. The Buffalo Beauts selected Janiga 16th-overall in the 2015 NWHL draft in June of that year; their fourth selection. “Especially with how new it was. It started to come about my second year of college. It started closing in that I was graduating, and I started to think, ‘okay, what’s next for me? Is it time for me to move on, or do I have something more?’. Going into my junior and senior year, I started hearing talk about it (the NWHL). I thought, ‘Do I have this opportunity to play too?’. Then during my senior year the league started going on, and I am thinking, ‘This is awesome!’. Then when I got drafted, it was a really special moment for me”.

To look back on all of her efforts as a hockey player from childhood on up, and then to have it culminate into being drafted into the very first paid professional women’s league is perhaps a bit awe-inspiring for Janiga and the other players in the NWHL. A dream coming true, that not until recently could have been a reality for any of them. “I started getting messages from a lot of local players who I played with or grew up playing with years ago that I did not even think remembered me. Messages congratulating me and my family. It was really huge. They had a lot of support behind me, and so everything about this experience so far has been really memorable”. Once again, there are those warm underlying aspects of family and community wrapping around Emily Janiga, and helping to vault her to that next level in her career. I feel gladdened to know that not only does she have this immense support network, but that perhaps more so that she genuinely recognizes it, understands it, and appreciates it.

That being said, there is certainly an adjustment between making the jump from playing college hockey to the professional level in the NWHL; much the same way that college or major junior male hockey players describe their jump to the NHL. “The speed of it. Definitely. In college there were games that were faster paced games. Out there now (in the NWHL) it’s quick-quick-quick-quick passes; tic-tac-toe. You need to think quicker, move faster. I need to be quicker out there. I need to work on being more explosive of an athlete. Little things like that where I do not have as much time to react. Little things like that I have been focusing on both on and off the ice, in the weight room. Just trying to get that quicker mind out there”. Her efforts are certainly visible and her production mirrors that. 7-games into the 2016 NWHL season, Janiga has tallied 3-goals and an assist in 7-games for the Beauts; her 3-goals place her in the top-ten goal scorers in the league.

So much about the NWHL is building the game and the league for the next generation of players. The players strive for it, and do so well with interacting with an upcoming generation of players. It is visible at every game. Little girls need this. Positive role models who show them that they can be professional athletes too someday, regardless of gender. Despite the loss, this November 20th game is the Beauts annual “Teddy-Bear-Toss” game and many little girls are in attendance. I ask Janiga what it means seeing these youngsters in the crowd, cheering on she and the Beauts. “It’s awesome seeing them in the stands, and seeing them up against the glass, and reaching down for high-fives from us. You know, I think we get so caught up in the moment sometimes and in playing that we forget how much we are impacting their lives and how much fun they are having in the stands. We definitely do it for them. We do it for the younger athletes. We want to grow the game for them, and give them something to look up to. Just be good role models for them”. I do not think that anyone else could have explained it better.

In addition to having these youngsters cheering her on, there are other great things about playing professional hockey here in Buffalo. “Again, getting back to family. Playing in front of my family, being in my hometown. Having a lot of local support. It’s unbelievable, and I never thought I would be back here playing. Being gone for four years, I finally got to come back home with my parents. It’s very fortunate for me, and I am very blessed to have them in the stands”.

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Emily Janiga in pursuit of the puck and beating out a Boston Pride player (Photo credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini)

I leave Emily with one final question, and its a bit of a tough one – what would she say is the most important thing that hockey has taught her? “That’s a tough question, because it teaches you a lot. The biggest thing I think it teaches you is teamwork. We are not out here by ourselves. We’ve got each other’s backs out there and you’ve got to learn to work with 20-25 girls; if you don’t, you’re not going to be successful. But also hard work, determination. Learning to play with the team, and take on a role. Having this responsibility and learning to balance between family, when you’re in school learning to balance with school, and with friends, and still be committed. You don’t just show up at the rink. It’s a huge commitment. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t realize to get to this level, to get to college. We have to put in a lot of hard work and sacrifice a lot of things to get here”.

I do not think I could come across a better ambassador for hockey, particularly women’s hockey, than Emily Janiga. I believe that Emily has found that proper balance, and she puts the work in to maintain it. I mentioned a kindness in her that I noted. A sincere love and appreciation of family and all of the support they have shown her. Belief in community and how the right one fosters growth in a player, both personally and on the ice. It is a natural hat-trick of sorts. One that she has scored profoundly. Emily imbues what a hockey player should be about, and what the game can teach us. She exemplifies what it means to be a professional hockey player, a Buffalo Beaut, and a Buffalonian. And as a  remarkable person as you will ever meet, and for that, I am grateful. The hockey community is too.

 

Dasha Martynyukova, the next generation of Russian women’s hockey

Saturday afternoon in November. I have brought my mom to a National Women’s Hockey League game between our hometown Buffalo Beauts and the New York Riveters. My mom, a beautiful and kind woman in her early-60s but not a big sports fan by any means, has taken a liking to the game of the NWHL. The speed on the ice that these women generate blows her mind. Around this same time last year we had attended another game together between the Beauts and the Riveters, and my mom had an opportunity to meet one of the fledgling members of the NWHL and one of its most exciting players at the time, the Riveters Lyudmila Belyakova.

Since that time, Belyakova has left the NWHL and returned to her native Russia to play for her homeland’s own professional hockey league the “Zhenskaya Khokkeinaya Liga”  (Женская хоккейная лига),or Women’s Hockey League (WHL) as it is anglicized. Thinking of Belyakova’s return to Russia, I began to ponder whether Russia’s newly christened WHL is having the same impact on many young girls – their next generation of women’s hockey – much in the same way that the NWHL is doing for girls throughout North America. I end up finding my answers within a 17-year old Russian netminder, Dasha Martynyukova.

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Goaltender Dasha Martynyukova leads Atlant out onto the ice. (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

I show Martynyukova a photo of Lyudmila Belyakova and myself, and ask her if she knows who it is. “Of course I do! She is very famous in women’s hockey”, she responds with a smile. Perhaps I have my answer right there. Belyakova plays for the WHL’s Tornado, presently the top team in the WHL – the same place that Martynyukova aspires to play next year. “I really want to play professional next year because my league only goes up to age 18”. So the wheels are already in motion for the WHL to foster many years of young players to come, including Dasha.

“I am 17-years old now, but I started playing hockey seven years ago in October 2009”, she tells me. “When I was 10-years old, the coach for my current team came to our school to talk about hockey and the possibility of playing – I knew immediately that I wanted to give this a try”. Martynyukova was one of five goaltenders for Russia’s junior team to be invited to training camp with the national team this past September. The hope is that she will be a member of Russia’s squad for the 2017 Women’s U-18 World Championships which will be held in Zlin and Prerov in the Czech Republic in January of the coming new year.

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Making solid saves between the pipes, Dasha Martynyukova plays for multiple Moscow regional women’s and boys’ hockey teams. (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

Dasha is from one of Russia’s “hockey hotbeds”; the Moscow regional town of Odintsovo. There are six teams in the junior women’s league, and Odintsovo typically finishes among the top teams. “Women’s hockey is really developed in my city, and it provides a really great workout”, she tells me. In fact, Martynyukova has opportunities to play with three different hockey teams, if not more. “I play on a team in Atlant (another regional town of Moscow), in the town of Odintsovo, and sometimes I am invited to play for boys’ teams too”. But Odintsovo is where her heart is and where she has found the camaraderie among her teammates. “We have a very friendly team, and we always do everything together. We help each other in difficult situations, and provide support for one another”. It is nice seeing this sportsmanship and teamwork instilled in young people of today’s world. “My team consists of 15-skaters and 3-goaltenders. Before each game we discuss the team and the upcoming game. It’s great when your team is ready to do anything for you”.

I am greatly impressed when I learn from Martynyukova that she has received firsthand tutelage from one of the greatest goaltenders of all time; Hockey Hall of Famer, Olympic gold medalist, and World Champion, Vladlislav Tretiak. To me, Tretiak has always been the quintessential hockey great that showed the world what his capabilities were without playing a game in the NHL. It bothers me when former NHL players from Tretiak’s era downplay his skills; that although he performed incredibly well on the international scene he could never have made it as a professional in North America. To me, this has always seemed “sour grapes” of sorts or a sense of pride that runs a little too strongly. Tretiak won three Olympic gold medals and an astounding ten gold medals at the World Championships. And now he is imparting his winning ways to a seventeen year old young lady.

Speaking on Tretiak, Martynyukova shares her own assessment of this legendary netminder. “He is a great coach and a great man; not only as a coach, but as a person. He explains everything so clearly. He shows you how to do all of the exercises, and then tells you your mistakes afterward. After training, he is able to disassemble your performance with you. He breaks it down into smaller parts for you so that you get all of the details. With any mistakes, he explains what is wrong and what is the correct way to do it”.

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Dasha Martynyukova receiving firsthand instruction from one of hockey’s greatest goaltenders, Vladislav Tretiak (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

While I marvel at Dasha’s time spent with Tretiak, she has a hero of her own. “My favorite player is Sergei Bobrovsky”. Her fellow countryman Bobrovsky is a Vezina Trophy winner and NHL All-Star, and has found his greatest success in the NHL as the netminder for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Martynyukova’s and Bobrovsky’s styles and builds are similar. While Bobrovsky is 6-feet, 2-inches and 190 lbs., making him slightly lanky but incredibly quick and strong positionally, Martynyukova is taller for a girl and is similarly structured. Dasha is just over 5-feet, 8-inches and close to 155-lbs., and her size definitely helps her protect her crease. “For girls, it is a bit big”, she says. “But this size really helps me when protecting the net”.

With the combination of her admiration for Bobrovsky, learning from a Soviet/Russian hockey patriarch in Tretiak, being blessed with good size, and her overall skill that has made her one of the top goaltenders in Russia, Martynyukova has developed an affinity for her position as a goaltender. “When I first started to play hockey, I spent a lot of time learning to skate. But when we went into training camp with our team I began looking at the goalies. It seemed to me that to hold this position would be very interesting, and I have been in love with it ever since”.

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At 17-years old, Dasha Martynyukova is part of the next generation for Russian women’s hockey. (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

As for me, I am encouraged to see that there is a rival women’s professional league now in Russia, and something for young women like Martynyukova to aspire towards. For like the NWHL, the ultimate goal should be to continue to build and grow the women’s game for the future. While I am disappointed to have lost a player of Belyakova’s caliber to Russia’s WHL, I see that the greater good is to develop the game worldwide. With shades of Tretiak, perhaps someday there will be a “Women’s Summit Series” of sorts between the best of the NWHL versus the best of the WHL. Were it to happen that way, it would be no surprise if Dasha Martynyukova is found between the pipes, backstopping Russia’s best.

 

 

“To have a dream and never quit” ~Chris Langevin, former Buffalo Sabre

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Inspired as a boy by their introductory song, Sabre Dance, Chris Langevin would end up playing 22-games for “the Blue & Gold” of the NHL. (Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images).

You can picture him clearly. A boy all of 11 or 12 years of age. The early 1970s. Expansion of teams in the National Hockey League had become somewhat of an epidemic at that time. And there was a rival league too. Huddled up in bed at night, a small AM radio in hand hidden under the covers to prevent his parents from hearing. Evening in the suburbs of Montreal no less, and a young Chris Langevin is listening to broadcasts of Buffalo Sabres’ hockey games. The frenzied trill of an orchestra as the Sabres’ introductory theme, Sabre Dance, leads them onto the ice, instantly invoking visions of their fabled “French Connection”-line soaring along the ice. Richard Martin, Rene Robert, and Langevin’s future teammate, the greatest Sabre of them all, Gilbert Perreault.

“I can still hear that song in my head. That rally song had something about it; almost hypnotic. It had a real impact on me. I’d be lying in bed at night as a kid listening to the Sabres game. Living in the suburbs of Montreal, I don’t even know how we got that radio broadcast, but we did. And that music… I’ll always remember the music of that song coming through my radio. For some reason, it really reached into me. Something that I have never forgotten, and every time I think of that song today it still can give me chills”.

It’s mid-October, and I am spending a rainy evening in Buffalo chatting with former Buffalo Sabres winger Chris Langevin. To say that Chris did his job as a hockey player is an understatement. In fact, it is so greatly understated that many are unaware of what this man accomplished in a relatively brief professional career. Chris himself downplays it to me, whereas I look at him in an almost a heroic light. But I feel compelled to remind him that the way he played the game of hockey truly meant something to other people. Whether it be the teammates that he protected, the odd but incredibly talented coaches he played for, or the fans of the game like me.

“I started skating when I was about 3 or 4-years old. My family and I lived in West Mount, a suburb of Montreal. Some of the memories that I’ll always have are skating in circles on an outdoor rink as child”, Langevin is saying, and I feel like I am right there with him as he looks back in his mind’s eye. “The rink was covered with a roof but it was totally open on the walls. I used to wear these Montreal Canadiens socks. They were probably a bit too large for me. I would be skating around in circles. I just loved to skate; always have. My parents would be watching me and laughing at me because the socks would start to fall down and you could see my long underwear underneath. I must have looked ridiculous”, he recalls with a hearty laugh.

While Langevin was always a Canadiens fan, it was those radio broadcasts and that entrancing Sabre Dance theme that really took hold of him during his younger years, leading him to falling in love with the game of hockey; a sport that was readily available to him in the province of Quebec. “It was pretty easy and obviously a really good thing for kids to play hockey. Organized hockey was always around, and the costs were included with the taxes that we paid, so there was really no cost other than the equipment we needed to play. I probably started playing organized hockey at the age of 10. We played about one game a week, and most of the games we played were played outdoors”. Perhaps stepping back into hockey’s roots, the simpler game of Langevin’s youth seems far more enjoyable to me. “Because most of the games were played outdoors, you know, we would have to shovel the ice and all. It certainly wasn’t the same as the game is today. It was a just a bunch of us kids playing. It was hilarious sometimes too – I remember playing some games in the rain. I lived fairly close to the rink, so sometimes when it was raining I would be walking to the rink only to find that we weren’t playing because of the weather, and you would just be devastated because you were really lucky if you played even two times a week”. Born November 27th, 1959, the proximity of Langevin to hockey’s most storied franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, provided some early thrills. “I remember getting to see Jean Beliveau score his 500th career goal. And I actually had the opportunity to meet him multiple times.

The more that Chris Langevin skated and played, the better he became. And though that was the case as he progressed through all levels of the game, as a teenager the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League took note of the young lad. From here, Langevin’s place in the game would forever change. “I was one of the last draft picks taken during my draft year for junior. I remember thinking, ‘Chicoutimi? Where the hell is that?!’. But to me though, it was my dream. I was never a good skater, and so I had never thought or envisioned getting that far”.

In Chicoutimi, Chris had to contend with one of hockey’s oddest coaches of all time in Orval Tessier. “Orval was the strangest coach that I ever played for. He’s the same guy that when he coached the Chicago Blackhawks made that infamous quote about his players needing heart transplants after the team had lost during the playoffs. He never really helped you learn anything. I remember going to him sometimes and saying to him, ‘I have been working on this play, what do you think?’ or ‘what do you feel about this in my training to help me be a better player?’, and he’d just say ‘I don’t care’ and walk away. It was really bizarre”. As Chris and I talk, we agree that he played for a natural hat trick of coaches who marched to the beat of their own drum; Tessier, Mike Keenan and Scotty Bowman. “With the other two coaches, (Keenan and Bowman) they were much different in their own way but were obviously incredibly successful. Tessier on the other hand was just plain weird. After he made that ‘heart transplant’ comment, I don’t know how much more coaching he did after that”.

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Battling for a puck along the boards, Chris Langevin was a superb team captain during his time with the Rochester Americans. (Photo provided courtesy of Chris Langevin).

The star player for the Sagueneens during Langevin’s time was a future 3-time Stanley Cup winner Guy Carbonneau. Langevin and Carbonneau were teammates in Chicoutimi for three years, and during that stretch Carbonneau finished in the top ten in scoring for the QMJHL, including the second overall scorer his final year in major junior. Carbonneau would need a protector out on the ice, and Langevin fit the bill quite well. “Guy was certainly an offensive force, eh?”, Chris asks me. “I had always been a goal scorer, myself. But I went to camp, and ended up playing with Carbonneau on a line. I would stick up for guys like him. I would drop the gloves, and I actually did very well at it. But it was very different for me. It was my job to protect Guy, but at the same time I went away from being a goal scorer; I protected a player like him. But it is also funny how things work out too. I transitioned from being a goal scorer to being a protector, and then Guy later in his career went from being a scorer to one of the best defensive specialists to play the game”.

While Carbonneau would explode for seasons of 141 and 182-points his last two years of major junior, Langevin would put up solid numbers of his own, including two straight 20-plus goal seasons and a final season with the Sagueneens that saw him score better than a point per game (22-goals and 30-assists for 52-points in only 46-games). Besides Carbonneau, many of Langevin’s Chicoutimi teammates would go onto careers in the NHL. Gilles Hamel, a teammate of Langevin’s during his final year of major junior, would eventually end up being alongside him with two more teams, the Sabres and the Rochester Americans, later on in their careers, while other Sagueneens players Gilbert Delorme, Alan Haworth, Gord Donnelly, Sam St. Laurent,  Louis Sleigher, and “Super Mario’s” older brother, Alain Lemieux, would all spend time in the NHL. “I’d have to say from my time in Chicoutimi, a good 10-12 players went on to spend at least some time in the NHL”, Chris recalls.

Despite a new found role and top-notch teammates whom he protected, Langevin never thought of his career going much further than playing major junior. In fact, he would not even be drafted into the league by an NHL team. “I honestly thought that I wouldn’t be playing hockey anymore. But I ended up getting invited to a camp in Saginaw (the Gears of the IHL). I had always been an aggressive player, but I could still score. I did a lot of hitting, was good in the corners, and I was always protecting the better players. I felt that I was complimentary to the skilled guys. But I ended up walking into the dressing room in Saginaw, and I immediately thought to myself, ‘Are you friggin’ kidding me? This is a joke! It was like Slap-Shot 2‘. Even though I played a physical game, I was not necessarily a big guy at 6-foot and close to 200lbs. I looked around, and there are all these huge guys who were really not good hockey players”.

Elaborating more on that thought, Chris explains that “the IHL really needed to have a certain amount of rookies to qualify as a minor development league. The IHL could probably be equated to today’s ECHL; a AA level of hockey. Going in, it was actually scary to see all of these goons. You think to yourself, ‘I just wanna go home’. I wasn’t the biggest guy, so I was an easy target. I honestly thought, ‘I swear to God, this is Charlestown! This is the Charlestown Chiefs from Slap-Shot!”. But Langevin stuck it out and stayed in Saginaw for the 1980-81 season. He would finish fourth overall in team scoring with 35-goals and 48-assists, and would become a champion in only his first season of professional hockey.

Winning the IHL’s Turner Cup championship was “Amazing!”, as Chris describes it. “I remember early on in that season I was a bit intimidated by the size of the players around me. We were playing a game and there was this huge guy who had the puck behind the net. I came around and absolutely smoked him behind the net; just smoked him. Well, he got up and ended up chasing me down the ice, so I knew I had to stand up for myself – if I didn’t at that point, it would’ve been over with most likely. So I turned around and dropped the gloves, and ended up proving myself to the league and to my teammates”.

As he had protected players in Chicoutimi, Chris Langevin found himself in the role of the protector once again. The top scorer in the IHL that season was Saginaw’s own Marcel Comeau; a shifty, but smaller centerman who at 6-foot only weighed 165lbs. Comeau led the league in points with 126 and in assists with 82 of them. It was Langevin’s job to protect Comeau now. “I was put on the first line with Marcel Comeau. He would feed me the puck, and I put together my best offensive numbers of my career at the pro level. I played the game bigger than what I was. Looking back that was wrong in some ways because it led to a lot of injuries, but it was what also got me to the NHL. I had always wanted to be a scorer, and at least in Saginaw I was able to do that too, but I also had a role to play. It also depends on the timing that you get with a team and what their needs are. I was never a goon; always played on the top lines. But I was sort of condemned because I was good at dropping the gloves. In the IHL, everyone was really out for themselves because we were all fighting for jobs. But after the CHL’s Houston Apollos folded we ended up getting some of their players like John Gibson and Scott Gruhl, and we became a really good hockey team. We held together, and ended up winning that championship”.

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Chris Langevin (row-2, third from right) and his Saginaw Gears teammates won the IHL’s Turner Cup during the 1980-81 season; Langevin’s first professional season. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

After the championship run in Saginaw, Chris ended up getting a first time opportunity to make an NHL club, and he ended up advancing at least to the next closest level. “After that season in Saginaw when we won the cup, I had an agent and I got invited to a tryout camp in Buffalo. I didn’t make the Sabres but I did receive a contract and signed with Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate the Rochester Americans. I went from making a yearly salary of $7,500 with Saginaw to making $20,000 with Rochester – I was elated!”. For Langevin’s first two seasons in Rochester he would play under the watchful eye of “Iron Mike” Keenan and would be reunited with former Chicoutimi teammates Gilles Hamel and Alan Haworth as well. Rochester’s hockey club during the early 1980s was incredibly talented to say the least, and could have rivaled numerous NHL clubs of that time too. It would not take long for Langevin and team to find success and demonstrate how solid of a hockey team they were.

“It was amazing. Even if I had not made it to the NHL, I was pretty happy where I was with Rochester. You did learn from older guys who were there like Yvon Lambert, Phil Myre; older guys like that who had been around and were trying to extend their careers. There were a lot of French-Canadian guys on our team. And we all wanted to win so badly and find success that we used to have fights in practice even. I’m not kidding you. There would be fights during practice between the French and the English-speaking players. Everyone was just so intense. We would have our practices in Lake Shore right along Lake Erie, and that rink would be so cold – like 20-below; you would just freeze. Guys would shoot pucks in there at other guys’ ankles. It wasn’t done to be malicious. We were all just competing with one another to get to the next level. The guys on the team from the west were bigger and stronger, while the Quebec guys were smaller and more talented. I was stuck in the middle, having to protect who I could”, Langevin recalls with laughter and mild incredulity over the situation.

As he had done with Guy Carbonneau and Marcel Comeau previously, Langevin now protected Rochester’s top scorer, Geordie Robertson. “He was the guy that I played with the most. I still think he is one of the highest scorers in Amerks’ history. I was his protector. Geordie had influence with the coaches as a seasoned veteran, and he certainly had a role with me playing with him. He’d go and antagonize other players, and then I’d jump in to do my job”. One of the greatest seasons in Amerks history, 1982-83, saw Robertson lead all Rochester players in scoring with 46-goals and 73-assists for 119-points; good enough for third overall in the league, while his protector Langevin led the team in penalty minutes with 255 and finished sixth overall in the league for that category. Speaking further on his teammates: “all of the French guys on the team were very close and incredibly talented. Guys like Gilles Hamel, Jean-Francois Sauve, Bob Mongrain, Jacques Cloutier. They all went on to solid careers in the NHL”.

And then there was Keenan. The 1984-85 Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL’s coach of the year, Mike Keenan would eventually win the Stanley Cup in 1994 with the New York Rangers and had three other Stanley Cup Finals appearances. But it was his extremely tough coaching style and the general attitude he had towards his players that earned him the nickname “Iron Mike”. Keenan was renowned for messing with the heads of his players and some of his tactics in doing so have been widely questioned. But what cannot be questioned is the results he achieved, and what would culminate into a Calder Cup championship for himself, Langevin and the Amerks for the 1982-83 season.

“Mike Keenan – playing for him was great. For me, it was absolutely great. He was very demanding, but I had zero issues playing for him. I personally don’t think he is given enough credit for his coaching abilities. He created drills in practices that no one knew what the hell he was trying to teach us. I think a big part of it was to keep players focused and on their toes. He was incredibly innovative; just very ahead of his time. Keenan was just so intense, and he would lose it with the most talented players. He really singled out players who were not playing up to their potential, or for a lack of effort. But he did so to make them better players and help them move onto the NHL, his primary mandate. I really have nothing but good things to say about him. I did find him a bit strange as he moved on throughout his time in the NHL. In my opinion, he was the best coach that I ever played for”.

Winning the Calder Cup with Rochester, his second championship in only three years of playing professionally, and eventually earning the captaincy in Rochester was proof enough that Langevin had found solid ground in his own game. “I always kept trying to get to the 20-goal mark. I always thought that I was capable of doing that, and it was a goal to do that in the NHL, to go along with 200-penalty minutes too. It was really something that I worked toward and felt that it was a reasonable objective”.

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Setting the example for others and protecting his teammates helped lead to Langevin’s captaincy with the Rochester Americans (Photo provided courtesy of Nathaniel Oliver).

The Buffalo Sabres took note of Langevin’s determination and almost reckless abandonment for himself in order to get the job done and win hockey games. Going through an “injury bug” of their own, Buffalo brought Langevin up on an emergency recall to join them. “I drove from Rochester to Buffalo, which is about an hour and 15 to an hour and 30-minute drive, and then immediately hopped onto a bus with the team to ride up for a game in Toronto. I’m not flying – I’m busing it! In my first NHL game!”, Langevin laughs heartily at this memory, realizing that he spent all this time riding buses in the minors, and then for his first NHL game he ends up riding a bus once more. “After the game in Toronto though, we would fly to Detroit and then to Boston as well”.

Langevin would remain with the Sabres for a 6-game stretch and would even score his first NHL goal. Dreams were indeed coming true. “I honestly feel that I played the best hockey of my career during those 6-games. I think the biggest thing that hurt me was that I wasn’t actually drafted by Buffalo. During those games the other players on the left side were Craig Ramsay, Paul Cyr and Dave Andreychuk, and I felt that I outplayed at least two of those guys. I was playing nearly 20-minutes a game too, on a line with Sean McKenna and Gilles Hamel. But I hadn’t been picked by the Sabres, and I only had one goal during that stretch, so I think it was easier for them to send me back down once the injured players returned. Drafted players have a longer leash and always seemed to get the second chances, which is perfectly understandable”.

The goal would come against the Boston Bruins and goaltender Pete Peeters during Langevin’s third of the six games. It was a beauty too. “We were losing to Boston 4-0 or something like that. Sean McKenna was skating behind the net. He threw it out front to me in the slot and I just blasted it right by Peeters; he didn’t even see it. And you want your first goal to be like that. Not a fluke or bouncing off a skate or stick. Just a clean shot right by the goalie. And on the very next shift I had an open net again and I just missed putting it in past Peters. Just think that if I could have put that one in too that game could have had a different outcome”.

But arguably the more quintessential moment for Chris during his callup, the one that really brought everything home for him and come full circle, was being up close and personal with the greatest Sabre of them all, Gilbert Perreault. “After getting the call for the game against Toronto, we flew to Detroit to play the Red Wings. And guess who I end up rooming with on the road? Gilbert Perreault! We’re in the same room together. I was just in awe. Really more like shock, actually. I sat down on my bed, and he just immediately starts talking with me. Just talking, talking and talking. I guess they could not find anybody who wanted to room with him because Gilbert really liked to talk and was not a fan of the ritual pregame nap. I usually liked to take a nap before a game, but I didn’t sleep before that one and it did not bother me at all. But Gilbert was just a true gentleman. Needless to say that song (Sabre Dance) came back into my head again, here I am chatting in the same room as Gilbert Perreault”.

After those six games Langevin was sent back down to Rochester. “It was really a big letdown when I got sent back down, but I understood the math behind it and what was going on behind the scenes. I knew that I was playing better than some of the other players at my position, but you are given more of a chance if you are a draft pick versus someone who isn’t, like me. But the one thing that I realized about myself was that I was getting better as a player as I was going forward. I had improved to the point that I knew I could play and skate in the NHL”.

1984-85 saw Chris have another solid season offensively and in penalty minutes with the Amerks. He set his career high in goals scored with Rochester, 19, and did so in just 63-games all the while putting up 212-penality minutes. But what would perhaps be more important for the future, Langevin’s coach for part of the season in Rochester was former Sabres great Jim Schoenfeld. The time spent with Schoenfeld would help to garner Langevin some insight into where his career was going. “I always felt that I could play for the Sabres on the left hand side. Jim Schoenfeld had coached me in Rochester during the ’84-’85 season before he got asked to suit up again as a player on defense in Buffalo because the Sabres had injuries on their blueline”.

Going into the 1985-86 campaign, “I knew that I was going to make the team that year”, Langevin recalls. “And once you get in, it’s hard to get out. I had been the captain for Schoenfeld in Rochester before he got called up to Buffalo to play. At the end of that season, I gave him a call because I knew he was going to be the coach in Buffalo (for the ’85-’86 season). I called him that summer and asked him, ‘will you give me a chance?’. He asked me back, ‘will you come into camp in the best shape of your life and play the exact same way as you did in Rochester?’. And I did exactly that – I worked out all summer really intensely and came into camp in the best shape of my life, and I stuck”. Unfairly, 16-games into the season Langevin blew-out his knee in a game against the Quebec Nordiques, and his career was over. Chris never played a professional hockey game after that.

“I earned every ounce of what I accomplished”, he tells me. And hell, he is exactly right. He did it all and fought for it all. Nothing was handed to him. “I had a good run. It was a really cool time, but I have no regrets. The two best days in my life were one, getting to stay in a room with Gilbert Perreault, and two, when Buffalo said to me that I should go ahead and find an apartment”. Other things would end that year too, as Jim Schoenfeld would be fired by the Sabres partway through that season as the team finished exactly at .500 and failed to make the playoffs. It would also be Gilbert Perreault’s final full season in the league, as he would retire after one more year of just 20-games. Scotty Bowman’s last full season with the Sabres would be that year too before he was let go early the following year, right around the time that Perreault officially retired.

Chris Langevin has gone onto work for Bauer hockey for 21-years. 70-percent of the equipment in the NHL today comes from Bauer. Chris has worked as a developer for them throughout that time, and has found great meaning in seeing some of his life’s work in action. His career though in hockey was shaped from everything he dreamed about from a very young age.

“I just dreamed of playing in the NHL. Hearing that Sabres song in my head, wearing my Montreal Canadiens socks and embarrassing myself as a kid on the ice. It was all that I ever wanted to do. It was my number one goal. You have to dream of something in order to accomplish something. Having courage, fortitude, a lot perseverance. With all of that, it is pretty hard to take away a dream. I had a dream, and I just never quit”.

Chris and I debate a bit back and forth as to what it means to be a hero. Perhaps I am mistaken when I tell him that someone like me thinks of him as a hero for having made it to the NHL like he did. Not having been drafted. Having to change his role from what he always wanted to be on the ice to what he was required to be. No matter how he did it, he made it. Chris disagrees with me. “Come on, we’re not heroes. Playing hockey is not what constitutes a hero”. I respond, “Okay, let me better explain myself. Maybe hero is the wrong word. But you have to realize though that what you did on the ice matters to people for whatever reason. We find some value or importance in what you accomplished”. He responds, “Okay, that’s a fair analysis. When I was captain for Rochester I used to do a lot of visits at hospitals for sick children and with charities and it seemed to make a difference for people. That to me is something that stands out”.

Exactly. And because you are one of those few people who had a dream and never stopped working for it, eventually accomplishing it – that sets an example in and of itself for anyone who takes the time to listen. So yes, people like me look up to people like you. It means something. And you earned every bit of it.