Grace Laski, 13-year old defender for the Buffalo Bisons

Author’s note: Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann and I have teamed up to interview and spotlight young ladies (11-14 years old) who play hockey in the Buffalo area. It is a chance for them to practice being interviewed and receive some additional recognition. This is the fourth in a series that we are doing together. This time we are spotlighting 13-year old forward Grace Laski!

I like quieter people. For usually when they speak, a lot of thought has already been put into their words beforehand and they are capable of saying something quite intellectual or profound. Grace Laski of the Buffalo Bisons impresses me as one of those quieter people. That being said, I am sure that she is not quiet all the time. But for at least this evening when we are conducting her interview Coach Kelsey Neumann reminds her that she needs to be speak up a bit so that the recorder can capture her voice. And is it turns out, I was exactly right. Grace Laski is contemplative and she offered a good number of deeper thoughts on hockey, especially the women’s game, some of which were indeed very profound.

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Grace Laski having fun with teammates and friends (Photo provided courtesy of Grace Laski).

 

Laski is a defender for the Buffalo Bisons girls 12U team. “I started playing hockey towards the beginning of kindergarten, so I was about 4-years old”, and while she could not remember exactly what got her interested in hockey to begin with, Laski knows full well what has kept her interested. She gets a big grin and says to me, “It’s just fun. Being with a ton of people. Being a team and working together to win. And if you lose, you just learn from it and have fun”. It impressed me that Laski is 13-years old, and she already appreciates the concept of “either you win or you learn”. I don’t think that I grasped that idea until I was into my thirties. It is a simple concept, but it carries a lot of weight to it.

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Grace Laski with U.S. Olympian and Buffalo Bisons Hockey Director Shelley Looney (Photo provided courtesy of Grace Laski).

Asked how she defines her style as a defender, and whether she considers herself an offensive-minded or a defensive-minded one, Laski seems to be more of the stay-at-home kind of defender (my personal favorite). “I like staying in the front of the net and picking up the opposing players’ sticks, or tying them up in front of the net. I like to help my goalie out and keep the crease clear”. Hockey teams need those types of players who have a net presence in their own end. A player like Laski who is defensively responsible and who does not mind accepting some of the less glamorous responsibilities of the game.

We start to talk about defenders who Laski emulates. Like most Buffalo-born youngsters, she admires a Sabre in particular. I guess that I am not surprised either that she chooses another softer-spoken defender for the team, though not necessarily for the reasons that I would have surmised. “Unfortunately some people might say that he hasn’t done a whole lot for the Sabres this season, but I admire Cody Franson”. I happened to meet Franson on a chance encounter over the summer at a Verizon store, and he was incredibly friendly and gracious as we chatted for about 10-15-minutes or so. So I know that he is a nice guy and likable. Franson also has a whale of a shot too. But why does Grace Laski like him? Coach Kelsey Neumann poses the question by asking Laski, “Okay is he your favorite because of A) looks, B) number or C) skill?”. We all laugh and Laski giggles, “Number”. Both Laski and Franson wear number-6.

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Grace Laski is a superb defensive-defender who is also capable of end-to-end rushes (Photo provided courtesy of Grace Laski).

Cody Franson has a big shot. That is the positive attribute that he is perhaps most widely known for. For other players, it may be something like their skating ability or having sound positioning. What does Laski consider to be her own best characteristics? One seems to fall more in line with the stay-at-home defender that she is, while the other seems to be completely opposite of where she feels most comfortable; regardless, both are great skills to have hold of, especially at just 13-years of age. “I can skate fast backwards. And sometimes when I am really into a play, I can have these really fast end-to-end rushes with the puck and get it up ice”. Being able to skate backwards at a high speed is not a skill that is easily attained, and the same can be said for end-to-end rushes. I pride Grace Laski on the fact that her skating is one of her strong suits. “The constant practices and having a ton of clinics over the summer, as well as having played for a lot of teams and coaches have all really helped with my skating ability”.

Defender is a unique position, in that oftentimes it is the most “helpful” position on the ice. Having a defense partner that one must be in tune with and develop a natural sort of “ebb and flow” with on the ice when playing alongside one another. Clearing loose pucks and protecting one’s goaltender. Getting pucks up the wing to the forwards. A constant state of helping the other players wearing the same colors as you on the ice. “You have to make sure that you are always watching the front of the net for anyone who may be hanging back. When you are in the corner, if the opposing player is in front of you but closer to the boards, stick on stick and body on body, don’t slash at them; pick up their stick with yours and try to chip the puck out”. You can tell that Laski is quite astute and very much a thinker of the game.

In another three or four years, Laski will begin looking at various colleges and universities and deciding where she would like to attend. Getting to play the game at the NCAA level would be a dream come true. “I definitely want to play college hockey. Right now I do not know what school I would like to go to, but playing hockey in college is definitely my goal”. In the meantime, Laski keeps herself plenty busy by playing for two different Buffalo Bisons teams. “I play with the 12U-A team for the Bisons girls, and just recently finished the season with a Bisons boys team and we won our playoffs”.

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A collage with some of Grace Laski’s heroes; her older sister Hannah and NWHL players Kelsey Neumann, Emily Janiga and Tatiana Rafter (Photo provided courtesy of Grace Laski).

Laski’s family has supported her hockey aspirations, and a closeness with her older sister has helped Grace to believe in herself and in her dreams. “Well for starters, they get me to the rink”, which causes me to laugh. “My sister Hannah has helped me a lot. Especially with my slap-shot and shooting in general. If I am outside and I am really mad about something, like after a bad skate or a tough game, I’ll be shooting pucks for hours at the net, and she’ll show me how to shoot properly. She also helps me with my toughness”. Hannah Laski knows all about toughness, as she is a competitor in Buffalo’s roller derby scene. “Hannah helps me with both my posture and my balance. She has incredible balance from playing roller derby”, Grace tells me.

At the time that I am putting the finishing touches on this article, the Buffalo Beauts have been Isobel Cup champions for nearly 24-hours now. It was a moment that actually brought tears to my ears watching goaltender Kelsey Neumann and her Beauts teammates celebrating with sheer joy as a team out on the ice after doing the nearly unthinkable and knocking off the heavily Boston Pride. Grace Laski gets to work with Kelsey Neumann firsthand on a regular basis, and like many of the Bisons players, she has come to think of Neumann as another older sister. “It means a lot. I would think that all of the other girls on our team look up to her like I do, and I want to be like her and play in the NWHL too. She is there to show us how we should be acting both on the ice and off. Be kind to others and help them too”.

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Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann is another “big sister” to Grace Laski, and helps to teach her what it takes to be a good hockey player and a good person (Photo provided courtesy of Grace Laski).

Maybe some eyes have now been opened from the fact that the Beauts won the Isobel Cup and brought the first professional hockey championship to Buffalo since 1970 when the former American Hockey League Buffalo Bisons won the Calder Cup. A large number of hockey fans in the Buffalo community today were either not born yet or were too young to even recall that the city once had a storied AHL team (me being one who was born a decade later). But now we have a professional championship team right in our own backyard. And it is not the Sabres. It is the Beauts. Maybe people will finally start paying the NWHL champs some proper attention and show the support that they most certainly deserve.

I ask Laski what can the Buffalo community do to support women’s hockey in our city, and perhaps capitalize on the Beauts’ success. “Just try it for a bit. See if you like it, and if you are a girl who likes to play, stick with your team and keep going. If someone is talking badly, and saying that hockey is only for boys, they’re wrong because there are already a ton of girls who play. You should pursue your dreams no matter what, and don’t listen to people who hate on you. If someone knocks you down, get back up no matter how hard it is”. Very well said, Grace. Nice job.

I told you Grace Laski was profound.

 

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“Creating Destruction” ~Jordan Smelker, Boston Pride forward

Winter storm “Stella” is wreaking havoc throughout the northeast of the United States. I am having to contend with it here in Buffalo, while the Boston Pride’s Jordan Smelker is assuredly braving the winter barrens in the Massachusetts area. And as a hockey player, Smelker’s style of play allows her to perform a little “wreaking havoc” of her own. “To put it bluntly”, she says, “I think the best way to describe me is someone who creates destruction in the offensive zone to hopefully create turnovers and help give our team scoring opportunities”. I do not know why, but as soon as she said this the refrain from the Drowning Pool song “Bodies” starts playing in my mind: “Let the bodies hit the floor/ Let the bodies hit the floor/ Let the bodies hit the floor/ Let the bodies hit the FLOOR!!!”.

Smelker goes on to say, “My favorite thing to do is forecheck, so if I can use my size to help regain or maintain possession and create scoring opportunities, then I think I’m doing my job. My playing style isn’t what you would call ‘pretty’ or ‘graceful’, but that’s okay with me because each player is different, and plays a unique and important role. That’s what makes hockey so great I think”. And that is made me want to interview Smelker. I find myself taking a liking toward players that embody a strong work ethic and an intense level of determination. Guts, to do it more justice. Smelker’s role throughout her young career has already brought her a CWHL Clarkson Cup championship and an NWHL Isobel Cup championship as well. I felt a strong inclination to learn more about her, and she was kind enough to grant me the opportunity.

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Boston’s Jordan Smelker “creates destruction” at the doorstep of the Connecticut Whale’s net (Photo credit: Meg Linehan).

Born June 19th, 1992, Jordan Smelker hails from faraway Anchorage Alaska (at least faraway from Boston and Buffalo). “Hockey is pretty big up there”, Smelker tells me. “I started playing when I was 6-years old. My parents got a flyer for the Alaska Firebirds Girls Hockey Association from our elementary school, and decided to have my sister and I give it a try. From what I can remember, when we first started playing, there was really only one girls organization in Anchorage. There were many opportunities to play boys’ hockey, but aside from one year each playing with the boys, my sister and I stuck with girls hockey”.

When I think of Anchorage, Alaska, I always have the same image that comes to mind. That of big Mike Peluso, a former star for the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), sitting on the bench crying with beautiful emotion as he realized he was about to win the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995. While Smelker did not closely follow the NHL while in Anchorage, she was very much aware and a fan of the more localized hockey in her hometown and that of Peluso’s alma mater: “In Anchorage we grew up watching the Alaska Aces of the ECHL and the UAA Seawolves. I didn’t really watch the NHL because we didn’t have access to the games to watch on TV, so I was more of a bandwagon fan whenever the Stanley Cup Finals came around. I did love watching the U.S. women’s national team in the Olympics and came to admire those players, many of whom I get to play with now on the Pride”.

Other than my visions of Mike Peluso, I would have to say that I have very little familiarity with Alaska and its many wonders. Photos I have seen make me marvel over its awe-inspiring beauty. And while I could try to imagine what it may be like to live there I know that I could never properly do it justice. For Smelker though, it is first and foremost home. “As far as growing up in Alaska, it was pretty typical for a hockey family. We would spend most weekends during the winter traveling to tournaments and playing games. During the summer we would go on camping trips or biking trips, and work on the house. We had some horses and some land, so we would spent a lot of time at home playing and working outside”, she says. While some of that may be typical like Smelker said, it also sounds quite nice.

In addition to being an elite hockey player, Jordan Smelker is also very much a superb all-around athlete. And while she has excelled in track & field, tennis, and cross country skiing, she is first and foremost a hockey player hands down. “I love sports in general”, she says, “and it was great that my parents allowed me to play whatever I wanted. But I have always been a hockey player. Not only did I love the games, but I loved training for it. The opportunity arose to play hockey at RPI, so it didn’t take much thought to jump on the chance”. Which leads our discussion into Smelker’s remarkable collegiate career.

From 2010 to 2014, Jordan Smelker excelled on the ice and in the classroom at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), whose team name is quite appropriately the Engineers. Many hockey fans recognize that RPI fostered elite players such as Adam Oates and Joe Juneau, but unfortunately not as many people seem to be aware that a number of premier players came through the school’s women’s program as well like Julie Aho, Alexa Gruschow, and Smelker. “I had met the RPI assistant coach Colette Youlen at NAHA (North American Hockey Academy) summer hockey camps up in Alaska. I visited RPI in June before my senior year of high school. The campus was beautiful and the rink was great. I wasn’t sure right away what I wanted to pursue as a career, but engineering did interest me. So the combination of a great education and the opportunity to play D-I hockey made the decision pretty easy”.

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Jordan Smelker has size and guts, and she is the embodiment of “hard work” for the Boston Pride (Photo credit: Meg Linehan)

During her freshman year at RPI not only did Smelker appear in all 35-regular season games, but also finished second overall on the team in goals (10) and points (20). Academically, she would be named an ECAC Hockey All-Academic, which is an honor bestowed upon collegiate athletes who have earned a cumulative average of at least 3.0. I wanted to know from Smelker what that first taste of NCAA hockey felt like. She explains: “As far as the hockey goes, the best part of transitioning from the travel team in Alaska to playing college was that I got to play so much hockey. Every day was filled with training. I loved the grind of struggling through long days with my teammates. It sounds weird but I got a lot of fulfillment out of that and of course playing in the big rinks against teams like Harvard and Cornell was really awesome”.

It can be funny sometimes the things that our mind’s eye holds onto. For Jordan Smelker it was an image from her freshman season that held a lot of gravity to it, and which ironically enough is still very much in her life today. “I distinctly remember a moment during our first road trip to Wisconsin my freshman year. During the national anthem I was awestruck looking across the rink at the team spread across the blueline seeing names like Duggan, Knight and Decker. There were players that I idolized and watched on TV. I was in shock that I was actually going to play a hockey game against them. It is funny thinking about it now because I get to play with them everyday, which at the time was not even on my radar as a possibility”.

I look at Smelker’s sophomore campaign at RPI as arguably her most remarkable. Once again she played in each game (34) of the season for the Engineers and was a second time straight ECAC All-Academic, all the while leading her team in goals (10), assists (16), points (26) and penalty minutes (50). She laughs, “I’m not so proud of the penalty minutes statistic. I definitely had a temper which I think now I have finally conquered… hopefully (more laughter). As far as the other stuff you mentioned, I just think that getting pushed in the weight room helped me a lot on the ice. We had a pretty vigorous strength and conditioning program which helped us get stronger and faster on the ice. It helped me stay on my feet again college level players. I had spent a fair amount of my freshman year either falling on my face or flat on my back. Strength and speed definitely distinguished the vets from the rookies in the ECAC”.

Smelker’s third season as an Engineer brought more of the same accolades and success. This time it would be all 36-games for the squad while once again leading the team in PIMs (51) and finishing second on the team in assists (12) and points (21). A third in a row All-Academic honor in the books as well, by this point Smelker was a well-established junior who could also be a leader and a guide for the program’s younger players. “I was just focused on working as hard as I could both on the ice and off, in the weight room and classroom, and hopefully lead by example in that way”.

The 2013-14 season would be Smelker’s senior year and her final season at RPI. She would cap off her career at Rensselaer with a big bang. 19-points in 31-games are certainly decent numbers, but what speaks more to Smelker’s character, her skill level, and her leadership was that not only was she named the Engineers’ team MVP, but she was also a finalist for ECAC Hockey’s Best Defensive Forward award. Looking back on her collegiate career, Smelker is able to say “My time at RPI greatly impacted me as a person. I had to grow up a lot, and it was certainly difficult to manage school and hockey at the same time. I wouldn’t say that I am ecstatic about the results we had over the four years; I think we had potential for more success than we had. Having said that, I don’t regret the experience as I felt that I learned a lot and it helped me to grow as a person”.

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Jordan Smelker uses her size and determination to wreak havoc against opposing teams like the Connecticut Whale (Photo credit: Meg Linehan).

Upon graduating from RPI, Smelker would sign with the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and it would pay most wonderful dividends. The Blades were comprised of a roster that featured some of hockey’s finest. Brianna Decker. Hilary Knight. Monique Lamoureux. Kaleigh Fratkin. Tara Watchorn. Smelker. And I could go on even more from there. “It was a simple decision (to sign with the Blades)”, she recalls. “I wanted to continue playing competitively, and the CWHL was an option with structure and a high level of hockey, so it was a no-brainer”.

Even with a roster with legends such as there were, Jordan Smelker still finished sixth overall in team scoring for the Blades (8-goals, 7-assists in 22-games). Far more importantly though, the 2014-15 Blades would capture the Clarkson Cup trophy. Winning 3-2 in overtime against the Montreal Stars on a goal by Austria’s Janine Weber, Smelker and her teammates would hoist the Cup for the second time in the team’s history. For Smelker, not bad at all for a first season in the CWHL. Smelker tells me, “That was an awesome year. It was the best year of hockey for me up to that point. We had great team chemistry, and all my teammates were such great players; I really appreciated that team. That was the first championship that I had ever won, so it was awesome. But more importantly I loved my team and the friendships I made that year are some of the best I’ve had”.

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A photo from their days with the CWHL’s Boston Blades, Jordan Smelker (far right) and teammates Tara Watchorn and Hilary Knight having fun together (Photo credit: Meg Linehan).

The National Women’s Hockey League would hold its inaugural campaign during the 2015-16 season, and Jordan Smelker would become of the league’s fledgling members of the first paid professional women’s hockey league. Smelker would not have to go far either, as she would opt to sign with the city of Boston’s NWHL club, the Pride. Speaking on the fact that she could have likely signed with any one of the other four newly founded NWHL teams in Boston, Buffalo, New York, or the North Branford area of Connecticut, or even have signed with another CWHL team, Smelker tells me,  “I had a job in Boston, so I didn’t want to move cities. It was an easy decision for me to stay in Boston so that I could have the same teammates who I love and also keep my job”.

The Pride’s first season would be exciting and a whirlwind at times too. Coinciding with having a great deal of success as a hockey club, perhaps largely due to the fact that most of the team was comprised of the same roster of players who had just previously won the Clarkson Cup the year beforehand (i.e. Knight, Decker, Dempsey, Bolden, Smelker, etc.), the team also had to face devastating adversity when teammate from both the Blades and the Pride, Denna Laing, suffered a severe spinal cord injury during an outdoor game. That being said, the team rallied behind one another and became that much more bound together by their heartstrings. Smelker would average better than a point per game by tallying 19 of them (9-goals, 10-assists) in 17-games, and the Pride would capture the first ever Isobel Cup championship in the first season of NWHL play. Teammate Hilary Knight would absolutely explode for 33-points in 17-games, plus 9-more points in 4-playoff games as Boston claimed victory.

“The first season was definitely eventful”, Smelker says. “There were times when the travel schedule was difficult, but the atmosphere at the games was awesome. That was the first year I experienced having a pretty large base of fans who would show up week after week. Sometimes walking around Boston I’ll see a Pride jersey, or a Denna Laing t-shirt, which is really cool. The thing that sticks out most to me is the feeling that I am a part of something that has made an impact on the game and has shown that women’s hockey has the potential to be something that people can get excited about watching”.

And this feeling that Smelker speaks of has by no means diminished. At the time of this article, the NWHL playoffs are set to begin tomorrow evening (March 16th, 2017) as Smelker’s Pride take on the Connecticut Whale in the opening round. The Pride only lost 1-game all season long, and look to repeat as Isobel Cup champions. They have also secured home ice advantage throughout the entire playoffs. According to Smelker, “The best part about playing in the NWHL is playing at home in front of our awesome fans. The atmosphere is phenomenal and we can attribute that to the fans. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”. In 15-games this season, Jordan Smelker scored 3-goals and 5-assists.

With the 2016-17 season almost at a close, Smelker also has some ideas on how we as a hockey community can continue to build the prosperity and the interest for women’s hockey. We discuss first the concept of “Grow the Game” – the idea of building the road ahead for women’s hockey, particularly for the young girls that comprise the next generation. Smelker explains her thoughts to me: “To me, ‘Grow the Game’ means doing the little things like staying for autographs, volunteering at clinics, and talking to kids who show an interest in meeting you. My teammate Jill Dempsey is an excellent example of the type of person that really helps grow the game. She always is making time for things like that, and it shows the impact it has because you see the number of kids that come to the games looking for a picture with “Ms. Dempsey” or an autographed jersey”.

But after “Grow the Game”, there is a need to garner support from their male counterparts that the NWHL players hope to attain, according to Smelker. “I think that support and recognition of our league from the men’s side would definitely help. It would go a long way for us to have prominent figures in the hockey world (men’s and women’s) to be vocal about their support of the league to help make it more visible nationwide”. Personally, I agree with Smelker’s sentiments exactly, and I think we are just starting to see support coming from the NHL at various functions where the top league in men’s hockey can spread the word on the great brand of hockey that players like Smelker are generating. Let’s just hope that continues.

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Jordan Smelker (center) and Boston Pride teammates Jillian Dempsey and Alyssa Gagliardi are #14Strong for their teammate Denna Laing (Photo provided courtesy of Jordan Smelker).

Having played in and found success with both major North American women’s leagues, Smelker’s experience gives her the firsthand insight into what could potentially be a successful merger or partnership between the NWHL and the CWHL. But, Smelker even takes it a step further. Perhaps if Hockey Canada and USA Hockey both got onto the boat with women’s professional hockey, then it would a “natural hat-trick” of sorts. “I think another huge missing link is a collaboration of the professional leagues with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada. It would be incredibly impactful to have the three ‘pillars’ of post-NCAA women’s hockey work together to form or mold a league into something that can help develop players after college, and also feed into the development of the national team programs”. Definitely an interesting idea raised by Smelker; one I have not fully heard discussed as such before. I hope that there are some folks that are higher up who might be listening.

How Jordan Smelker and I end the conversation reiterates further that I was right in wanting to interview her. She tells me, “The most important thing I have learned while playing hockey is how to be a good person and how to work hard”. I do not think that there are two ideals more necessary than the two that she names. They exemplify who she is as a player and as a person. Jordan Smelker may look to create destruction when she competes out on the ice but that speaks most certainly to the hard worker that she is, and I happen to know that she is a very good person too.

Thank you, Jordan!