She just turned 13-years old the day before our interview together, and yet she is already the starting goaltender for her high school’s girls varsity – yes, I said varsity – hockey team. Considering that the girls’ team is actually a composite of three separate high schools (Kenmore West, Kenmore East and Grand Island high schools in the suburbs of Buffalo), it is even more remarkable that seventh grader Ellie Simmons is the top netminder. Both figuratively and literally, she is “heads above the rest”. Not only is she the starter, but at her tender age Ellie is already 5-feet, 8-inches tall. Taking into account that she has a few more years to still grow, her size combined with her ability to cover the net is enough to make hockey coaches drool.
If that weren’t enough, Ellie Simmons is one cool kid too. We are sitting at a Panera with her goalie coach (Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann) on a school night, and after Ellie has just pulled out an overtime win against Monsignor Martin. She is upbeat, smiley, and very polite. With a firm handshake and presenting herself most well, you would think Ellie Simmons is much older than her age. And as she warms herself up with some mac n’ cheese and hot cocoa (after all, it is January in Buffalo), we begin to talk.
“I practically grew up in the rink”, Ellie tells me about the beginnings of her becoming enthralled with the game. “Both my older sisters played hockey, so I always went to all of their games. They were both role models for me. There was a big age gap, and I looked up to them so much that I wanted to start playing too”. Ellie’s older sisters, Kaitlyn and Grace, are 21- years old and 19-years old respectively; Kaitlyn being a fellow goaltender, while Grace is a defender. Even Ellie’s father is a goaltender, while her mother played soccer but shares a strong appreciation of both games. “I originally started as a skater too, because my sister Grace was the first of us to start playing hockey. She’s a really good defender, so I wanted to be just like her. But when I was about 8-years old my team needed a goalie. I ended up playing goalie full time, and it was great because my dad could coach me too”. Mr. Simmons tended net collegiately at Le Moyne College in the Syracuse and still continues to play recreationally. With such a strong foundation of sports, specifically deep hockey roots in her family, it was natural for Ellie to fall in love with the game too.
When naming off her “hockey heroes”, sister Grace is at the top of Ellie’s list. “Even though she is a defender and I am a goalie, it’s her work ethic and her determination that I really admire. She knows when she does something wrong, and she immediately tries to fix it. Grace is my role model for her character, and for how far I want to get with hockey”. Grace Simmons is a NCAA Division-III defender for the University of Southern Maine. This helps to set some high standards for me”, Ellie says. With Grace only being in her freshman year at the university, Ellie hopes to make it up to Maine and see her big sister play sometime soon, although this is definitely challenging considering how busy her own hockey schedule is.
Simmons has her own dreams of playing hockey collegiately when the time comes. Asked which school would be her “dream school” to play for? “Penn State. My sister had a tournament there one time, and their rink is just amazing. Their campus is like a town all by itself”. While the men’s team just recently became the top collegiate team in the nation for the first time, the Division-I Nittany Lions women’s hockey team is still relatively new. Coached by Josh Brandwene, the program’s first season was 2012-13. I have a hunch though that they would be very much interested in a goaltender of Ellie Simmons’ character and caliber.
Goaltenders are often considered unique and to have personalities or characteristics that make them at least a little different than skaters. For Ellie Simmons, this is part of what piqued her own interest in the position. “When I was a younger kid, it was kind of fun to be different from everyone else”, she explains. “To be that one person who has to put on the pads”. Thus far, it is a lot more than just donning the pads that have made Ellie Simmons become a standout. In this current 2016-17 season in the Western New York Girl’s Varsity Ice Hockey Federation, the seventh grader has played the third most minutes out of eighteen goaltenders in the league with over 470-minutes between the pipes. On top of that, she has compiled a stat sheet of some truly stellar numbers; a 0.915 save percentage with stopping 257 of 281 shots, a 2.29 goals against average, and a record of 6-4-1 which includes 3 shutouts. Keep in mind that this is her very first year of playing high school hockey, which conceivably has five more years to go.
The success that Ellie Simmons is achieving at such a young age has by no means gone to her head. Ellie possesses a strong sense of humility. What she enjoys the most about playing hockey are the variety of emotions that the game is able to invoke into those who play it. “The ways that the game makes you feel. It can give you so many different emotions”, she tells me. “You can be happy, sad; it can even be scary at times. Playing the game is intense, and you really have to focus on what you are doing”.
Saying all of that, Ellie knows that in order to achieve success in hockey, especially as a goaltender, players have to find a means of keeping themselves in check. If hockey generates a wide variety of emotions, it becomes more of a balancing act; not letting your highs get you too high, and not letting your lows get you too low, all while playing at a highly competitive level. “You cannot let your emotions get the best of you. If you get scored on, you just have to move onto the next shot. You have to look at it from the perspective of playing from shot to shot. If you get caught up in your head, you are not going to be able to make the next save”.
If you have not already gathered it by now, it is important to note that Ellie Simmons is very much down to earth. There is a self-awareness to her, and she recognizes that she still has a long ways to go in her career, even at this level. There really is not a true sense of pulling ahead from the rest of the pack. Ellie Simmons works her darndest out on the ice, but understands that the competition level will only increase. “As you get older, the competition for ice time to play in the net increases. Right now my goalie partner and I share the net duties, but I know as we get older we are going to have to start competing with each other for the net. You have to always keep it friendly and remember that you’re both trying to reach the same goal; so you have to help each other”. Some very wise words from this young lady.
Outward from the crease, some of Ellie’s teammates and her competition at the high school level present an array of challenges as shooters. I ask her if this is a somewhat intimidating for her. She handles it as cool as a cucumber. “It was a little scary at first, but once I started taking the shots it did not really get to me anymore. I know that they are all great players. Some of them are playing Tier-I 19U hockey. The placement of their shots was particularly scary initially, and how hard they were. But the more shots I got from them in practices, I became more used to them by the time the games started.”. And now for Ellie, these shots are kind of old hat for her. It was also helpful that her teammates, despite being older, were accepting of her and welcoming. “With both of my sisters having played on the team before, everyone kind of knew me because I was always that little sister that went to all the games. And once we get onto the ice together we’re all just hockey players and age doesn’t really matter”.
In additional to playing on her high school team, Ellie also plays for the Buffalo Bisons girls travel team. Hence, her receiving close tutelage from Buffalo Beaut Kelsey Neumann who is a goalie coach for the program. What Ellie considers to be her most memorable hockey game she has played in thus far actually comes from her time with the Bisons 12U girls team, when she played her first game. “I had just played on 14U non-tournament bound for the Tonawanda Lightning (another local youth hockey organization), and I had just joined the Bisons. We were playing a tournament in Boston (Massachusetts), and it was my first game ever playing with the team. I didn’t really know any of the girls yet, and it was kind of scary at first. I knew too that the game would set the tone for the rest of the season. I ended up getting a shutout in the game and my team played really well too. It was also really nice to meet all of the girls at the time as well”.
Getting to work up close and personal with “Coach Kelsey”, Ellie and Neumann have formed a bond that is far more like sisters than that of coach and student. In fact, Neumann may as well be a third older sister to Ellie. “Coach Kelsey has been through all of this before. She grew up playing hockey, and she knows what you need to do to get as far as she has. She is a friend you can talk to, and she knows the difference between when you can joke around and have fun, and when you have to be serious”. And while Ellie certainly has gained valuable knowledge from Neumann in terms of goalie techniques and positioning, it is how Neumann carries herself as a person and her sense of morals that ring truest with her young goaltender. “Coach Kelsey is really built on the same idea that my parents instilled in me too, that it is more important to be a good person than it is to be a good hockey player. Even after hockey is over, you still need to be a human. Coach Kelsey shows that by her actions too, and sets examples for us of how a good goalie can be a good person”. And seeing the two of them side by side, it is obvious from body language alone the high regard that Ellie holds her coach within.
Let’s say that Ellie Simmons does end up going to Penn State and playing NCAA hockey. Then what would be next after that? Does she too dream about playing professional women’s hockey in the NWHL someday, just like her coach? “I would love to play in the NWHL! It would be so fun. The league is a big showcase for amazing women’s hockey players. It would be something that is really nice”. Both Ellie and I marvel over the fact that right here in our own backyard, we have some of the best women’s hockey players in the world. Something that we both share a mutual appreciation of, and that we are well aware of how special and unique that opportunity truly is.
One of the most vital ways for the NWHL to be successful is to continue to grow the game for the next generation of players; ones like Ellie Simmons. But it is maybe equally as important to include the young girls on the periphery; the ones who are on the fence about playing hockey in the first place. I ask Ellie to share with me her two cents on encouraging young girls who may be hesitant to give hockey a try. “Go out and try it. Might feel a little scary at first, but once you get over your fears of falling down and things like that, it is just fun and you get to meet so many different people. Most of my friendships are from hockey. And hockey teaches you so much more than how to play the sport. It teaches you character, and how you should act on and off the ice”.
Having met her and borrowed about an hour of her time, I am certain that Ellie Simmons will continue to exceed expectations throughout any avenues of life that she may pursue, but particularly in her hockey career. I still cannot get over the fact that as a seventh grader she is the starting goaltender on a varsity high school team in a hockey town like Buffalo. I am admittedly a bit awestruck by this. Ellie attributes a lot of her ability to keep a level head to her mom, whom she also wants to give a special shout-out to. “My mom definitely keeps me in check sometimes”, she says with a laugh. “If I have a bad game sometimes, she’ll be standing there making funny faces at me”. Having a mom who can help you smile when you are having a down moment is definitely a good mom.
I am anxious with anticipation to see where Ellie Simmons career goes from here, and would love to look back on her hockey résumé by the time she is my age. I know full well that she will have a long list of accolades. She undoubtedly gave an excellent first interview, and I feel proud to have made this young lady’s acquaintance. So when she ends up making it to the Frozen Four someday or becoming an NWHL first round draft pick for the league’s newest expansion team, just remember that you heard about her here first.