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.
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.
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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 FirebirdsGirls 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”.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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 third in a series that we are doing together. This time we are spotlighting 11-year old forward Julia Peters!
Salty beans. Jack Eichel. And Jerry Rice.
I may have met the only 11-year old girl who knows who Jerry Rice is. She is well aware of Rice’s many accolades and his importance to sports in general as one of the greatest professional athletes of all time. Julia Peters meets me at Moe’s accompanied by her mom and also one of her coaches (Buffalo Beauts goalie Kelsey Neumann). She offers me a firm handshake and a bright smile. She’s decked out in a Jack Eichel jersey; her hockey hero. And for some reason, the beans in our food are extra salty tonight.
Julia Peters is a forward for the Girls 12U Buffalo Bisons. One of the youngest players on the squad, Peters informs me that she has been skating since she could walk. “I started by skating on the pond in our backyard. From there, I started playing organized hockey when I was 3-years old. Even now I still go skating on the pond every winter; from 6:00pm until 3:00am sometimes”. One thing that you will learn about Julia Peters from this piece is that she is an incredible all-around athlete. Peters mentions that she also has a swimming pool and a trampoline in her backyard too, and she makes very good use of all in order to stay fit and excel in sports.
“My parents are really what got me started with hockey. I was so young when I started that I don’t even remember the beginnings. I think that they just put me into a program to get me going”. Peters is the youngest of four, with an older sister and two older brothers. “My sister plays hockey too. My one older brother is in college. He switched schools, so he couldn’t try out for the team right away, but he is going to try out for U.B.’s team (University at Buffalo). But we have each been playing hockey all of our lives. My dad played too”. Looking into Peters’ extended family, her mother’s four brothers all played hockey and her grandfather coached the game as well. “It is just a really big sport throughout my family”.
Much like Jack Eichel, Julia Peters has an affinity towards the center position. Peters even flashes me a “C” with her hands when I first ask the question; signing to me that it is her favorite position. Pun intended, I eventually learn throughout the course of our conversation that this little lady is a “Jack of all trades”, so to speak. “I feel most comfortable at center. It is a very important position. I am willing to accept that responsibility, and I always try my hardest”. Good girl.
Anyone who has seen Jack Eichel play knows that he is an incredibly skilled individual, and a very “crafty” forward. I ask Peters if she had to describe her own style, how would she define herself as a forward? “I would probably say a power-forward. I am definitely not a sniper”, she laughs, “because I only have one goal”. Coach Kelsey Neumann begged to differ and said, “I think you are more of a playmaker. Anytime I see you play you are always setting up some great passes”. Coach typically knows best, and after some reconsideration, Peters can see why her coach feels this way about her. “I like scoring goals, but the reason why I only have one is because I usually set them up. My linemates have some goals off of my passes; Molly (Leggett) has three”. Playmaker it is then, and it sounds like she is performing at the position quite well.
Centers, even those who like to dish the puck out more than keep it to themselves, need to have an array of shots. Much like her professional counterparts, Peters invests the time needed to develop her various shots so that she has some options. “I have been working on my slapshot lately; I really like that one. My wrist shot is kind of ‘missily’ (cool word that Peters just invented). I practice in my basement, and I practice out on the ice too. I try different techniques to find one that I really like. I did this one today where I went bar down on the shot. I also did this other slapshot where my stick hits the ice first and I turn my wrist as I am striking the puck. It helps the puck to go up more”. Here is where Peters really impresses me: “The first time that we tested the speed of our shots, I was at 56-mph”. Keep in mind that this is an eleven year old girl. That is some serious firepower!
With that ‘missily’ shot of hers, I ask Peters if she has most memorable goal that she has scored in her hockey career so far. “Oh yeah. When I was playing with boys two years ago, I scored the first goal of the season. It was a one-timer that went bar down”. Peters fell when getting the shot off but like all highlight reel goals falling only made it look ten-times cooler!
Peters is actually in her first year with the Bisons. Prior to that she played 7-years with the Hamburg Hawks, another local youth hockey club. In addition to club hockey, Peters plans on giving it her best go when she tries out for the varsity high school hockey team next year. Hailing from Orchard Park, she is excited to begin her high school career. The Orchard Park’s girls hockey team is part of a conglomerate formed with Lakeshore and Frontier high schools as well. For young girls who play hockey in the Buffalo area, having a professional women’s hockey team whom they can get up close and personal with offers a unique opportunity for inspiration. Having a coach like Kelsey Neumann imparting experience from the pro level is a rarer treat. “It’s actually very fun, and I can tell people – ‘I have a professional hockey player’s phone number!'”. A simple pleasure, but definitely a confidence booster for sure. Julia looks up to Kelsey, and her mom is grateful that she has Kelsey as a role model.
With confidence and a positive mindset, anything is possible. I asked Peters what dreams does she hope to accomplish in her hockey career. She says, “Oooh, my mom knows this one – I want to be the second girl to play in the NHL”. Okay, so Miss Peters, what do you need to do in order to accomplish that dream? “Work hard. Play hard. Get stronger. Build my muscles”.
It is not always easy though. Players can fall into slumps. Forwards can run into issues with coughing up turnovers or not finding the back of the net. “When that happens, I examine myself. Sort of look inside. I’ll even smack myself upside the helmet too to get my head back into the game. It helps me to get refocused. I stop and think about where I am at and what I am doing. I tell myself, ‘Get back in the game, or else you have to do pushups when you get home!’. I have actually made myself do pushups a few times”.
And there is family of course too. Coming from a long line of hockey players, Peters’ family is her cornerstone as she continues to move toward those dreams. “It seems like my mom and my dad are never out of the car. They always take me to all of my games and practices. Earlier this season, I arrived at the rink but I had forgotten my equipment. My dad drove all the way home to get it. I ended up only playing 6-minutes that practice, but what mattered most was that my dad took the time to go get my equipment for me”.
“The most important thing that I have learned from hockey is that you have to have confidence. If I have a teammate whose confidence is lacking, I’ll tell them, ‘It’s okay, just chill. Just forget about it'”. It makes me feel good to see that Julia Peters has her own strong sense of self confidence. A likeable self confidence at that. Confidence amongst young girls can be contagious, and when one is filled to the brim with that confidence, it is only natural for it to spill over and into others. Peters tells me, “I am a crazy, wild, nonstop, talkative, chatterbox”. It is perhaps no wonder then that she is also well known for coming up with a variety of cheers for her teammates to boost their spirits and get them into the game.
Throughout the course of our interview Peters even threw in a few “dabs”. And after originally attributing the “dab” to football’s Odell Beckham Jr. , she corrects herself by stating that it was quarterback Cam Newton who came up with the slick move. “I know a bit about every sport. I surprise my mom all the time. She’ll say, ‘how do you know this?’. I can play hockey, softball, gymnastics, badminton and swimming. I like football, but hockey is my life”. Asked who her favorite football player – “Jerry Rice”. I mean, wow.
With our interview at an end, it is her same self-confidence that leads Peters to approach one of the cooks and politely inform them that their beans are little salty tonight. No rudeness or discourtesy at all. Just an eleven year old young lady speaking her mind, and expressing something that she felt the workers may want to know in order to provide better service. Julia Peters has some pizazz and could have the world by the tail if she wanted too. And because of that unbridled enthusiasm, I would not at all be surprised if she does become the next woman to make it to the NHL. Great job, kiddo!
Author’s note: Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann and I have teamed up to interview and spotlight young ladies (12-14 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 second in a series that we are doing together. This time we are spotlighting 13-year old goaltender Ellie Timby!
Her nickname is “Timbit”. Or at least that is one of her nicknames. She possesses a very witty, almost catches you off guard, sense of humor that is appealing just as much to adults as it would be to other 13-year olds. Her mom likens her to Tina Fey, and after sharing my evening with her and her goaltending coach (Buffalo Beauts’ goaltender Kesley Neumann) the comparison is right on the money. Speaking of money, compared to other 13-year olds, this young lady is also very pennywise; an attribute which will behoove her as she continues into adulthood. And in saying all that, I am highly impressed to be around her. Let me introduce you to Ellie Timby; a 13-year old goaltender for the Buffalo Bisons.
Timby will actually be 14-years old in April. We fist bump over the fact that my birthday is in April too. “I was seven years old when I started playing hockey”, Timby says, “but I wasn’t always a goalie. I played forward and defense as well. I started playing goalie only about 3 or 4-years ago”. What led to Timby becoming a netminder was that there were no other goaltenders available at the time, and a coach asked if she would take up the role; from there, she has blossomed ever since.
Timby is what you would call a hybrid goaltender. Meaning, since she does not play a pure standup style or butterfly style of goaltending, she is more or less a combination of the two. Compared with most goaltenders of today, Timby fits the norm and it has served her quite well. “I had to look up what hybrid meant, but once I looked it up it really made sense to me and how I play as a goalie”.
Timby recognizes the importance of practice and continually working towards bettering herself as a goaltender. Asked what the toughest save is for her to make, “high stick-side, for sure”, she says. “or when I am hugging one of the posts; I have had goals go in there too”. But Timby assures me that she will keep working on improving both, despite any difficulty in what those types of saves may pose.
Goaltending style is one thing, but how does Ellie Timby prepare herself for playing an actual hockey game? The weekend before our interview together, she had just come off of pitching a 0-0 shutout up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. “I am able to focus before a game by listening to my music. I just pick a few songs that I like to listen to”. Timby jokes that she will listen to her music, even if that involves not listening to her mother (uh oh). On the ride up to Hamilton, she kept her headphones on the entire ride, and was able to get herself “in the zone” so to speak, and any nerves were brought to an even keel.
Soon to be 14, Ellie Timby has many more years of hockey to play. But like a athlete of any age, she has her own sense of dreams and what she would like to accomplish. “I’d like to play in college. At this point, I do not have a particular school in mind, but I dream of playing at the college level”. An integral part of playing hockey collegiately is the current building of her playing and her foundation as a member of the Buffalo Bisons. Timby feels that playing with the Bisons organization is most assuredly better preparing her as she goes along the road towards becoming a college athlete. “The Bisons are a really good organization. Our practices really help. We’re together as a team twice a week. It’s not really hard to balance with school and it’s not really a chore, because of how much I enjoy hockey”. I failed to mention that I am conducting this interview with Timby on a school night, and a Monday night at that, no less. True to what she is telling me about the balance between hockey and school, she has already finished her homework for the night, despite having practice and then heading straight to our interview afterward. Needless to say, Ellie Timby is on top of things.
Timby has been a protégé of Kelsey Neumann’s for over three years now, and the two are very much like sisters. It is kismet. In fact, if you didn’t know any better beforehand, you would most certainly think that the two were sisters by blood when you met them. They have similar features, similar manners of speech, and incredibly similar personalities. It is no wonder that they fit together so well; a goalie’s hand fitting snuggly inside of her goaltending glove. “It makes me feel special that she is my coach. Coach Kelsey really cares about me, and she takes time out of her day to come watch me play and to coach me. She feels like my big sister… I like her more than my actual sister!”. Like I said, Tina Fey, folks. Her delivery is as impeccable as her glove save. I am laughing hard now; “What?”, she says; “I’m not going to lie”; as if to throw her hands up and say “Who? Me?”. But in all seriousness, when she thinks of her coach Timby defines her with the word “Committed; she always tries and never gives up, and she always tries to help me reach my goals”.
Timby’s words for Neumann are very heartfelt and sincere and they ring true; both to the character of her coach and her own kind nature – Ellie Timby is a sweetheart. However, I have not learned my lesson and lead the conversation down a slippery slope once more. I ask Timby to imagine for a moment that roles were reversed and that she was Neumann’s coach. Were that the case, what words of advice would she have for the elder netminder. Without missing a beat – “Pull your head outta your a**!”. Raucous laughter ensues from everyone within earshot. Ellie Timby might become the first ever professional hockey goaltender-standup comedian. Timby is sure to tell me though that she herself has heard these same words from Neumann in both games and practice. Joking aside once more, there is some truth to these words… of… encouragement, I guess I will call them. Timbly tells me, “It actually can be applied to everything in life. When she says it to me, I know exactly what she means and it helps me get refocused. It helps; kind of knocks some sense in when you hear it”.
When you look at Tweets or Facebook posts from the NWHL and its players, you constantly see a hashtag for #GrowTheGame. Grow the game for the next generation of players. Ellie Timby is part of that next generation, and she too aspires to be a professional hockey player like her coach someday. I pose a question to Timby that specifically discusses how to grow the game, and how to get the word out about women’s hockey. “We need to advertise more and we need to get some more teams in the league. It would be great if there were some expansion teams”. Just a couple days after my interview with Timby, it was “National Women and Girls in Sports Day”. Kind of neat that the two coincided with one another. And Timby is onto something. It is my sincere hope that the NWHL expands into other cities, but I think that Timby nails the bullseye when stating that more advertising needs to be done. We need to get the word out about women’s hockey. Maybe in a small way, this interview and this piece is making some sort of slight, positive difference.
No athlete’s career would be able to take off without the love and support of family. For Ellie Timby, that is no different. Her mother was kind enough to bring her to our interview together at Moe’s – Ellie’s favorite place to eat – and that is just one example of how her family supports her love for hockey. “They really push me to reach my goals”. The support is perhaps most pronounced when Timby has encountered challenges in her young career. “My proudest moment was when I tried out for high school varsity hockey when I knew that I wasn’t going to make it because there were six goalies at tryouts. I was nervous, but I did it”. Keep in mind too that Timby was trying out for the Williamsville women’s varsity hockey team – that is not just one high school, but a team comprised of the three Williamsville high schools – that is a lot of competition that she did not shy away from. No matter the outcome, that moment belongs to Ellie. That’s hers; she owns that. I give her a lot of credit, especially when considering that she is a 13-year old who attempted to make a varsity team. That sort of gumption may be innate, but I also think a major part of it stems from upbringing and being raised by a family who instills the attitude of always trying your best.
One final statement from Ellie Timby for the evening. After all, it is a school night. “Hockey is not always about winning; it’s about having fun”. No truer words than that. This kiddo nailed it. And while we spend the rest of our time together looking at old photos of Ken Dryden (she modeled his famous pose during one of her games without previously knowing who the legendary Habs goalie was) and discussing what she should have painted on her goaltending mask (I suggested she get actual Timbit donuts painted on it), it makes me smile inside to meet a youngster who loves the game of hockey and has no hesitation in joking around with adults in a fun-loving conversation. Keep stonewalling the shooters, Ellie, and making others laugh!
Ask a young goalie who their “hockey hero” might be, and the answer I receive most often these days is Carey Price. Not in every instance, but definitely more often than any other response. So I am floored when I ask Elisabeth Hill who her hockey hero is and she tells me matter of factly: “Ron Hextall”. Are you serious? What 18-year old girl has Ron Hextall as her favorite goaltender? Hextall, the first goaltender to ever score a goal by firing it into the opponent’s net, which he actually did twice. Hextall, the 1987 winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Vezina. And Hextall the goaltender who had over 100-minutes in penalties in each of his first three seasons in the NHL due to his tendency towards stickwork and getting his blocker up in opposing shooters faces; on top of the fact that he was very much an elite goalie in addition to his junkyard dog-ishness. Needless to say, I am highly impressed by this answer, and I love meeting individuals who break stereotypes and go totally against the norm. Elisabeth Hill possesses strong individuality, and she is also pretty darn good at stopping pieces of vulcanized rubber. Hence her nickname, “The Puckslayer”.
Hill is a originally from Midlothian, Texas but is attending a preparatory school in Middletown, New Jersey called Mater Dei Prep. “I am 18-years old now, but I was about 8 or 9 when I started playing. Both of my parents were Dallas Stars fans, and as I got a little older I started to watch the games with them. I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm. That looks fun and aggressive; I kinda think I would like to try that out. My parents put my in a “Learn to Skate” program and then a “Learn to Play” through USA Hockey. In “Learn to Play” I found myself always gravitating towards the net. You don’t really expect someone to be a goaltender right off the bat, but a few weeks later this guy came up to my mom and said, ‘You do know she’s going to be a goalie, right?’. At first my mom was like, ‘oh please! God no!’, but here I am”, Hill tells me with a chuckle.
Though the state of Texas has the Stars and a large number of minor league teams, I was not sure how much youth hockey was available to Hill in order to grow in the game and foster her goaltending skills. “I mostly played boys hockey in Texas because that was the level of play where I felt that I would do better in. I did play girls, but there is only one girls hockey organization in the entire state, but at the time it was very much a different organization than what it is now. I ended up only playing girls hockey for 2-years before I went back to playing boys. The competition was a lot better in boys hockey and everybody actually wanted to play”.
There is a brief, completely kidding of course, moment of contention between Hill and I considering that her 1999 Dallas Stars beat my Buffalo Sabres in the Stanley Cup Finals. “Yeah… sorry ’bout that”, she says. All kidding aside, Hill looks fondly upon that ’99 Stars team that won it all, particularly their Hall of Fame netminder. “My favorite player from that team is Eddie Belfour. He was very aggressive, but was one of the best of all time”.
Speaking of goaltender aggressiveness though, Hill tells me more about how she idolizes Ron Hextall. “When I tell people that it always gets a few headshakes with people saying, ‘wait, what?’. Even my teammates who I play with have no idea who that even is; my coach does, but they don’t. Hextall is the reason why I wear number-27. I actually met him when I was about 12, and my first words to him were ‘Can I hug you?’. He was kind of like, ‘What?… Oh, yeah. Okay, sure’. My mom was friends with someone who worked for the (Manchester) Monarchs of the AHL”. Hextall was at one time the General Manager of the Manchester Monarchs, the former top minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. “He had actually signed some stuff for me when I was younger, and I had a nationals tournament in California and that was where the opportunity to meet him presented itself”.
Now living in New Jersey, Hill is a goaltender for her prep school’s women’s ice hockey program, the Mater Dei Seraphs, as well as for the Jersey Shore Wildcats of the New Jersey Youth Hockey League (NJYHL). We talk first about the Seraphs and their fairly new women’s hockey program which is only in its third year. As a senior now, Hill is one of the program’s original startup players for the school. “Originally I was recruited by a local girls youth team and they had an agreement with Mater Dei for a number of girls to attend there and help start the program which was my sophomore year of high school. Education wise, Mater Dei made everything possible for me, and hockey wise it was the best fit. We started my sophomore year, but we actually did not get into league play until just this year. We had a thing to prove our first two years, and I think we proved it very well”.
A new experience for sure for the teenage Hill who prior to attending Mater Dei had never lived outside of Texas before. “Usually I go home for Christmas. Sometimes my mom will make plans to come up to New Jersey to see me and sometime she has plans through work too that bring her up this way, which is really nice”. The Serhaps’ playoff season will begin the second full week of February, and Hill’s mother has already scheduled the trip to be there in attendance. “It is kind of funny; the older I get the more I actually miss my family and being at home. At 16 I was like, “Yes! I’m on my own! I’m independent!”, but now I’m 18 and it’s more like, ‘Oh man, I miss my mom!’. In her three years with Mater Dei, Hill has compiled a total of 151-career saves to go along with a 0.873-save percentage while allowing just 22-goals.
Coinciding with her play with the Seraphs, Hill also tends net for the Jersey Shore Wildcats, a team in the fairly expansive youth hockey program throughout the state of New Jersey; a whole bunch of teams comprise the competition in this league. Hill tells me, “This is the first year for the Wildcats to have a girls program. My two coaches from the Seraphs and the Wildcats actually know each other, so they try to work around each other’s schedules. The Wildcats have another goalie but she attends prep school in another state, so there are times when I am the only goalie for both teams”. Personally, I think it is quite commendable how Hill’s two coaches are able to share her goaltending capabilities for their respective teams while not putting any undue pressure or unfair circumstances onto their young netminder. “Sometimes even if there is a scheduling conflict, the U16 goalie for the Wildcats will come up and play, and she is a very nice girl; she and I get along really well”, Hill says.
Elisabeth Hill has really good size for a women’s goalie standing at 5’9.5″ and 145-pounds. “In girls hockey I am considered a big goalie, but I also think that my tracking and my speed are some of my best attributes in addition to my size. Some people think that as a goalie you are just kind of standing there by yourself, but you actually set the mood and the pace of the game. You set an attitude for the game as well. If you have a good attitude and work ethic that sets the mood for your entire team”. When Hill explained it to me as such, I realized that she is a very cerebral goaltender even at her young age, and that she is an astute player that “feels” the game as much as she thinks it. Off the ice Hill greatly enjoys free-writing, developing short stories, and photography, so she is very much in tune with herself as both a person and as an athlete; something that carries over onto the ice and has been a quintessential part of who she is as a goalie. “Especially when you have so many different thoughts and ideas going through your head, and you are able to put it all down on paper, it is a really nice feeling”. Playing goaltender out on the ice affords a similar sort of release and oneness.
Now that she is well into her senior year of high school, Hill already has her sights set on playing hockey collegiately. “The goal is to go NCAA and I have two schools in mind, and I love both equally; Plymouth State University and Norwich University. Both have really good hockey programs and both are very good educational schools too. I am a big fan of the small school atmosphere and you get a better learning environment. You get to know everybody and nobody is really a stranger; it is definitely a nice feeling. You get a lot of one-on-one with teachers”. Hailing from a small private college myself, I agree with Hill completely on the benefits that schools of this nature tend to offer.
While she still has some time to ponder it, Hill has aspirations of playing hockey professionally someday too. A supporter of the NWHL’s New York Riveters, Hill has even attended some of the Rivs’ home games. “I would love to play in the NWHL or even the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). I would be fine with playing in either of those leagues for sure. I would love it if they merged. Just absolutely love it. In the CWHL there is only one American team and the rest are Canadian. If they could merge, it would just expand women’s hockey in general. With the NWHL All-Star Game going to be in Pittsburgh very soon, I am just thinking to myself, ‘Please put a team there too!’. That would be so nice! And I really wish that the NHL would get a little more involved with supporting both leagues”. Wise words from a very bright young woman. National Hockey League, are you listening?
Intellectual. I think that is the word that I like best for describing Elisabeth Hill. Her words ring true to me, and I think that they apply greatly to the current status of women’s hockey, perhaps especially the NWHL. “Hockey has taught me that working hard in general does not have a guaranteed success. You need to keep working harder, so that when you do have success it is much, much sweeter”. Hill has some words of advice to me even. “I think that you should keep interviewing female athletes and other female hockey players just to get the word out. The more people that you tell, they’re going to keep telling other people. You will get more interest, and those people will start looking at women’s hockey too”. The more buzz there is about it, the more support there will be. “People should know that when things get hard, especially in sports, you should just keep going. The harder you work, the more success you’ll have. You learn something from someone new everyday”.
Elisabeth would like to add a special note of thanks to her coach at Mater Dei, Coach Oktay: “For his belief in us as a team, for never giving up on us when things got tough, and for teaching us lessons on and off the ice. Coach Oktay makes us well-rounded players all the way through. Some girls have for sure changed in 3-years, but in all the best ways. He may be a tough coach, but he is tough in all the right ways. I would also like to thank him for pushing me beyond limits I never thought I had, and always expecting nothing less than the best from me. Coach Oktay helped shape me into the person and the player that I am today”. Thank you, Coach Oktay.
She just turned 13-years old the day before our interview together, and yet she is already the starting goaltender for her high school’s girls varsity – yes, I said varsity – hockey team. Considering that the girls’ team is actually a composite of three separate high schools (Kenmore West, Kenmore East and Grand Island high schools in the suburbs of Buffalo), it is even more remarkable that seventh grader Ellie Simmons is the top netminder. Both figuratively and literally, she is “heads above the rest”. Not only is she the starter, but at her tender age Ellie is already 5-feet, 8-inches tall. Taking into account that she has a few more years to still grow, her size combined with her ability to cover the net is enough to make hockey coaches drool.
If that weren’t enough, Ellie Simmons is one cool kid too. We are sitting at a Panera with her goalie coach (Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann) on a school night, and after Ellie has just pulled out an overtime win against Monsignor Martin. She is upbeat, smiley, and very polite. With a firm handshake and presenting herself most well, you would think Ellie Simmons is much older than her age. And as she warms herself up with some mac n’ cheese and hot cocoa (after all, it is January in Buffalo), we begin to talk.
“I practically grew up in the rink”, Ellie tells me about the beginnings of her becoming enthralled with the game. “Both my older sisters played hockey, so I always went to all of their games. They were both role models for me. There was a big age gap, and I looked up to them so much that I wanted to start playing too”. Ellie’s older sisters, Kaitlyn and Grace, are 21- years old and 19-years old respectively; Kaitlyn being a fellow goaltender, while Grace is a defender. Even Ellie’s father is a goaltender, while her mother played soccer but shares a strong appreciation of both games. “I originally started as a skater too, because my sister Grace was the first of us to start playing hockey. She’s a really good defender, so I wanted to be just like her. But when I was about 8-years old my team needed a goalie. I ended up playing goalie full time, and it was great because my dad could coach me too”. Mr. Simmons tended net collegiately at Le Moyne College in the Syracuse and still continues to play recreationally. With such a strong foundation of sports, specifically deep hockey roots in her family, it was natural for Ellie to fall in love with the game too.
When naming off her “hockey heroes”, sister Grace is at the top of Ellie’s list. “Even though she is a defender and I am a goalie, it’s her work ethic and her determination that I really admire. She knows when she does something wrong, and she immediately tries to fix it. Grace is my role model for her character, and for how far I want to get with hockey”. Grace Simmons is a NCAA Division-III defender for the University of Southern Maine. This helps to set some high standards for me”, Ellie says. With Grace only being in her freshman year at the university, Ellie hopes to make it up to Maine and see her big sister play sometime soon, although this is definitely challenging considering how busy her own hockey schedule is.
Simmons has her own dreams of playing hockey collegiately when the time comes. Asked which school would be her “dream school” to play for? “Penn State. My sister had a tournament there one time, and their rink is just amazing. Their campus is like a town all by itself”. While the men’s team just recently became the top collegiate team in the nation for the first time, the Division-I Nittany Lions women’s hockey team is still relatively new. Coached by Josh Brandwene, the program’s first season was 2012-13. I have a hunch though that they would be very much interested in a goaltender of Ellie Simmons’ character and caliber.
Goaltenders are often considered unique and to have personalities or characteristics that make them at least a little different than skaters. For Ellie Simmons, this is part of what piqued her own interest in the position. “When I was a younger kid, it was kind of fun to be different from everyone else”, she explains. “To be that one person who has to put on the pads”. Thus far, it is a lot more than just donning the pads that have made Ellie Simmons become a standout. In this current 2016-17 season in the Western New York Girl’s Varsity Ice Hockey Federation, the seventh grader has played the third most minutes out of eighteen goaltenders in the league with over 470-minutes between the pipes. On top of that, she has compiled a stat sheet of some truly stellar numbers; a 0.915 save percentage with stopping 257 of 281 shots, a 2.29 goals against average, and a record of 6-4-1 which includes 3 shutouts. Keep in mind that this is her very first year of playing high school hockey, which conceivably has five more years to go.
The success that Ellie Simmons is achieving at such a young age has by no means gone to her head. Ellie possesses a strong sense of humility. What she enjoys the most about playing hockey are the variety of emotions that the game is able to invoke into those who play it. “The ways that the game makes you feel. It can give you so many different emotions”, she tells me. “You can be happy, sad; it can even be scary at times. Playing the game is intense, and you really have to focus on what you are doing”.
Saying all of that, Ellie knows that in order to achieve success in hockey, especially as a goaltender, players have to find a means of keeping themselves in check. If hockey generates a wide variety of emotions, it becomes more of a balancing act; not letting your highs get you too high, and not letting your lows get you too low, all while playing at a highly competitive level. “You cannot let your emotions get the best of you. If you get scored on, you just have to move onto the next shot. You have to look at it from the perspective of playing from shot to shot. If you get caught up in your head, you are not going to be able to make the next save”.
If you have not already gathered it by now, it is important to note that Ellie Simmons is very much down to earth. There is a self-awareness to her, and she recognizes that she still has a long ways to go in her career, even at this level. There really is not a true sense of pulling ahead from the rest of the pack. Ellie Simmons works her darndest out on the ice, but understands that the competition level will only increase. “As you get older, the competition for ice time to play in the net increases. Right now my goalie partner and I share the net duties, but I know as we get older we are going to have to start competing with each other for the net. You have to always keep it friendly and remember that you’re both trying to reach the same goal; so you have to help each other”. Some very wise words from this young lady.
Outward from the crease, some of Ellie’s teammates and her competition at the high school level present an array of challenges as shooters. I ask her if this is a somewhat intimidating for her. She handles it as cool as a cucumber. “It was a little scary at first, but once I started taking the shots it did not really get to me anymore. I know that they are all great players. Some of them are playing Tier-I 19U hockey. The placement of their shots was particularly scary initially, and how hard they were. But the more shots I got from them in practices, I became more used to them by the time the games started.”. And now for Ellie, these shots are kind of old hat for her. It was also helpful that her teammates, despite being older, were accepting of her and welcoming. “With both of my sisters having played on the team before, everyone kind of knew me because I was always that little sister that went to all the games. And once we get onto the ice together we’re all just hockey players and age doesn’t really matter”.
In additional to playing on her high school team, Ellie also plays for the Buffalo Bisons girls travel team. Hence, her receiving close tutelage from Buffalo Beaut Kelsey Neumann who is a goalie coach for the program. What Ellie considers to be her most memorable hockey game she has played in thus far actually comes from her time with the Bisons 12U girls team, when she played her first game. “I had just played on 14U non-tournament bound for the Tonawanda Lightning (another local youth hockey organization), and I had just joined the Bisons. We were playing a tournament in Boston (Massachusetts), and it was my first game ever playing with the team. I didn’t really know any of the girls yet, and it was kind of scary at first. I knew too that the game would set the tone for the rest of the season. I ended up getting a shutout in the game and my team played really well too. It was also really nice to meet all of the girls at the time as well”.
Getting to work up close and personal with “Coach Kelsey”, Ellie and Neumann have formed a bond that is far more like sisters than that of coach and student. In fact, Neumann may as well be a third older sister to Ellie. “Coach Kelsey has been through all of this before. She grew up playing hockey, and she knows what you need to do to get as far as she has. She is a friend you can talk to, and she knows the difference between when you can joke around and have fun, and when you have to be serious”. And while Ellie certainly has gained valuable knowledge from Neumann in terms of goalie techniques and positioning, it is how Neumann carries herself as a person and her sense of morals that ring truest with her young goaltender. “Coach Kelsey is really built on the same idea that my parents instilled in me too, that it is more important to be a good person than it is to be a good hockey player. Even after hockey is over, you still need to be a human. Coach Kelsey shows that by her actions too, and sets examples for us of how a good goalie can be a good person”. And seeing the two of them side by side, it is obvious from body language alone the high regard that Ellie holds her coach within.
Let’s say that Ellie Simmons does end up going to Penn State and playing NCAA hockey. Then what would be next after that? Does she too dream about playing professional women’s hockey in the NWHL someday, just like her coach? “I would love to play in the NWHL! It would be so fun. The league is a big showcase for amazing women’s hockey players. It would be something that is really nice”. Both Ellie and I marvel over the fact that right here in our own backyard, we have some of the best women’s hockey players in the world. Something that we both share a mutual appreciation of, and that we are well aware of how special and unique that opportunity truly is.
One of the most vital ways for the NWHL to be successful is to continue to grow the game for the next generation of players; ones like Ellie Simmons. But it is maybe equally as important to include the young girls on the periphery; the ones who are on the fence about playing hockey in the first place. I ask Ellie to share with me her two cents on encouraging young girls who may be hesitant to give hockey a try. “Go out and try it. Might feel a little scary at first, but once you get over your fears of falling down and things like that, it is just fun and you get to meet so many different people. Most of my friendships are from hockey. And hockey teaches you so much more than how to play the sport. It teaches you character, and how you should act on and off the ice”.
Having met her and borrowed about an hour of her time, I am certain that Ellie Simmons will continue to exceed expectations throughout any avenues of life that she may pursue, but particularly in her hockey career. I still cannot get over the fact that as a seventh grader she is the starting goaltender on a varsity high school team in a hockey town like Buffalo. I am admittedly a bit awestruck by this. Ellie attributes a lot of her ability to keep a level head to her mom, whom she also wants to give a special shout-out to. “My mom definitely keeps me in check sometimes”, she says with a laugh. “If I have a bad game sometimes, she’ll be standing there making funny faces at me”. Having a mom who can help you smile when you are having a down moment is definitely a good mom.
I am anxious with anticipation to see where Ellie Simmons career goes from here, and would love to look back on her hockey résumé by the time she is my age. I know full well that she will have a long list of accolades. She undoubtedly gave an excellent first interview, and I feel proud to have made this young lady’s acquaintance. So when she ends up making it to the Frozen Four someday or becoming an NWHL first round draft pick for the league’s newest expansion team, just remember that you heard about her here first.
There are two photos that I saw of Kelsey Neumann from after the Beauts game that exemplify who she is. The first, a photo out in the parking garage of the HarborCenter by her car; her arms around four of the young players that she helps coach for the Buffalo Bisons girls U12 team. Despite the disparaging 3-0 loss (1/14/17) to the New York Riveters, and that it was fast approaching 11 o’clock at night, these little ladies waited for Neumann to complete her interview with me so that they could meet up with their coach. There is a clear confidence and belief in their faces as they stand alongside a coach who obviously matters deeply to them.
The second photo is that of Neumann flanked by her loving parents. Both of whom smiled to me and said hello as I walked out with Kelsey from the locker area, and were wearing Neumann #31 Beauts jerseys too. You can tell that the support has been there since day one. Neumann’s dad she lists as one of her “hockey heroes” (her brother too) and an inspiration for getting her interested in the game to begin with. Neumann jokingly tells me that I should have let her mom conduct the interview, as she knows the details of her daughter’s entire hockey career like the back of her hand. Joking aside, there is plenty of truth to that statement as well and she means it because her mom could recite the history of her daughter’s on ice career arguably better than Neumann could herself. Both “Mom” and “Dad” were sounding boards and participants in helping Neumann prepare for the interview and recall the past.
I look at both of these photographs, and it is easy to see that Kelsey Neumann touches the lives of so many. Family. Friends. Teammates. Players. Parents and their kids. The next generation of hockey players. They hold Neumann in the highest regard, and she touches the heartstrings of all of them. I am fortunate that on a January night, when the rink is just about vacant by the time we are finished, Kelsey Neumann affords me the opportunity to learn more about her life firsthand.
“I was actually born in California, and then moved to San Antonio, Texas. It’s a real ‘hockey hotbed’ too” – and I believe her for a second – “yeah, we had one ice rink”, Neumann says. I laugh at her dry delivery. “I was on skates before I could walk, and then when I was about 4, I wanted to play. I have an older brother and he plays. In San Antonio, they didn’t have Mini Mites or Timbits, so I was a four year old girl, the only one out there, playing with nine year old boys”. Talk about being in some deep water, but the opportunities in that particular region were limited. “After the first year I played forward, and I was like ‘I don’t want to play anymore because they never pass it’, but my mom told me to stick with it. And I did, and from there it was no turning back”.
Following in the footsteps of both her father, who, fun fact, as a goalie himself was one of the few high school players and the only player from south of the Mason-Dixon line that was invited to the 1980 Olympic tryouts for Team USA, and her brother, Neumann would transition into the goaltender position. “My brother was going to goalie camp, and I didn’t want to sit around the rink and be bored for a week. So the week before I told my parents that I wanted to try it. They found the gear for me. My mom put my pads on the wrong legs the first day. Then, at the end of the week I won the shootout challenge at the camp. After that week, my parents knew that they weren’t going to retire with any money”, she recalls with a grin. Neumann’s parents sought opportunities for their children to play at the highest possible levels, even if that involved moving the family. After starting hockey in San Antonio, they would move upwards of 4-hours plus to Dallas, Texas. From there, the family moved even further north to a more traditional hockey market in Michigan where Neumann played Boys AAA hockey. Eventually the family would move to Madison, Wisconsin and Kelsey would play for the Madison Capitals; a year of which was spent playing with US Olympian and fellow NWHLer Amanda Kessel as a teammate, prior to both players leaving to play in other boys programs and attending prep schools. From start to present, Mr. and Mrs. Neumann did all that they could to promote their children’s love for hockey, and it is amazing to see the progression over time.
A major stride in her development as a goalie came from the unique opportunity to receive tutelage from one of hockey’s all time greats. “I trained with Vladislav Tretiak for a few summers and got to learn from him firsthand”. A 1989 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame and the current president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia, Tretiak won three Olympic gold medals and ten gold medals at the World Championships; not to mention a handful of silver and bronze as well. Tretiak is widely considered one of the greatest goaltenders to ever play the sport. “Tretiak used to run a camp in Minnesota”, Neumann tells me, “and my parents found it. My brother and I used to go to the camp every summer. Originally we went to his camp in Toronto when I was 7 or 8, and initially he wasn’t going to let anyone do the camp who was under 10. But because I was a competitive gymnast previously, they realized that I could handle the rigorous hours and let me do it. So, I trained with Tretiak for every summer from when I was 7 or 8 until the age of 14 or 15”.
Though Tretiak may be at the top of her list of hockey heroes, as well as some more recent netminders like Montreal’s Carey Price and another goaltending great in Curtis Joseph, Neumann is quick to point out that she considers her brother to share that same podium of motivators, and considers his presence in her life to have contributed greatly in where she is today. “Watching my brother growing up, he’s two years older, and he really pushed me to be better. I have him to thank for a lot of it”.
Throughout her high school years, Neumann would become the starting goaltender for three seasons with the North American Hockey Academy (NAHA) Winter Hawks. “I went to NAHA from my sophomore year until my senior year of high school. At the time, NAHA had a full-year program. Typically, you start off at home. Then after Labor Day you take your schoolwork and all of your curriculum with you to NAHA, and stay there until about February when you go back to your home schools and home teams. But when I was there my three years we had a full-year program. We would get there a few weeks before Labor Day, have a tournament Labor Day Weekend, and then we would get done at NAHA about the first week of May”, she recalls. Definitely a huge focus on playing hockey and learning the game. During her time with the program, Neumann compiled some staggering numbers. A career goals against average of 1.16, 0.930 save percentage, and a total of 54-shutouts. Absolutely stellar statistics. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I definitely have Bill and Jesse Driscoll (Director of Hockey and Head Coach of NAHA respectively) to thank for that experience. Without NAHA, I think it would have been a lot more difficult for me to get into college”.
Neumann shares with me that as someone who has learning disabilities, the one-on-one tutoring that was given to her at NAHA made a remarkable difference in her academics and her confidence level as she geared towards a collegiate career as a hockey player and pursuing a degree. “Knowing my own disabilities is part of what led me to pursuing the career that I went into after undergrad. NAHA really opened the door for me for a lot of opportunities to play around the world and around the country”.
Neumann initially began her collegiate career at Clarkson University in upstate New York. “I really liked the “small school” atmosphere. Like I said, having learning disabilities I knew that a big school wasn’t going to fit for me. I went and looked at Wisconsin before my junior year of high school and Hilary Knight gave me the tour. I was like, ‘Okay, this is a great looking school, but it’s huge!’. And then when I went on my tour of Clarkson, I really liked the atmosphere”. As someone who received his bachelor’s at Canisius College in Buffalo, where Neumann wrapped up her own Master’s Degree, I definitely appreciate and relate to the comfort of a “small school” atmosphere. She goes on to say, “The atmosphere at Clarkson for games is next to none. The community that it is, and even the fact that the University’s president goes to the women’s games as much as he does the men’s games, if not sometimes more, means so much. Even though I ended up transferring, I still follow Clarkson today and it is amazing to see how far that program has come since their first day”. Statistically, Neumann would play in one game her freshman year for Clarkson and have a 22-save performance.
After that first year of NCAA hockey, Kelsey Neumann would transfer to SUNY Plattsburgh and would play with their Cardinals women’s ice hockey program. The experience for her would be a difficult one, but in hindsight it fostered a lot of strength in her for the future. Kelsey most assuredly came out on top of any struggles she encountered at the time.
Speaking on the transfer to Plattsburgh she says, “Being a goalie it’s always tough going into college because usually you have three goalies on a roster. I went into freshman year at Clarkson and had one other goalie partner. Then Clarkson ended up bringing in a U18 Team Canada goalie going into my sophomore year. I was at Clarkson the first half of my sophomore year, and I knew that this girl was better than me. She still plays for Team Canada today, and she is an amazing goalie. So I knew that the opportunities to get a chance at Clarkson would not be what I had hoped for. That is partially what led to me deciding to transfer from Clarkson, and then also academically, Clarkson is a great school and a very hard school. As much as I would have loved to have stayed and graduated from there, I knew that there were certain class requirements, that if I had stayed, I would have been there three more years trying to complete a math class. It is an engineering school and engineering math is not easy. So overall, that is what led me to choosing Plattsburgh. Their support staff there was great. It was great at Clarkson too, but at Plattsburgh I was able to have a little bit more flexibility with the classes and course load”.
Neumann would complete her bachelor’s degree at Plattsburgh, but would resign from playing on the team after her junior year. “Leaving Clarkson, I was part of a big family. I thought that with moving over to Plattsburgh that it was going to be part of another big family. Because of putting in double of what most student athletes have to put in to make sure that my grades are where they needed to be, and with all the help I needed and everything like that, I wasn’t one who had a huge social life outside of practice, work and school. I didn’t really fit with the norm, so that whole idea of coming into a new family like I had at NAHA or Clarkson, it wasn’t that. There were a lot of incidents that happened. It is not fortunate that I was bullied so to speak, but I am fortunate enough to have gone through it because now as a coach I take that with me into when I am coaching. I coach at least three girls teams, between the age groups of the 10s, 12s and 14s with the Bisons. I tell them and I always let them know, you don’t have to be best friends when you are outside of the rink, but the minute you walk into that rink, you are a family and if I hear of anything where so-and-so is picking on so-and-so, whether it is social media, in person, through text messages, if I catch wind of it I put a stop to it right away even before the head coaches get involved. All those girls know, and I talk to them about it all the time, you are a family first and that is the most important thing when you step into the locker room”. Hearing her say this, I feel a sense of comfort in knowing that these young girls have a coach such as Kelsey who not only promotes kindness and a sense of family within the team, but whose words ring sincerely and seriously. It is not just lip service that she is promoting when she speaks about family; she truly means it, fosters it and expects it of her athletes.
Between Neumann’s time with Plattsburgh and prior to joining the Buffalo Beauts, she played for a wide variety of teams seemingly everywhere. But more importantly, she would recapture her love of the game and that integral family aspect once more. “After my junior year when I resigned at Plattsburgh, I ended up on a women’s team out of North Carolina. My first year with them I felt that family bond again right away and they were very accepting. I am actually still with them, even though I can only make the games usually. I’ll travel around and meet them at tournaments. Being from North Carolina, they do not have an opportunity to practice often, but when I am with them I feel like I have never left. Then, when I moved to Buffalo for grad school at Canisius I started doing pickup games at the Northtown Center. I also got asked to sub for a men’s team, which led to me playing on some other men’s teams. So here and there I play on men’s teams when I am able. I still fill-in if and when I can, and I have even played out (out from her normal goaltender position) on some of them too over the summer. But playing on my women’s team from North Carolina was something that really helped me after my junior year. They helped me to realize the love of the game again and what family meant, which is really what I needed going into this (the NWHL). They have been so supportive of me pursuing this dream that some of them feel that they are living it with me”.
So how did the opportunity of being a goaltender for the Buffalo Beauts come about for Kelsey Neumann? She explains, “I moved to Buffalo about four years ago to attend grad school. I moved over to the Bisons organization last year (a minor team organization in Buffalo) and Shelley Looney (Olympic gold and silver medalist for Team USA) is the head of that. I let her know last year that I knew she had a Canadian goalie, and that the Canadian players couldn’t always come over for practice, so if they needed a goalie that I could be available. She ended up texting me and I started practicing with the team regularly at the beginning of last year. When I signed up for the Beauts tryouts this year, I was able to use Shelley as my reference because she has seen me play. So, ultimately I think that I have Shelley to thank for this opportunity to be a Beaut”, Neumann smiles. Nothing wrong with that, right? “No, and I actually idolized her as a kid. I still have a picture of she and I when I was nine, just after USA won the gold medal”.
And now that she has made it to the NWHL, I became curious to know what it is that Neumann hopes to accomplish in her career in this first ever professional women’s league. But in Neumann’s words (as if I could have expected anything else from her) it still comes down to her family-first and team-first nature. “Honestly, I want to do whatever is best for my team. I want to make sure that as I am getting better, that I am helping them to get better. Whether that is pushing myself harder in the weight room, pushing myself harder on the ice, taking extra games where I can with men’s teams, I am prepared if, God forbid, something should happen to a goalie partner. Ultimately, I would love to become a fulltime contracted player next year. If that’s in the cards, then it’s in the cards. If not, I’m still happy being a Beaut and I truly love being a part of the team. Being able to help anyway that I can, as much as I can, then I am going to do that”. You can see this even in Neumann’s body language. As I watch her on the bench during the action of the game, you can see her intense focus on the play; she is emotionally and seriously invested in the game and her team.
On the ice for the Beauts (and when she is coaching too for that matter), one attribute of Neumann’s that makes her so effective is her vision of the game. Almost like a chess match. The fact that she has a Russian hockey legend as a hero, I liken her vision to that of another Russian great, “The Professor”, Igor Larionov, even though he was not a goaltender. But like Larionov, Kelsey Neumann is able to read the play a few steps ahead; seemingly reading the future of how the play will transpire. “I see the whole ice”, she says. “I stand back, and I can see everything. I can see the play developing, and I know before the player even knows where that puck is going to go. It can be frustrating at times, because you know what is going to happen, and then you see it, and you’re like, ‘hey, I called that’. But ultimately it helps me be a better communicator for my team. I have been told that I am very vocal when I am on the ice”, she laughs.
If you follow the Buffalo Beauts at all on social media, you have likely seen “The Adventures of McLevman”, an absolutely hilarious portrayal of antics using stereotypes of goaltenders in the form of videos. “McLevman” being a combination of the three Beauts goaltenders last names of Neumann, Amanda Leveille, and Brianne McLaughlin, and an homage of course to the character known as “McLovin” from the film “Superbad“. “The Adventures of McLevman” videos have taken Kelsey Neumann and her compatriots, mind you in full goalie gear, to supermarkets, shopping centers and classrooms. If you have not seen their videos yet, you need to check them out! Visit their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/mclevman
So Kelsey, how did this whole “McLevman” thing come about and what has the reaction been like from the public? She enlightens me. “So ‘Lev’ and I were just talking about this in the locker room. I told her that I had an interview, and she was like, ‘About what? Is it about us?’, and I confirmed that yes, there was a question about us. It actually started when she first got her Brian’s pads (a particular brand of goalie equipment). To break them in, and apparently there is a picture Lev has to prove this, she is walking her dog outside in full goalie gear”, we’re both laughing by this point. “Her and I never met before this season. First practice, she comes in and instantly it was like we had known each other forever. Which was an amazing feeling to have, especially with one of your goalie partners. Then, we are standing out there, waiting to get out on the ice for our first practice together. We were all talking about Lev’s picture, and so we decided to recreate the picture and I opted to be the dog. We are always at each other’s houses, so from there, we decided that we should sit down and write out goalie stereotypes and weird things that people think goalies actually do. It’s been hilarious! And it’s been fun for us. I’ve been able to involve some of the kids that I coach into it too. We both got a little excited too that Garret Sparks (Toronto Marlies goaltender and Maple Leafs prospect) friended both of us on Facebook after seeing our ‘McLevman’ videos. So for the most part it has been very positive and very fun to have other people think it’s hilarious too. We went to New York City about a month ago and there was guy there who printed out the photo of all three of us laying in and around the net, and he asked the three of us to sign it for him. He took a picture with Bri and I. It’s those kind of things that are really fun”. In this day and age, people need to laugh more. Spread some laughter and levity. The “McLevman” trio are definitely able to make that happen.
Neumann has actually been able to incorporate the “McLevman” videos into her own classroom, using the classroom space and even some of her students to help with the video. “I teach at Journey’s End; it’s a refugee school. It’s all adults, and it’s interesting for me because I always knew that I wanted to do special ed or some type of teaching, because I was passionate towards learning about my own disabilities. I was told that I was never going to make it to college. I went from being told this in seventh grade, and then actually going to college and graduating with a really good GPA. From there, I went onto grad school and graduated with a dual Master’s, and I was inducted into honors societies. I knew then it was now my turn to give back. I was asked to work at this refugees school. It initially started out as a long term subbing position, but now it’s turned into a permanent part time position. I have level one students, and they are mostly just two months into living in the country, so it has been a lot of fun getting to watch them grow and to see them actually learning the language”.
Coinciding with what she is able to accomplish as both a coach and as a teacher, Neumann sees the fact that she is a Buffalo Beaut providing more opportunity for her to be a role model for others, especially the next generation of women’s hockey players; the little girls whom she presently coaches. “I have been with Ellie, my 14U goalie, for three years now, and she is a little sister to me. The relationships that I can make with the families and the kids that I work with. That’s just one of the biggest things; to become even more of a role model for someone, and not just for the teams that I coach but for other little girls too”. Neumann is even looking towards doing private lessons and group sessions over the summer for little girls who are netminders. Again, more opportunity to give back to the community and be a positive example in the lives of youngsters. One little lady in particular, Jayden, from the New Jersey area, whom Neumann has befriended and has had the opportunity to remain in touch with and see when the Beauts have been on the road, even had some of her own advice for Neumann going into a Beauts practice that she provided through Facebook: “Don’t ever give up. Make sure you have fun. And just work your hardest”. Words of wisdom from a nine year old, and in that moment it was exactly what Neumann needed to get herself up for practice that evening. Thank you, Jayden.
We need to take into consideration the importance of growing the women’s game for hockey players like Jayden, and Ellie, and other youngsters like these. Neumann and I wholeheartedly agree that we want the NWHL and professional women’s hockey to be around for many years to come. That being a professional women’s hockey player is a dream that can someday very much become a reality for today’s nine year old girl. “As much support as we can get”, Neumann tells me. “That is part of why Lev, Bri and me keep doing the “McLevman” videos; to get our names out there. Not our personal names, but our team name. The league’s name. We are always tagging the Beauts. Tagging the NWHL. We are really just trying to spread the word. We post it on goalie pages, we post it publicly. Wherever we can. The more and more that people know about the league, the more it will grow. That is one of the harder things that we have found; we think that everyone knows who we are, and there are still so many people that don’t know about the NWHL”. And Neumann is right; it is necessary to garner as much attention as possible.
If there is one thing I have learned from meeting Kelsey Neumann, it’s that with her it is about more than just hockey. She is able to put it into perspective for me with some parting words. “Responsibility. Responsibility plays a big key in being a hockey player. That dates back to my parents; they have always instilled that in me. Being responsible for yourself, and also your teammates. That goes back to my days in peewee when I played Boys AAA in Michigan under Coach Matt. Each kid was given a different job each weekend. Whether it was washing everyone’s jerseys or whatever. It taught us that there was more than just one person to a team. It taught us that if you are going to be responsible for someone other than yourself, it’s going to be the whole team. You have to own it and buy into that team mentality. Determination and hard work too. That comes not just from hockey, but through my learning disability. Perseverance through being told you are not good enough or not smart enough, and knowing that it was not true. To keep pushing forward and keep doing what I am doing. Coaches who may have told me that I was not good enough may look at me now and think, ‘okay, maybe I was wrong’. I try to teach all of the girls whom I coach that you need to be responsible for yourself and for your teammates. Not everyone can pick up the slack for you. Moving forward, I am here to teach you more than just hockey. I am here to teach you that in life, you are going to have to fight for it. You are going to have people who are against you, and this and that. If you can learn that now at 10, 12 and 14, then you are going to be better off down the road”.
Kelsey Neumann is one of a kind in my book. I am greatly impressed by how one young lady can embody such meaningful ideals, have a heart of gold, and can be such a skillful athlete. And I think that is why she is so deeply loved by all of whom that I mentioned earlier. She is one of a kind. She is a person that you meet only one of in a lifetime. There is no parity with her, and she is someone whom you are better just because you know her. Keep doing your thing, Kelsey. Keep being you. Give us some more “McLevman” escapades. And know that family, friends, teammates, coaches, parents and kiddos see your value as something priceless and a necessary ingredient in their lives.
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!”.
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.
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”.
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”.
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!
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.
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!”.
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.
“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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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”.
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.