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!
“Yes, I am silly! I do not live a day without laughing. It puts me in a good mood and gives me energy. When you have fun, the better life is and it seems more beautiful”. I am speaking with Yekaterina Dobrodeeva, a 17-year old forward for Russia’s national women’s team and for the WHL’s (Женская хоккейная лига) Biryusa Krasnoyarsk. Dobrodeeva is all around kindhearted, fun-loving, most assuredly free-spirited, and just plain cool. When we were making plans for her interview, she even sent me a photo of herself sticking out her tongue and flashing me a peace sign; just to make me smile and affirm that she is uniquely herself.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Dobrodeeva play in two separate international tournaments. Firstly, in Buffalo at the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championships of 2015, and then secondly at the 2016 tournament in St. Catharines. But this is my first opportunity to actually interview her, and I am delighted because she makes the experience so much fun.
Yekaterina Dobrodeeva is from the far east of Russia in the city of Khabarovsk. This is also the same city where legendary hockey player Alexander Mogilny is from, of which I remind her of and that he is also one of my most beloved Buffalo Sabres from the team’s history. “I was eight years old when I started playing hockey, but for six years I had to play on a boys team because there were no teams for girls or women in Khabarovsk. My dad was an amateur hockey player, he invited into playing the sport, and from there I have loved hockey ever since”.
Her favorite players very much align with my favorite hockey players as well. “I really like the play of Patrick Kane, Pavel Datsyuk, Artemi Panarin, Sergei Mozyakin. But there are many more players that I like as well”, Dobrodeeva tells me. Kane is of course a native of my hometown Buffalo, while Pavel Datsyuk, like Mogilny, is one of my personal hockey heroes. And while North Americans may have gotten to know Panarin within the past couple of NHL seasons, it is unlikely that they are familiar with the incredible Mozyakin of the KHL’s Magnitogorsk Metallurg. The 35-year old Mozyakin exploded during the 2016-17 KHL season with 48-goals and 37-assists in 60-games. In the past 9-seasons of the KHL, his lowest seasonal goal total was 20, while five times he has surpassed the 30-goals plateau. Dobrodeeva goes on to add, “There is not really a specific team that I like; I just love to watch the games of both the KHL and the NHL”.
Dobrodeeva’s natural position is rightwing, though she has tried her hands elsewhere. “Although I play rightwing, I have actually tried to play all positions. Growing up playing boys hockey for 6-years I was a defender”. Regardless of her position, what I enjoy most about Dobrodeeva’s play is the role that she fills for her team. If you wanted to apply the title of “enforcer” in women’s hockey, Dobrodeeva would fit that role. I am not speaking of fighting, per say. I am referring rather to the grit and determination that are required for less glamorous but highly vital tasks for any hockey club. The transition plays between zones, forcing turnovers by the opposition, and “turning the tide” on the ice to give the momentum back to her team. Yekaterina is tough and physical, and that is one of her attributes that I admire most in her style of play. “I am the kind of player who fulfills the need for protection on my team, and I fight for transition on the ice because scoring does not always work. I really like to play the pass and play combinations out on the ice”.
Yekaterina’s first international experience for Team Russia came in Buffalo at the 2015 tournament for Women’s U18. With one win and two losses, Russia would advance to the tournament’s quarterfinals where they would dominate the Czech Republic to capture the bronze medal. Two of the team’s players, goaltender Valeria Tarakanova and forward Fanuza Kadirova, were named as tournament all stars. Having an October birthday, Dobrodeeva was one of the youngest players on the Russian squad in what would be her first of three U18 tournaments; the first opportunity of which would prepare her for future international success. “In Buffalo it was my first World tournament, and I had not much championship play prior either. But I was able to get a lot of experience, and it was the first time that I ever got to play against the national teams for Canada and the US. Winning the bronze medal brought a lot of emotion, and still gives me goosebumps”.
Moving onto the 2016 tournament in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, the Russians hoped for at least a repeat performance as bronze medalists. And while they finished the tournament with the same record as the year prior, they would lose a very tight 2-1 decision to Sweden in the bronze medal game. Regardless, Dobrodeeva was now a tournament veteran for Russia and recognized the benefits of an increased role. “At this tournament in St. Catharines, I got a lot more playing time, tried to help the team, and again to take the bronze medal. But alas, it did not turn out that way. But I did not give up, and even then began to prepare for the next season.
This January was Dobrodeeva’s third and final U18 tournament, and was held in the cities of Přerov and Zlín in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately for me, I was not able to attend the tournament and see Dobrodeeva play a third go-round. But for her, not only did 2017 prove to be a most exciting tournament, it also allowed Yekaterina’s U18 international career to come full circle. Perhaps most noteworthy was Russia’s quarterfinal game against arguably their biggest rival, the Czech Republic. The game turned into a highly heated affair, and while the Russian’s would take the 2-0 win, multiple scrums and fights broke out on the ice as the game ended. The two teams would be assessed a total of 113-penalty minutes; basically unheard of for women’s hockey. Obviously with it being such an important game between two storied teams, emotions and tension were at their peak. Dobrodeeva recalls, “The whole game was played very hard. Players from the Czech Republic tried to provoke us. They repeatedly would cling onto and hit our players. Eventually they hit our goalie which was when our girls came into the fight. We really wanted to win this game, which we did. The fights and the victory only made us more unified as a team”.
After losing to the US in the semifinals, the Russian’s would return the favor to Sweden in the bronze medal game by defeating them 2-0 and taking the third place finish. Remarking on her U18 career coming to a close with a second bronze medal, Dobrodeeva puts things into perspective. “I proved to myself that me going to the 2015 tournament did not happen in vain. This 2017 bronze medal is very important to me, and I will remember this championship for life”.
Beginning in the 2015-16 season, Yekaterina Dobrodeeva would begin playing in Russia’s Women’s Hockey League (WHL) for Biryusa Krasnoyarsk. The WHL being Russia’s women’s professional hockey league, it is being run with great success and features the country’s finest female players. Again only 16 at the time, Dobrodeeva adjusted to playing with the best players quite quickly and immersed herself in this elite league. “When I had my first game it was very exciting! I joined, and just started playing as best as I can. I really like playing in the WHL, but I still have a lot to learn”. In Dobrodeeva’s first season with Krasnoyarsk, she compiled 4-goals and 10-assists in 24-games, and was a very solid +11 for the season.
Part of the adjustment to playing in the WHL is being so far from home. As mentioned earlier, Dobrodeeva’s hometown of Khabarovsk is in the far eastern part of Russia, while Krasnoyarsk is in the centermost part of the country. “From Khabarovsk to Krasnoyarsk it is about 4-5 hours by airplane”, she says. “I love this city, but I miss home too”.
Her second season with Krasnoyarsk was outstanding, and really speaks to how Dobrodeeva is developing as a player. In 30-games during the 2016-17 WHL season, Dobrodeeva put up numbers of 8-goals, 14-assists, was a +2, and rifled a very solid 96-shots on goal. She just keeps getting better and better but attributes her success to having the support of her team, as well as a good sense of her own positive ideals. “I have very good teammates; we understand each other. I think part of what has helped me too is having strong character and courage. I think the WHL will develop more and more every year, and I really hope that they will have more teams”.
What I really hope for myself is an opportunity to see Dobrodeeva play in person again. There is a likelihood for that too, considering how young she is and how much hockey there is ahead of her. Yekaterina certainly has her goals too. “The most important dream is an Olympic medal. I will continue to work and go towards that goal”, she says. And for Dobrodeeva, that dream is attainable through her passion for hockey. “Hockey has given me a lot of friends. I have learned to be strong through hockey, how to be hard-working, and how to be open”. This is why I really like this young lady; her passion both on the ice and off. Like any player you admire, once or twice is not enough. So while I sincerely hope that she accomplishes her dream of an Olympic medal, my personal hope is that I can see her play firsthand at least one more time. Similar to her three times at U18, maybe it will come full circle for me and I can watch her skate and battle for her team once more.
Voskresensk Russia has been home to numerous heralded hockey stars, perhaps most notably Stanley Cup champions Vyacheslav Kozlov, Valeri Kamensky, and my personal favorite Igor Larionov. Numerous Soviet hockey greats hailed from Voskresensk too. Brothers Vladimir and Aleksandr Golikov, along with IIHF Hall of Famer and hockey legend Alexander Ragulin, all forged renowned careers; each played for the Soviet powerhouse teams that once dominated the hockey world.
But playing in Voskresensk these days there is a 16-year old whose best hockey is yet to come. She plays for the women’s junior club, Voskresensk Atlant; which is actually one of a handful of teams that she presently plays for. Meet Maria Serova. Already training with the U18 national team, this young lady is a shoo in for Russia’s squad that looks to improve upon their 2017 bronze medal finish that took place less than two months ago in January. And as the national program gears up toward the next go-round, Maria works hard toward becoming the best hockey player that she can be. She is also busy being a normal 16-year old girl.
“I have a turtle, a dog and fish”, she says with a smile, telling me about her pets. But along with loving her animals, Maria Serova loves hockey. “I began playing hockey when I was seven years old. I am from Balashikha (another city like Voskresensk that is located in Moscow Oblast, which comprises the area surrounding the city of Moscow itself and houses a population of over seven-million). There are a lot of opportunities to play hockey in my city. We have ice rinks, gyms, and artificial ice all for training”.
I guess that I am really glad that Serova has these opportunities. In my estimations the Russians are doing women’s hockey right, so to speak. Seeing the growing success of their Women’s Hockey League (WHL) which has been anglicized from Женской хоккейной лиги, it is apparent that Russia already has the next generation of women’s players waiting at the threshold of the country’s professional league. Serova is one of them. “I want to play with Dynamo St. Petersburg of the WHL”, one of the league’s top teams. Asked about what she would say to other young girls to encourage them to follow suit in women’s hockey, Serova says “I would say to them ‘Follow your dreams. Work hard. Listen to your coach. And don’t give up!'”. Having interviewed other Russian women’s players and with a few more interviews coming in the near future, these sentiments of Serova’s are widely distributed amongst all girls and women who play the game in Russia.
Serova tells me about the other teams she plays for besides Atlant. “I play for ‘Olimpiets Balashika’ which is a men’s hockey team. I also play for the Moscow regional team (Moskovskaya Oblast) in the Russian Championship league, and I now play for the U18 national team for Russia too. And once I even played on the adult team and got to play alongside great players like Olga Sosina and Anna Prugova”. In her time with Olimpiets Balashika, Serova has racked up 13-goals and 12-assists in 72-games.
As a youngster Serova’s father used to take her to the KHL’s Balashika MVD’s hockey games. Prior to the team merging with Dynamo Moscow after the 2009-2010 season Balashika MVD played in the league from 2008 until 2010, and included a large number of North American-born players like Jame Pollock, Matt Ellison and stellar netminder Michael Garnett, in addition to numerous native Russian players. “My father and I would go to all of the games, and that is when I fell in love with the sport”.
Currently though, Serova’s inspiration comes from one of the NHL’s most talented forwards. “My favorite player is Nicklas Bäckström. I remember when he played for Dynamo Moscow along with Alexander Ovechkin. Now of course they both play for the Washington Capitals, who are also my favorite hockey team”. It is perhaps little wonder why Serova admires Bäckström in particular. By far one of the craftiest players, the Swedish center is superb at dishing out passes and oftentimes seems to be a “jack of all trades” when handling the puck. So much so that Bäckström has six-times reached 50-assists in a season, and is presently only a handful away from doing it for a seventh time. Serova tells me, “I play forward too because I love it, and I get to play in all different positions”.
I am impressed that a 16-year old has played in as many games and for as many teams as Serova has in such a short period of time. And within those games there would have had to have been some memorable moments that Maria recalls fondly. The one moment she shares with me though must also be the coolest, if not the fiercest. “The most special moment in my hockey career so far was winning at the select competition in Sweden. I was playing for the Spartak Moscow hockey team at the time. We only had ten girls on our team, and we defeated the Swedish team in the finals to win the championship. When we won, we all screamed together ‘This is Sparta!'”. A team of just ten girls defeating all comers. Guts, determination and fortitude from Serova and her other nine teammates.
What is perhaps most exciting about Maria Serova is that she is right on the cusp of where female hockey players want to be in Russia. In a year from now, Serova will have completed her first U18 World Championship. In a year from now, she will be playing hockey professionally in the WHL. To make that leap to playing professionally and internationally, Serova knows that she must keep things in perspective but she most assuredly has the right mindset. “You have to be focused on the game and your hockey training. I am fortunate to have played on many different teams for both boys and girls, and I learned that you always have to be a part of the team and taking that seriously”.
I would like to re-interview Maria Serova in a year from now. I hope that she will oblige me, as I think much will have changed in her life and her hockey career in a most exciting fashion. Because pretty soon Maria will be the next Sosina, or the next Prugova, or Belyakova. The hockey world is at her fingertips and is hers for the taking. I want to see her take that puck and go with it. Look to see her become a mainstay for both the national team and the WHL; it is just around the corner. Serova is the model example of grooming players properly for the future of women’s hockey. I will state it again – Russia is doing it right.
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.
Betty Jouanny is recovering from ankle surgery. The 5-foot-2, 120-pound forward for Brynäs IF of the Svenska damhockeyligan (SDHL), the top women’s league in Sweden and one of the premier women’s leagues in the world, recently had five pins and one plate inserted into her right ankle. Jouanny, frustratingly, suffered a season ending broken ankle January 11th against league rival Leksand IF. Even tougher to swallow, the injury occurred just a week after her twenty-fifth birthday. And while such an injury could understandably be demoralizing to anyone, Betty Jouanny asserts in a social media post to her friends, family, teammates, coaches and fans that, “The difference between who you are and who you want to be is the work that you put in. I am just working hard to make my comeback. Everyday is not easy; it is mentally hard but you can’t change what happened. It is in this period that family and friends are very important – when you can’t use your legs, you can use your arms. If you want to train you always can; no excuses . It is just your motivation and the work that you put in”. Betty used a photo of herself doing pullups in a full leg cast to accompany this post. Like she said, no excuses.
And I am very fortunate that Betty Jouanny has afforded me an interview while she is just a matter of weeks into her recovery. We talk about her life, about her hockey roots, and about her future aspirations for her personal career and for women’s hockey.
Although Jouanny plays in Sweden, she is actually from France. Born in the city of Annecy, she spent most of her life growing up in Chamonix; just over an hour’s drive away. As Jouanny tells me, “my town Chamonix is the most beautiful place to go skiing in all of Europe”. Having looked at photos of her hometown, it is easy to see why. Originally a gymnast, Jouanny gave hockey a try and instantly fell in love with the sport at the young age of six. “In Annecy I first did gymnastics, but after I moved to Villard-de-Lans I received a flier to try hockey. I gave it a go, and loved it immediately. I played hockey at Les Ours de Villards de Lans (an elite hockey school in that city) from the ages of six to nine with the boys. It was very good for me because it is a very big hockey club, and I was fortunate because they formed me into a good player”.
I am able to make a connection with Jouanny in more ways than one. While I have visited France three times myself and have a sincere love for her country, we find common ground with our hockey interests too. “I have two favorite hockey players”, she tells me. “Patrick Kane because of his stickhandling (Kane being from my hometown of Buffalo) and also T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals (Oshie is currently one of my favorite players in today’s NHL)”.
In 2008 at the age of 15, Betty Jouanny began representing France in major international hockey tournaments; something that she has continued to do for nearly a decade. The first one being the 2009 IIHF World Women’s U18 Division I championships which were held in her homeland in the city of Chambéry which took place from December 28th, 2008 until January 2nd, 2009; just days before her sixteenth birthday. In four tournament games, Jouanny had 2-assists and France would take the silver medal at the tournament. “I am always incredibly happy to represent my country every time I have the opportunity to do so. It is an honor to represent my country, and I am very proud because I love to play with the French team. All athletes dream to play for their countries, so when you have the chance to do it you must to do it 200-percent!”.
Building off of that first U18 tournament, Jouanny was named team captain of the 2010 squad and she would absolutely sparkle. While France would take another silver medal, this time in Piestany, Slovakia, it was Jouanny’s performance in tournament play that fully speaks to her words on giving 200-percent. She would average a goal per game, as she scored 5-goals in 5-games to go along with 3-assists as well. This would make Betty France’s leading scorer for the games, and would place her in the top-ten for overall scoring by players participating in the tournament. To Jouanny though, being given the captaincy is an even greater individual honor. “I did score a lot of points in that tournament, which was good for me. But to be named captain it is amazing. Yes, it is just a letter on your jersey, but you must show the right way for you team. Be an example both on the ice and off. This was my last year with the U18 team, and I loved it because I like to have responsibilities. It is an honor to have the “C” when you represent your country; it means that the coach and the players believe in you”.
Since her last U18 tournament, Betty Jouanny has played for France in six Women’s World Championship tournaments, taking bronzes in 2012 and 2015, silver in 2011 and 2016, and the gold medal in 2013. Within those tournaments combined she has appeared in 29-games and registered 5-goals and 9-assists for 14-points. Asked to name her most memorable of the six tournaments, Jouanny opts for the most recent; the silver medal finish in 2016. “That tournament was definitely the best because a silver medal in the Group-A Division I tournament was the best result ever for the French women’s national team”. In this particular tournament Jouanny recorded a single assist in 5-games. To me, it speaks to her character that she would pick a tournament where the team and country faired their best, as opposed to any other tournament where she may have had better numbers statistically. Jouanny has firm beliefs when it comes to how an athlete should compete and doing what is best for the team. Character builds character in others and in sports programs. At only 25, it is obvious that Jouanny will be able to impart her experience and ideals into younger players on the French national team.
And hopefully that will happen at the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Jouanny has already participated in one Olympic qualifier tournament for France in 2013 (a goal and 2-assists in 3-games), but unfortunately due to her injury, it does not appear that she will be readily available to help her team for this year’s qualifying tournament to decide who goes to the ’18 Winter Games. “To play in the Olympic Games is the dream when you are an athlete. Every time when I would watch the Olympics on TV I would say to my parents that it is my dream to play in the Olympics, and that I don’t want to stop my hockey career without having played in an Olympic Games. So we (Team France) have the qualification tournament in Japan in February, and if we win we get to go to the Olympics. Obviously I cannot go because of my broken ankle. I am devastated but this is sports, and I can’t do anything about it except carry on”.
This reminds me of another post on social media that I saw Jouanny make recently, and I know that she is keeping everything in perspective. Jouanny said, “sometimes you don’t decide what happens in your life; you just must to accept it. You just need to think about the future and your comeback. If you want something and you work hard for it, the hard work always pays off. It is your motivation, your mindset and what you want. Stay strong – never give up!”.
Describing herself as a player, Jouanny tells me, “I am a stickhandling player that creates the game around me. I work hard going both ways; both offensive and defensive zones. I have a strong physical capacity”. That being the case, it is no wonder that Brynäs IF eagerly sought her services. Jouanny has played for Brynäs IF for four seasons now and has demonstrated some extremely solid play for the hockey club. I became curious to know how she ended up with the team, considering that she is from France and did her university studies at Université de Montréal in Quebec, Canada. “I had already wanted to play hockey in Sweden, so when I finished my university in Canada I wrote to Brynäs to ask if they were interested in me. I sent them a video of me, and they responded that yes, they were definitely interested. So I am very happy to play my fourth season with the team. I get to play with some really strong players like Sara Grahn, Anna Borgqvist, Lina Bäcklin, and Josephine Holmgren; all of whom have already played in the Olympic Games”.
One of Jouanny’s most recognizable strengths when she plays is her ability to win face-offs. For example, if you look at Jouanny’s favorite tournament – 2016’s Group-A Division I silver medal winning tournament – she finished eighth overall in face-offs for the tournament winning 53.25-percent of the draws that she took. If you go even further back though, to when she captained the 2010 U18 squad, she finished one spot out of the top-ten (eleventh overall) and was the leader in face-offs for France with a percentage of 45.77-percent. Needless to say, winning face-offs is a major attribute of Betty’s and something that she has developed over time. She teases me though, and refuses to share her secret. “The face-off is my best strength as a center. I train a lot during the summer to perfect it, but it’s my secret and I am not going to say what I do”, she smiles and laughs.
While playing for Brynäs IF, Betty has tallied 23-goals and 26-assists for 49-points in 111-games. Her finest season with the team, before her injury, came during her second season when she rattled off 10-goals and 7-assists in 28-games. “That was my best season for sure. But I am disappointed because this season I already scored 12-points in 24-games, and I really would have liked to get to the 20-point mark, but my season is over. But – I am going to do it next season for sure!”. I love her determination and I wholeheartedly believe that she will pass that point plateau; no question at all.
I have never had to recover from a major injury like Betty Jouanny is currently doing now. I would have to imagine that I would not have the fortitude or the same positive outlook that she is imbuing in her recovery. But I guess that is part of what makes Betty so different from many athletes. A “never say die” kind of attitude; like trying to chisel through granite, there is just no breaking this girl. Like she said earlier, take her leg – she still has an arm.
Jouanny tells me the most important things that she has learned in life through hockey. “Respect – Work – Be Humble – Live and Share Together!”. With this outlook, she will be back on the ice in no time. “The two most important things that I want to achieve in my career are to win the World Championship and to go up to the Elite Group, and to go to the Olympic Games”, she says. When the Olympic qualifications are being played in Japan come February, you can count on me rooting for France so that Betty Jouanny gets to realize her dream of the Olympic Games come 2018. And when they take place, she will be back and readier than ever. In my mind, seeing the photos of her workouts and her recovery, I feel as if she will be a steel butterfly of sorts. She will shed her cocoon, and have taken her game to a whole new level.
Best of luck in your recovery, Betty, and see you on the ice soon!
She just turned 13-years old the day before our interview together, and yet she is already the starting goaltender for her high school’s girls varsity – yes, I said varsity – hockey team. Considering that the girls’ team is actually a composite of three separate high schools (Kenmore West, Kenmore East and Grand Island high schools in the suburbs of Buffalo), it is even more remarkable that seventh grader Ellie Simmons is the top netminder. Both figuratively and literally, she is “heads above the rest”. Not only is she the starter, but at her tender age Ellie is already 5-feet, 8-inches tall. Taking into account that she has a few more years to still grow, her size combined with her ability to cover the net is enough to make hockey coaches drool.
If that weren’t enough, Ellie Simmons is one cool kid too. We are sitting at a Panera with her goalie coach (Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann) on a school night, and after Ellie has just pulled out an overtime win against Monsignor Martin. She is upbeat, smiley, and very polite. With a firm handshake and presenting herself most well, you would think Ellie Simmons is much older than her age. And as she warms herself up with some mac n’ cheese and hot cocoa (after all, it is January in Buffalo), we begin to talk.
“I practically grew up in the rink”, Ellie tells me about the beginnings of her becoming enthralled with the game. “Both my older sisters played hockey, so I always went to all of their games. They were both role models for me. There was a big age gap, and I looked up to them so much that I wanted to start playing too”. Ellie’s older sisters, Kaitlyn and Grace, are 21- years old and 19-years old respectively; Kaitlyn being a fellow goaltender, while Grace is a defender. Even Ellie’s father is a goaltender, while her mother played soccer but shares a strong appreciation of both games. “I originally started as a skater too, because my sister Grace was the first of us to start playing hockey. She’s a really good defender, so I wanted to be just like her. But when I was about 8-years old my team needed a goalie. I ended up playing goalie full time, and it was great because my dad could coach me too”. Mr. Simmons tended net collegiately at Le Moyne College in the Syracuse and still continues to play recreationally. With such a strong foundation of sports, specifically deep hockey roots in her family, it was natural for Ellie to fall in love with the game too.
When naming off her “hockey heroes”, sister Grace is at the top of Ellie’s list. “Even though she is a defender and I am a goalie, it’s her work ethic and her determination that I really admire. She knows when she does something wrong, and she immediately tries to fix it. Grace is my role model for her character, and for how far I want to get with hockey”. Grace Simmons is a NCAA Division-III defender for the University of Southern Maine. This helps to set some high standards for me”, Ellie says. With Grace only being in her freshman year at the university, Ellie hopes to make it up to Maine and see her big sister play sometime soon, although this is definitely challenging considering how busy her own hockey schedule is.
Simmons has her own dreams of playing hockey collegiately when the time comes. Asked which school would be her “dream school” to play for? “Penn State. My sister had a tournament there one time, and their rink is just amazing. Their campus is like a town all by itself”. While the men’s team just recently became the top collegiate team in the nation for the first time, the Division-I Nittany Lions women’s hockey team is still relatively new. Coached by Josh Brandwene, the program’s first season was 2012-13. I have a hunch though that they would be very much interested in a goaltender of Ellie Simmons’ character and caliber.
Goaltenders are often considered unique and to have personalities or characteristics that make them at least a little different than skaters. For Ellie Simmons, this is part of what piqued her own interest in the position. “When I was a younger kid, it was kind of fun to be different from everyone else”, she explains. “To be that one person who has to put on the pads”. Thus far, it is a lot more than just donning the pads that have made Ellie Simmons become a standout. In this current 2016-17 season in the Western New York Girl’s Varsity Ice Hockey Federation, the seventh grader has played the third most minutes out of eighteen goaltenders in the league with over 470-minutes between the pipes. On top of that, she has compiled a stat sheet of some truly stellar numbers; a 0.915 save percentage with stopping 257 of 281 shots, a 2.29 goals against average, and a record of 6-4-1 which includes 3 shutouts. Keep in mind that this is her very first year of playing high school hockey, which conceivably has five more years to go.
The success that Ellie Simmons is achieving at such a young age has by no means gone to her head. Ellie possesses a strong sense of humility. What she enjoys the most about playing hockey are the variety of emotions that the game is able to invoke into those who play it. “The ways that the game makes you feel. It can give you so many different emotions”, she tells me. “You can be happy, sad; it can even be scary at times. Playing the game is intense, and you really have to focus on what you are doing”.
Saying all of that, Ellie knows that in order to achieve success in hockey, especially as a goaltender, players have to find a means of keeping themselves in check. If hockey generates a wide variety of emotions, it becomes more of a balancing act; not letting your highs get you too high, and not letting your lows get you too low, all while playing at a highly competitive level. “You cannot let your emotions get the best of you. If you get scored on, you just have to move onto the next shot. You have to look at it from the perspective of playing from shot to shot. If you get caught up in your head, you are not going to be able to make the next save”.
If you have not already gathered it by now, it is important to note that Ellie Simmons is very much down to earth. There is a self-awareness to her, and she recognizes that she still has a long ways to go in her career, even at this level. There really is not a true sense of pulling ahead from the rest of the pack. Ellie Simmons works her darndest out on the ice, but understands that the competition level will only increase. “As you get older, the competition for ice time to play in the net increases. Right now my goalie partner and I share the net duties, but I know as we get older we are going to have to start competing with each other for the net. You have to always keep it friendly and remember that you’re both trying to reach the same goal; so you have to help each other”. Some very wise words from this young lady.
Outward from the crease, some of Ellie’s teammates and her competition at the high school level present an array of challenges as shooters. I ask her if this is a somewhat intimidating for her. She handles it as cool as a cucumber. “It was a little scary at first, but once I started taking the shots it did not really get to me anymore. I know that they are all great players. Some of them are playing Tier-I 19U hockey. The placement of their shots was particularly scary initially, and how hard they were. But the more shots I got from them in practices, I became more used to them by the time the games started.”. And now for Ellie, these shots are kind of old hat for her. It was also helpful that her teammates, despite being older, were accepting of her and welcoming. “With both of my sisters having played on the team before, everyone kind of knew me because I was always that little sister that went to all the games. And once we get onto the ice together we’re all just hockey players and age doesn’t really matter”.
In additional to playing on her high school team, Ellie also plays for the Buffalo Bisons girls travel team. Hence, her receiving close tutelage from Buffalo Beaut Kelsey Neumann who is a goalie coach for the program. What Ellie considers to be her most memorable hockey game she has played in thus far actually comes from her time with the Bisons 12U girls team, when she played her first game. “I had just played on 14U non-tournament bound for the Tonawanda Lightning (another local youth hockey organization), and I had just joined the Bisons. We were playing a tournament in Boston (Massachusetts), and it was my first game ever playing with the team. I didn’t really know any of the girls yet, and it was kind of scary at first. I knew too that the game would set the tone for the rest of the season. I ended up getting a shutout in the game and my team played really well too. It was also really nice to meet all of the girls at the time as well”.
Getting to work up close and personal with “Coach Kelsey”, Ellie and Neumann have formed a bond that is far more like sisters than that of coach and student. In fact, Neumann may as well be a third older sister to Ellie. “Coach Kelsey has been through all of this before. She grew up playing hockey, and she knows what you need to do to get as far as she has. She is a friend you can talk to, and she knows the difference between when you can joke around and have fun, and when you have to be serious”. And while Ellie certainly has gained valuable knowledge from Neumann in terms of goalie techniques and positioning, it is how Neumann carries herself as a person and her sense of morals that ring truest with her young goaltender. “Coach Kelsey is really built on the same idea that my parents instilled in me too, that it is more important to be a good person than it is to be a good hockey player. Even after hockey is over, you still need to be a human. Coach Kelsey shows that by her actions too, and sets examples for us of how a good goalie can be a good person”. And seeing the two of them side by side, it is obvious from body language alone the high regard that Ellie holds her coach within.
Let’s say that Ellie Simmons does end up going to Penn State and playing NCAA hockey. Then what would be next after that? Does she too dream about playing professional women’s hockey in the NWHL someday, just like her coach? “I would love to play in the NWHL! It would be so fun. The league is a big showcase for amazing women’s hockey players. It would be something that is really nice”. Both Ellie and I marvel over the fact that right here in our own backyard, we have some of the best women’s hockey players in the world. Something that we both share a mutual appreciation of, and that we are well aware of how special and unique that opportunity truly is.
One of the most vital ways for the NWHL to be successful is to continue to grow the game for the next generation of players; ones like Ellie Simmons. But it is maybe equally as important to include the young girls on the periphery; the ones who are on the fence about playing hockey in the first place. I ask Ellie to share with me her two cents on encouraging young girls who may be hesitant to give hockey a try. “Go out and try it. Might feel a little scary at first, but once you get over your fears of falling down and things like that, it is just fun and you get to meet so many different people. Most of my friendships are from hockey. And hockey teaches you so much more than how to play the sport. It teaches you character, and how you should act on and off the ice”.
Having met her and borrowed about an hour of her time, I am certain that Ellie Simmons will continue to exceed expectations throughout any avenues of life that she may pursue, but particularly in her hockey career. I still cannot get over the fact that as a seventh grader she is the starting goaltender on a varsity high school team in a hockey town like Buffalo. I am admittedly a bit awestruck by this. Ellie attributes a lot of her ability to keep a level head to her mom, whom she also wants to give a special shout-out to. “My mom definitely keeps me in check sometimes”, she says with a laugh. “If I have a bad game sometimes, she’ll be standing there making funny faces at me”. Having a mom who can help you smile when you are having a down moment is definitely a good mom.
I am anxious with anticipation to see where Ellie Simmons career goes from here, and would love to look back on her hockey résumé by the time she is my age. I know full well that she will have a long list of accolades. She undoubtedly gave an excellent first interview, and I feel proud to have made this young lady’s acquaintance. So when she ends up making it to the Frozen Four someday or becoming an NWHL first round draft pick for the league’s newest expansion team, just remember that you heard about her here first.
There are two photos that I saw of Kelsey Neumann from after the Beauts game that exemplify who she is. The first, a photo out in the parking garage of the HarborCenter by her car; her arms around four of the young players that she helps coach for the Buffalo Bisons girls U12 team. Despite the disparaging 3-0 loss (1/14/17) to the New York Riveters, and that it was fast approaching 11 o’clock at night, these little ladies waited for Neumann to complete her interview with me so that they could meet up with their coach. There is a clear confidence and belief in their faces as they stand alongside a coach who obviously matters deeply to them.
The second photo is that of Neumann flanked by her loving parents. Both of whom smiled to me and said hello as I walked out with Kelsey from the locker area, and were wearing Neumann #31 Beauts jerseys too. You can tell that the support has been there since day one. Neumann’s dad she lists as one of her “hockey heroes” (her brother too) and an inspiration for getting her interested in the game to begin with. Neumann jokingly tells me that I should have let her mom conduct the interview, as she knows the details of her daughter’s entire hockey career like the back of her hand. Joking aside, there is plenty of truth to that statement as well and she means it because her mom could recite the history of her daughter’s on ice career arguably better than Neumann could herself. Both “Mom” and “Dad” were sounding boards and participants in helping Neumann prepare for the interview and recall the past.
I look at both of these photographs, and it is easy to see that Kelsey Neumann touches the lives of so many. Family. Friends. Teammates. Players. Parents and their kids. The next generation of hockey players. They hold Neumann in the highest regard, and she touches the heartstrings of all of them. I am fortunate that on a January night, when the rink is just about vacant by the time we are finished, Kelsey Neumann affords me the opportunity to learn more about her life firsthand.
“I was actually born in California, and then moved to San Antonio, Texas. It’s a real ‘hockey hotbed’ too” – and I believe her for a second – “yeah, we had one ice rink”, Neumann says. I laugh at her dry delivery. “I was on skates before I could walk, and then when I was about 4, I wanted to play. I have an older brother and he plays. In San Antonio, they didn’t have Mini Mites or Timbits, so I was a four year old girl, the only one out there, playing with nine year old boys”. Talk about being in some deep water, but the opportunities in that particular region were limited. “After the first year I played forward, and I was like ‘I don’t want to play anymore because they never pass it’, but my mom told me to stick with it. And I did, and from there it was no turning back”.
Following in the footsteps of both her father, who, fun fact, as a goalie himself was one of the few high school players and the only player from south of the Mason-Dixon line that was invited to the 1980 Olympic tryouts for Team USA, and her brother, Neumann would transition into the goaltender position. “My brother was going to goalie camp, and I didn’t want to sit around the rink and be bored for a week. So the week before I told my parents that I wanted to try it. They found the gear for me. My mom put my pads on the wrong legs the first day. Then, at the end of the week I won the shootout challenge at the camp. After that week, my parents knew that they weren’t going to retire with any money”, she recalls with a grin. Neumann’s parents sought opportunities for their children to play at the highest possible levels, even if that involved moving the family. After starting hockey in San Antonio, they would move upwards of 4-hours plus to Dallas, Texas. From there, the family moved even further north to a more traditional hockey market in Michigan where Neumann played Boys AAA hockey. Eventually the family would move to Madison, Wisconsin and Kelsey would play for the Madison Capitals; a year of which was spent playing with US Olympian and fellow NWHLer Amanda Kessel as a teammate, prior to both players leaving to play in other boys programs and attending prep schools. From start to present, Mr. and Mrs. Neumann did all that they could to promote their children’s love for hockey, and it is amazing to see the progression over time.
A major stride in her development as a goalie came from the unique opportunity to receive tutelage from one of hockey’s all time greats. “I trained with Vladislav Tretiak for a few summers and got to learn from him firsthand”. A 1989 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame and the current president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia, Tretiak won three Olympic gold medals and ten gold medals at the World Championships; not to mention a handful of silver and bronze as well. Tretiak is widely considered one of the greatest goaltenders to ever play the sport. “Tretiak used to run a camp in Minnesota”, Neumann tells me, “and my parents found it. My brother and I used to go to the camp every summer. Originally we went to his camp in Toronto when I was 7 or 8, and initially he wasn’t going to let anyone do the camp who was under 10. But because I was a competitive gymnast previously, they realized that I could handle the rigorous hours and let me do it. So, I trained with Tretiak for every summer from when I was 7 or 8 until the age of 14 or 15”.
Though Tretiak may be at the top of her list of hockey heroes, as well as some more recent netminders like Montreal’s Carey Price and another goaltending great in Curtis Joseph, Neumann is quick to point out that she considers her brother to share that same podium of motivators, and considers his presence in her life to have contributed greatly in where she is today. “Watching my brother growing up, he’s two years older, and he really pushed me to be better. I have him to thank for a lot of it”.
Throughout her high school years, Neumann would become the starting goaltender for three seasons with the North American Hockey Academy (NAHA) Winter Hawks. “I went to NAHA from my sophomore year until my senior year of high school. At the time, NAHA had a full-year program. Typically, you start off at home. Then after Labor Day you take your schoolwork and all of your curriculum with you to NAHA, and stay there until about February when you go back to your home schools and home teams. But when I was there my three years we had a full-year program. We would get there a few weeks before Labor Day, have a tournament Labor Day Weekend, and then we would get done at NAHA about the first week of May”, she recalls. Definitely a huge focus on playing hockey and learning the game. During her time with the program, Neumann compiled some staggering numbers. A career goals against average of 1.16, 0.930 save percentage, and a total of 54-shutouts. Absolutely stellar statistics. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I definitely have Bill and Jesse Driscoll (Director of Hockey and Head Coach of NAHA respectively) to thank for that experience. Without NAHA, I think it would have been a lot more difficult for me to get into college”.
Neumann shares with me that as someone who has learning disabilities, the one-on-one tutoring that was given to her at NAHA made a remarkable difference in her academics and her confidence level as she geared towards a collegiate career as a hockey player and pursuing a degree. “Knowing my own disabilities is part of what led me to pursuing the career that I went into after undergrad. NAHA really opened the door for me for a lot of opportunities to play around the world and around the country”.
Neumann initially began her collegiate career at Clarkson University in upstate New York. “I really liked the “small school” atmosphere. Like I said, having learning disabilities I knew that a big school wasn’t going to fit for me. I went and looked at Wisconsin before my junior year of high school and Hilary Knight gave me the tour. I was like, ‘Okay, this is a great looking school, but it’s huge!’. And then when I went on my tour of Clarkson, I really liked the atmosphere”. As someone who received his bachelor’s at Canisius College in Buffalo, where Neumann wrapped up her own Master’s Degree, I definitely appreciate and relate to the comfort of a “small school” atmosphere. She goes on to say, “The atmosphere at Clarkson for games is next to none. The community that it is, and even the fact that the University’s president goes to the women’s games as much as he does the men’s games, if not sometimes more, means so much. Even though I ended up transferring, I still follow Clarkson today and it is amazing to see how far that program has come since their first day”. Statistically, Neumann would play in one game her freshman year for Clarkson and have a 22-save performance.
After that first year of NCAA hockey, Kelsey Neumann would transfer to SUNY Plattsburgh and would play with their Cardinals women’s ice hockey program. The experience for her would be a difficult one, but in hindsight it fostered a lot of strength in her for the future. Kelsey most assuredly came out on top of any struggles she encountered at the time.
Speaking on the transfer to Plattsburgh she says, “Being a goalie it’s always tough going into college because usually you have three goalies on a roster. I went into freshman year at Clarkson and had one other goalie partner. Then Clarkson ended up bringing in a U18 Team Canada goalie going into my sophomore year. I was at Clarkson the first half of my sophomore year, and I knew that this girl was better than me. She still plays for Team Canada today, and she is an amazing goalie. So I knew that the opportunities to get a chance at Clarkson would not be what I had hoped for. That is partially what led to me deciding to transfer from Clarkson, and then also academically, Clarkson is a great school and a very hard school. As much as I would have loved to have stayed and graduated from there, I knew that there were certain class requirements, that if I had stayed, I would have been there three more years trying to complete a math class. It is an engineering school and engineering math is not easy. So overall, that is what led me to choosing Plattsburgh. Their support staff there was great. It was great at Clarkson too, but at Plattsburgh I was able to have a little bit more flexibility with the classes and course load”.
Neumann would complete her bachelor’s degree at Plattsburgh, but would resign from playing on the team after her junior year. “Leaving Clarkson, I was part of a big family. I thought that with moving over to Plattsburgh that it was going to be part of another big family. Because of putting in double of what most student athletes have to put in to make sure that my grades are where they needed to be, and with all the help I needed and everything like that, I wasn’t one who had a huge social life outside of practice, work and school. I didn’t really fit with the norm, so that whole idea of coming into a new family like I had at NAHA or Clarkson, it wasn’t that. There were a lot of incidents that happened. It is not fortunate that I was bullied so to speak, but I am fortunate enough to have gone through it because now as a coach I take that with me into when I am coaching. I coach at least three girls teams, between the age groups of the 10s, 12s and 14s with the Bisons. I tell them and I always let them know, you don’t have to be best friends when you are outside of the rink, but the minute you walk into that rink, you are a family and if I hear of anything where so-and-so is picking on so-and-so, whether it is social media, in person, through text messages, if I catch wind of it I put a stop to it right away even before the head coaches get involved. All those girls know, and I talk to them about it all the time, you are a family first and that is the most important thing when you step into the locker room”. Hearing her say this, I feel a sense of comfort in knowing that these young girls have a coach such as Kelsey who not only promotes kindness and a sense of family within the team, but whose words ring sincerely and seriously. It is not just lip service that she is promoting when she speaks about family; she truly means it, fosters it and expects it of her athletes.
Between Neumann’s time with Plattsburgh and prior to joining the Buffalo Beauts, she played for a wide variety of teams seemingly everywhere. But more importantly, she would recapture her love of the game and that integral family aspect once more. “After my junior year when I resigned at Plattsburgh, I ended up on a women’s team out of North Carolina. My first year with them I felt that family bond again right away and they were very accepting. I am actually still with them, even though I can only make the games usually. I’ll travel around and meet them at tournaments. Being from North Carolina, they do not have an opportunity to practice often, but when I am with them I feel like I have never left. Then, when I moved to Buffalo for grad school at Canisius I started doing pickup games at the Northtown Center. I also got asked to sub for a men’s team, which led to me playing on some other men’s teams. So here and there I play on men’s teams when I am able. I still fill-in if and when I can, and I have even played out (out from her normal goaltender position) on some of them too over the summer. But playing on my women’s team from North Carolina was something that really helped me after my junior year. They helped me to realize the love of the game again and what family meant, which is really what I needed going into this (the NWHL). They have been so supportive of me pursuing this dream that some of them feel that they are living it with me”.
So how did the opportunity of being a goaltender for the Buffalo Beauts come about for Kelsey Neumann? She explains, “I moved to Buffalo about four years ago to attend grad school. I moved over to the Bisons organization last year (a minor team organization in Buffalo) and Shelley Looney (Olympic gold and silver medalist for Team USA) is the head of that. I let her know last year that I knew she had a Canadian goalie, and that the Canadian players couldn’t always come over for practice, so if they needed a goalie that I could be available. She ended up texting me and I started practicing with the team regularly at the beginning of last year. When I signed up for the Beauts tryouts this year, I was able to use Shelley as my reference because she has seen me play. So, ultimately I think that I have Shelley to thank for this opportunity to be a Beaut”, Neumann smiles. Nothing wrong with that, right? “No, and I actually idolized her as a kid. I still have a picture of she and I when I was nine, just after USA won the gold medal”.
And now that she has made it to the NWHL, I became curious to know what it is that Neumann hopes to accomplish in her career in this first ever professional women’s league. But in Neumann’s words (as if I could have expected anything else from her) it still comes down to her family-first and team-first nature. “Honestly, I want to do whatever is best for my team. I want to make sure that as I am getting better, that I am helping them to get better. Whether that is pushing myself harder in the weight room, pushing myself harder on the ice, taking extra games where I can with men’s teams, I am prepared if, God forbid, something should happen to a goalie partner. Ultimately, I would love to become a fulltime contracted player next year. If that’s in the cards, then it’s in the cards. If not, I’m still happy being a Beaut and I truly love being a part of the team. Being able to help anyway that I can, as much as I can, then I am going to do that”. You can see this even in Neumann’s body language. As I watch her on the bench during the action of the game, you can see her intense focus on the play; she is emotionally and seriously invested in the game and her team.
On the ice for the Beauts (and when she is coaching too for that matter), one attribute of Neumann’s that makes her so effective is her vision of the game. Almost like a chess match. The fact that she has a Russian hockey legend as a hero, I liken her vision to that of another Russian great, “The Professor”, Igor Larionov, even though he was not a goaltender. But like Larionov, Kelsey Neumann is able to read the play a few steps ahead; seemingly reading the future of how the play will transpire. “I see the whole ice”, she says. “I stand back, and I can see everything. I can see the play developing, and I know before the player even knows where that puck is going to go. It can be frustrating at times, because you know what is going to happen, and then you see it, and you’re like, ‘hey, I called that’. But ultimately it helps me be a better communicator for my team. I have been told that I am very vocal when I am on the ice”, she laughs.
If you follow the Buffalo Beauts at all on social media, you have likely seen “The Adventures of McLevman”, an absolutely hilarious portrayal of antics using stereotypes of goaltenders in the form of videos. “McLevman” being a combination of the three Beauts goaltenders last names of Neumann, Amanda Leveille, and Brianne McLaughlin, and an homage of course to the character known as “McLovin” from the film “Superbad“. “The Adventures of McLevman” videos have taken Kelsey Neumann and her compatriots, mind you in full goalie gear, to supermarkets, shopping centers and classrooms. If you have not seen their videos yet, you need to check them out! Visit their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/mclevman
So Kelsey, how did this whole “McLevman” thing come about and what has the reaction been like from the public? She enlightens me. “So ‘Lev’ and I were just talking about this in the locker room. I told her that I had an interview, and she was like, ‘About what? Is it about us?’, and I confirmed that yes, there was a question about us. It actually started when she first got her Brian’s pads (a particular brand of goalie equipment). To break them in, and apparently there is a picture Lev has to prove this, she is walking her dog outside in full goalie gear”, we’re both laughing by this point. “Her and I never met before this season. First practice, she comes in and instantly it was like we had known each other forever. Which was an amazing feeling to have, especially with one of your goalie partners. Then, we are standing out there, waiting to get out on the ice for our first practice together. We were all talking about Lev’s picture, and so we decided to recreate the picture and I opted to be the dog. We are always at each other’s houses, so from there, we decided that we should sit down and write out goalie stereotypes and weird things that people think goalies actually do. It’s been hilarious! And it’s been fun for us. I’ve been able to involve some of the kids that I coach into it too. We both got a little excited too that Garret Sparks (Toronto Marlies goaltender and Maple Leafs prospect) friended both of us on Facebook after seeing our ‘McLevman’ videos. So for the most part it has been very positive and very fun to have other people think it’s hilarious too. We went to New York City about a month ago and there was guy there who printed out the photo of all three of us laying in and around the net, and he asked the three of us to sign it for him. He took a picture with Bri and I. It’s those kind of things that are really fun”. In this day and age, people need to laugh more. Spread some laughter and levity. The “McLevman” trio are definitely able to make that happen.
Neumann has actually been able to incorporate the “McLevman” videos into her own classroom, using the classroom space and even some of her students to help with the video. “I teach at Journey’s End; it’s a refugee school. It’s all adults, and it’s interesting for me because I always knew that I wanted to do special ed or some type of teaching, because I was passionate towards learning about my own disabilities. I was told that I was never going to make it to college. I went from being told this in seventh grade, and then actually going to college and graduating with a really good GPA. From there, I went onto grad school and graduated with a dual Master’s, and I was inducted into honors societies. I knew then it was now my turn to give back. I was asked to work at this refugees school. It initially started out as a long term subbing position, but now it’s turned into a permanent part time position. I have level one students, and they are mostly just two months into living in the country, so it has been a lot of fun getting to watch them grow and to see them actually learning the language”.
Coinciding with what she is able to accomplish as both a coach and as a teacher, Neumann sees the fact that she is a Buffalo Beaut providing more opportunity for her to be a role model for others, especially the next generation of women’s hockey players; the little girls whom she presently coaches. “I have been with Ellie, my 14U goalie, for three years now, and she is a little sister to me. The relationships that I can make with the families and the kids that I work with. That’s just one of the biggest things; to become even more of a role model for someone, and not just for the teams that I coach but for other little girls too”. Neumann is even looking towards doing private lessons and group sessions over the summer for little girls who are netminders. Again, more opportunity to give back to the community and be a positive example in the lives of youngsters. One little lady in particular, Jayden, from the New Jersey area, whom Neumann has befriended and has had the opportunity to remain in touch with and see when the Beauts have been on the road, even had some of her own advice for Neumann going into a Beauts practice that she provided through Facebook: “Don’t ever give up. Make sure you have fun. And just work your hardest”. Words of wisdom from a nine year old, and in that moment it was exactly what Neumann needed to get herself up for practice that evening. Thank you, Jayden.
We need to take into consideration the importance of growing the women’s game for hockey players like Jayden, and Ellie, and other youngsters like these. Neumann and I wholeheartedly agree that we want the NWHL and professional women’s hockey to be around for many years to come. That being a professional women’s hockey player is a dream that can someday very much become a reality for today’s nine year old girl. “As much support as we can get”, Neumann tells me. “That is part of why Lev, Bri and me keep doing the “McLevman” videos; to get our names out there. Not our personal names, but our team name. The league’s name. We are always tagging the Beauts. Tagging the NWHL. We are really just trying to spread the word. We post it on goalie pages, we post it publicly. Wherever we can. The more and more that people know about the league, the more it will grow. That is one of the harder things that we have found; we think that everyone knows who we are, and there are still so many people that don’t know about the NWHL”. And Neumann is right; it is necessary to garner as much attention as possible.
If there is one thing I have learned from meeting Kelsey Neumann, it’s that with her it is about more than just hockey. She is able to put it into perspective for me with some parting words. “Responsibility. Responsibility plays a big key in being a hockey player. That dates back to my parents; they have always instilled that in me. Being responsible for yourself, and also your teammates. That goes back to my days in peewee when I played Boys AAA in Michigan under Coach Matt. Each kid was given a different job each weekend. Whether it was washing everyone’s jerseys or whatever. It taught us that there was more than just one person to a team. It taught us that if you are going to be responsible for someone other than yourself, it’s going to be the whole team. You have to own it and buy into that team mentality. Determination and hard work too. That comes not just from hockey, but through my learning disability. Perseverance through being told you are not good enough or not smart enough, and knowing that it was not true. To keep pushing forward and keep doing what I am doing. Coaches who may have told me that I was not good enough may look at me now and think, ‘okay, maybe I was wrong’. I try to teach all of the girls whom I coach that you need to be responsible for yourself and for your teammates. Not everyone can pick up the slack for you. Moving forward, I am here to teach you more than just hockey. I am here to teach you that in life, you are going to have to fight for it. You are going to have people who are against you, and this and that. If you can learn that now at 10, 12 and 14, then you are going to be better off down the road”.
Kelsey Neumann is one of a kind in my book. I am greatly impressed by how one young lady can embody such meaningful ideals, have a heart of gold, and can be such a skillful athlete. And I think that is why she is so deeply loved by all of whom that I mentioned earlier. She is one of a kind. She is a person that you meet only one of in a lifetime. There is no parity with her, and she is someone whom you are better just because you know her. Keep doing your thing, Kelsey. Keep being you. Give us some more “McLevman” escapades. And know that family, friends, teammates, coaches, parents and kiddos see your value as something priceless and a necessary ingredient in their lives.