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Beauts setting the bar in women's hockey, paving way for next generation

Following another championship game appearance, Sabres.com explores the Beauts' impact on the City of Buffalo

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Chris Sykes can still recall the details of the first Buffalo Beauts game he attended with his daughter, Lucy. 

He remembers it was the 2016-17 season opener, the second year of operation for the National Women's Hockey League. He knows all four of the league's teams were in town for opening weekend, and that Lucy even got to speak to a handful players while they awaited pregame warmups.

More than anything, he remembers the look on his daughter's face when the puck dropped.

"She kind of talked a little bit at first, and then she just went silent for four or five minutes," he said. "That's weird for Lucy. Finally, she just kind of looked up and said, 'They wear a ponytail like I do.' It was a really, really big deal for her."

The Beauts have attained various measures of success during their four seasons of operation. 

On the ice, they boast a roster that includes former Olympians in Dani Cameranesi, Lisa Chesson, Emily Pfalzer, Nicole Hensley and Shannon Szabados, as well as the league's Most Valuable Player in Maddie Elia. They've made it to the Isobel Cup Final all four years, including a championship in 2016.

As the only NWHL team with private ownership, the Beauts have set the bar in terms of resources, operations and facilities in women's professional hockey. 

And, at a time when women's hockey seems to be at a booming point thanks to an epic Olympic finish between the U.S. and Canada in 2018 and the NHL All-Star Weekend heroics of Kendall Coyne Schofield, the Beauts have become trail blazers for a younger generation.

Just ask Chris Sykes.

"Not to overstate it or anything, but at school when they'd ask Lucy what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would say hockey coach or something like that because she had a lot of women hockey coaches," he said.

"Since she went to that game, she's been saying she's going to grow up and be a Beaut, she's going to play pro hockey. To be her dad and see that shift in my daughter was incredible, it really was."  

 

Setting the bar

The Beauts became the NWHL's first privately owned team when they were purchased by Terry and Kim Pegula on Dec. 21, 2017. The other four teams - based in Boston, Newark, Saint Paul and Stamford - are owned and operated by the league. 

"We want to contribute to the growth of women's hockey," Kim Pegula said in a press release at the time of the purchase. "Harborcenter has allowed us to make a positive impact on the game at the amateur, high school and collegiate levels, and we believe this is the perfect time to expand our reach to include women's professional hockey through the NWHL. This sport provides outstanding opportunities, and we are committed to helping extend those opportunities to females of all ages."

The Pegulas have made good on that commitment over the past two years, providing facilities and resources that are unmatched in women's professional hockey. 

The Beauts have their own personalized locker room inside Harborcenter. They have access to the rinks whenever open ice is available, as well as to the Impact Performance, Cycle and Yoga training facilities. In addition to two weekly practices, they hold two skills sessions with the coaches at the Academy of Hockey. 

Kelly Babstock was an inaugural member of the NWHL, having spent the first three seasons of her career with Connecticut prior to joining Buffalo last summer. She calls the Beauts "the most professional team in women's hockey."

"From practices, skills practices, our food we get after practice, before practice, lunches. Just being treated how we should be in every little detail like that," she said. "Our coaching staff and our managers and equipment managers, anything we wanted, we got. It was great."

Beauts defender Jacquie Greco, who also works in marketing for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, pointed out how small details like laundry services make a difference for a professional athlete.

"We're treated as professionals since being acquired, and I know that's a big thing for our coaches, treating us like professionals and treating us like the athletes we should be and getting the little things that matter," she said.

"… The resources to be an elite athlete are here in Buffalo and I think we're the only team that has access to all these parts."

Players have taken notice. Buffalo's last offseason included a series of high-profile additions including Szabados and defender Blake Bolden, as well as the return of Getzville, N.Y. native Pfalzer. Bolden and Szabados have both cited the amenities in Buffalo as being among the best in women's hockey.

The product on the ice has been strong as a result. In addition to Elia being named MVP, Szabados was the NWHL's goaltender of the year and Bolden was named defender of the year. Forward Hayley Scamurra, a Williamsville, N.Y. native, was voted as the league's top player by the NWHL Players Association. 

Tweet from @BuffaloBeauts: ICYMI: It was a clean #Beauts sweep of today���s NWHL Awards! 🧹Congratulations to Shannon, Maddie, Blake and Hayley. Great players, even better people. pic.twitter.com/7Zk3ViZbrz

"I've heard it before and I've read it, that the Buffalo Beauts are setting the standard for women's hockey," Beauts coach Cody McCormick said. "It has a lot to do with PSE and the ownership we have, how they see this team and how they envision women's hockey. 

"There's a lot of momentum right now to growing the game and making sure it's going in the right direction, and I believe it is."

 

Shining examples

Greco, a Buffalo native, remembers experiencing her own transformative experience the first time she saw a young fan wearing a jersey with her name on it. 

"Her dad or mom went out of their way to pick out a player and wanted her to have my jersey," she said. "That kind of hit me, the first time seeing that. It hit me hard that, wow, I really do inspire these people, these little girls."

With no women's pro leagues to speak of, current Beauts like Babstock and Greco grew up with men's players as their hockey idols. Babstock grew up a fan of Wayne Gretzky and, later, Alexander Ovechkin. Greco wanted to grow up to be a Buffalo Sabre. 

"To be able to look up to us I think is something that I never had," Greco said. "I think it's something that now girls can look forward to."

Martin Gilano has been involved with girls' youth hockey since his daughter, Lauren, began playing six years ago at age 5. A plan to take Lauren's 10-U Amherst Knights travel team to the Beauts' home game against Connecticut in December snowballed when he began speaking about the game with coaches from fellow youth teams.

Gilano coordinated trips for fellow 10-U teams from Binghamton, Skaneateles and the Southtowns as well as Amherst's 12-U team. He estimates 200 tickets were purchased by their group.

"These types of events can be transformational for them, so that they can see themselves doing this for a while," Gilano said. "Not all of these girls - or I should say very few of them - are going to the Olympics, if any. But, what a great experience to grow up with your friends and have those team experiences and locker room experiences, and then look at the Beauts and go, 'That's possible.'"

Gilano has had Sabres season tickets in his family since the franchise was founded, and says he's taken Lauren regularly for years. He, like Sykes, noticed the effect the women's game had on his daughter compared to their trips to watch the Sabres.

"She's still a kid, so she wants popcorn, she wants ice cream, she wants pretzels," he said. "She wants all the different things. The women's game, she watched, and there were a lot of things she was fascinated by. I don't know what goes through the mind of a 10 year old, but you're hoping they think, 'If I work hard and I do all the little things right, I could be one of them.'"

Of course, not all girls will grow up to play professional hockey. The Beauts make themselves accessible in a way that makes them role models off the ice, also. 

Gilano's youth teams were granted access to the team benches for warmups. The Beauts hold meet-and-greet signings after every game, in addition to working in the community with groups like Hasek's Heroes and the Boys and Girls Club.

"As a parent and as a coach, I really believe that when kids play at a higher level and they're taught things like to be a good teammate and to have these core values, then you're helping them choose their friends and your helping them make better choices and be better people," Gilano said. "I think it exemplifies that when there's high-quality women that they can watch and look up to."

Relationships are formed along the way. Lucy Sykes was the Sabres' "Junior Reporter" for an afternoon this season, which typically includes a visit to practice followed by a sit-down interview with a Sabres player. It was her idea to chat with Babstock before going into the Sabres dressing room and meeting Sam Reinhart. 

Video: Jr. Reporter: Lucy Sykes

When Lucy and her father left KeyBank Center that day, they were stopped by Beauts forward Corrine Buie as she was driving away from the rink.

"She was like, 'Hey, Lucy, what are you doing here?'" Sykes said. "Lucy was just so excited that she knew who she was. That day was fantastic."

Sykes recalled an instance in which former Beauts defender Sarah Casorso, Lucy's favorite player, had received a game misconduct late in a 6-2 loss to the Metropolitan Riveters. When Casorso came out to sign autographs afterward, it became a teaching moment for the father.

"She was there for the fans, and it was one of those times that was a fantastic example of compartmentalizing and understanding that there are things that are more important than wins or losses," Sykes said.

"I always have those opportunities where I can sit and point things out to Lucy, like, 'That's Sarah. She had a frustrating game, but she came back.'"

For Greco and her teammates, it's as much a responsibility as lacing up their skates.

"I think that's part of our job, is to touch every kid, every fan, everybody who we do inspire, because it means a lot to us," she said. "We're not making millions of dollars. We're here to inspire these kids to want to be in our shoes, so that eventually maybe they're making millions of dollars. Everybody on our team loves to sign autographs after the game, meet the girls, take pictures. 

"I think being accessible is one thing that our league embraces a lot. I'm pretty sure every team signs after every single game. No girl is that inaccessible at any point. Harborcenter is such a great atmosphere, being that close to us on the ice I think also helps a lot. They can get up close to the glass whenever they want. You can't really do that at a Sabres game or a Bills game."

 

Mutual support

Babstock used to get excited to play games in Buffalo as a visitor, knowing it likely meant playing in front of a packed house at Harborcenter. In that respect, her first season as a member of the Beauts did not disappoint. 

"We were 8-0 at the Harborcenter, and that's a big reason why, is the fans," she said. "It's an electrifying experience to be a part of with how our fans are. They just give us so much energy, they're very loud here. It's really special."

The support came to a head earlier this month in Buffalo's semifinal playoff game against Boston. Harborcenter was at its capacity of 1,800 to watch the Beauts shut out the Pride, 4-0. (Buffalo ranked second to Minnesota with an average attendance of 1,101, according to the NWHL.)

Tweet from @BuffaloBeauts: 8������-0������ at @Harborctr this season! 👏 to you, #Beauts fans! We���re not done yet! pic.twitter.com/navnJeXncO

When the league announced final jersey and shirsey (a jersey-style T-shirt) sales for the 2018-19 season, three Beauts cracked the top six: Szabados at No. 1, Pfalzer at No. 3 and Bolden at No. 6. 

Tweet from @ShannonSzabados: You guys...😢💞It���s an honor and brings tears to my eyes knowing you spend your hard earned money on something with my name on it. I truly do appreciate it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, your continued support from around the world does not go unnoticed 🙏 https://t.co/RNeOjjCQ5l

"It's been amazing, just seeing the fans and the kids and how the team gravitates towards the youth that comes to the games," McCormick said. "It's something you see here and there, but there's also things behind the scenes where the players are doing things in the community, volunteer work. They really embrace, really enjoy and really appreciate the support they get from Buffalo."

For all the strides that have been made, there's still work to do. Current Beauts hope to see players around professional hockey have access to the same resources they have. 

The foundation is being laid in Buffalo.

"I think everybody's looking at our team as the pioneers for where every team should be as far as how a professional team should be as far as professionalism and how a team should operate and run," Greco said. 

"I think the league looks at us as pioneers. We operate totally separate from every other team, but we're doing things the right way here. I think every team eventually wants to get to where we are, in both leagues."

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