Western New York's thriving hockey scene adds a new team into its fabric, with the debut of the Buffalo Beauts this Sunday afternoon. It's one of four charter members of the all-new National Women's Hockey League.
Though a small league, women's hockey advocates see the NWHL as a big leap towards elevating the game. While women's and girls' hockey leagues exist in the Buffalo area, they've not had a professional league for women in Buffalo, until now.
"It's a great opportunity for all of us and for women's hockey and the growth of it," said Emily Pfalzer, a Getzville native who plays defense and is one of four local natives on the Beauts' roster. Pfalzer played NCAA Division I women's hockey at Boston College and more recently was a member of the gold medal-winning Team USA in the IIHF Women's World Championship tournament earlier this year.
The other local natives on the Beauts' roster are goaltender Kimberly Sass (East Amherst) and forwards Annemarie Cellino (Orchard Park) and Maggie Giamo (Buffalo). The latter two players, according to the team's website, were not on the active 18-player roster. However, an injury or other roster action involving another player could lead to them being called upon as the season progresses.
Coaching the team are two former players with experience at the top levels of the women's and men's games, respectively: Shelly Looney was a member of Team USA women's hockey team during its Olympic runs in 1998 and 2002. She won gold in 1998 and silver in 2002. In 2014 she moved to Buffalo to take a job with the Bisons youth hockey association and earlier this year accepted the additional duties of co-coaching the Beauts.
"When this opportunity came, (players) started coming out of the woodwork and they moved and made it a destiny for them," said Looney, a Michigan native. "That's what's going to make this league pretty special."
Joining Looney as a co-coach is Ric Seiling, a former Buffalo Sabres forward who coached for a few years after retiring as a player. He later became a broadcaster for the Rochester Americans, a position he still holds. He recalled coaching a women's squad at least 20 years ago and noted the players' eagerness to learn the game and their work ethic. He was again impressed by the quality of play when the Beauts played Mercyhurst College in an exhibition game two weeks ago.
"I was very surprised by the speed all over the ice," said Seiling. "You don't have the open-ice hitting but, I'll tell you, it's still a fairly physical game."
Women have often had to play with the boys, as youths in local amateur programs or as adults in recreational leagues, simply because of the lesser availability of women's leagues. The Beauts' general manager, Linda Mroz, played NCAA Division I women's hockey for Niagara University from 1999 to 2003 but had no opportunities to play women's hockey beyond college. That program was subsequently shut down by Niagara in 2010.
Mroz hopes the Beauts and the NWHL can survive, and give today's young players a league to dream about playing in someday.
"Now you have these 4-, 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds that are putting on the skates and now they have heroes who are females," Mroz said. "They have girls they can look up to."
The Beauts will play their first game of the 2015-16 on Sunday, October 11 at 3:30 p.m. inside HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo.