It was November 20. The Buffalo Beauts had just put forth perhaps their worst performance to date, falling 5-0 to the Boston Pride in their first ever shutout loss.
Three of the Beauts’ second-year players -- goaltender Brianne McLaughlin, flanked by Emily Pfalzer to her right and Megan Bozek on her left -- stood together in the post-game media scrum. All three have taken part in the U.S. National program and play large leadership roles this season, Bozek and Pfalzer as captains and McLaughlin as the current starting netminder and veteran. And for a moment, none of them quite knew how to sum up what had happened this weekend.
Then, finally, after a brief chuckle, Bozek spoke.
“Obviously we’ve had a lot thrown at us the past 48 hours, which isn’t an excuse,” she said. “But mentally, physically, that's draining. It’s draining for us and it's draining for Boston… [but] they came out and gave us their all, and things just weren't clicking for us.”
News had come down from NWHL headquarters Nov. 18 that player salaries were to be cut by at least 50 percent in an effort to financially stabilize. Attendance seems to be flagging compared to last season, particularly at Buffalo’s Harborcenter, where “SECTION CLOSED” signs are more of a common trait during Beauts games than they were in 2015-16. Moreover, the league has been plagued with potential lawsuits from former investors and creditors, and players -- the same ones that stood before the media on Sunday -- wanted answers.
You could see the worry and disappointment on all three of the Beauts’ faces. Their ability to focus had likely been diminished in the wake of Friday’s news, and it showed on the ice. Boston (whose roster is made up mostly of National Team members) likely felt the pinch as well, but didn't show it, utilizing its talent and depth to skate circles around Buffalo and throwing nearly 50 shots at McLaughlin.
Meanwhile, the Beauts couldn't get anything started. The offense, lacking a suspended Kelley Steadman but still with some firepower in Corinne Buie, Shiann Darkangelo and Emily Janiga, stalled and got locked in its own zone multiple times. And try as McLaughlin did to keep her team in it, she failed to do it all. Ultimately, it was a failure all around for a team that is still finding its way as a unit.
“I think being focused was a really tough thing for us today,” McLaughlin said afterward. “I think it was just a topic of conversation everywhere you turned your head, which was frustrating because we just want to play hockey and be ready for today.”
The story is similar across the league. The players tweeted out a list of requests, including proof of insurance and transparency regarding investors. New York Riveters Madison Packer and Ashley Johnston, among other players, have spoken honestly about their feelings regarding the announcement and what it means for their futures. Others, like Bozek, have been slightly more cryptic via social media. It's obvious though that all of these athletes, most of whom work to support themselves and their continuation in the sport, will have to reassess plenty when it comes to their futures in hockey.
When it comes to Buffalo, however, it's hard not to take it personally. This city calls itself “Hockey Heaven,” and yet its pro women’s team draws only handfuls per weekend. Its only mainstream paper consistently failed last season to give the team coverage or even a box score. This season, they’ve gotten somewhat better, but still barely publicize them (and for questioning certain columnists on their dismissive attitude toward the Beauts, you get a swift block on Twitter). Even with regular coverage from smaller press outlets in the area, many people you speak to have no idea the Beauts even exist. If they do, they make a hasty declaration to go to a game sometime -- all the while thinking the team, the league, will always be there.
Last week’s announcement should have them thinking again.
There's constant criticism in the press box (at least, here at Harborcenter there is) of the league's media relations, and much of it is valid -- the league does have a ways to go when it comes to access. Some of the criticism also feels a lot like unreasonably holding the NWHL accountable for things it may be struggling to grasp as a startup just halfway through its second year.
But at the same time, the NWHL in many ways has failed to provide transparency, not just to the media but to its own players -- the employees that help them bring in a bigger audience and keep them coming back. As McLaughlin went on to say, she and her teammates are grateful for the opportunity to make money doing what they love, much like any other player in the league. These players put their trust in Dani Rylan and the front office, and none of the players who have spoken publicly believe she’s acted in bad faith. However, after the reported silence of that front office since the players tweeted their requests last week, that trust is likely being slowly eroded.
Either way, to see a team like the Beauts -- who beat the odds and the league’s then second-best team to make the inaugural Isobel Cup Finals last year -- potentially lose all of this, with few people batting an eye, is frustrating.
It goes to show that, even in Buffalo, this isn’t “just” hockey- it’s women’s hockey. And like most women’s sports, the league has only one chance to get it right. If they don’t, it’s the old refrain: “Oh, what a shame, this just proves women’s sports will never sell.” Never mind there’s been a bare-minimum effort made by everyone but the NWHL and its players to prove otherwise.
This isn’t a problem that anyone can fix overnight, not even in Hockey Heaven. But most of the players have indicated that they want to make it work. Now it’s just up to everyone else, including the league, the media, and the fans, to open the gates.