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Lisa Chesson isn’t done yet

The Beauts defender discusses her third season, driving five hours to play, and the rise of girls’ hockey in Ohio.

Pat McCarthy

After the sticks and gloves settled last spring, it looked like Lisa Chesson might retire from the National Women’s Hockey League. Her Buffalo Beauts had just dropped the single-game championship final, 1-0. She took one to two half-days out of her job each week to skate at this level, and at 31, Chesson was one of the oldest players on the ice.

“I’m going to keep playing until I can’t keep up anymore.”

Now 32, the reality of skating with players almost 10 years her junior doesn’t faze her at all — she’s confident in her skills and abilities, and knows her limits. “As long as you can play, you should be able to, and I’ll play until they don’t want me anymore,” she said in an interview with The Ice Garden.

But the Buffalo Beauts did want her. Chesson announced her return to professional women’s ice hockey just four days into the signing period on National Cheese Day, a reference to her nickname, “Cheese.” Chesson cited the Beauts’ culture, longtime coaches Ric Seiling and Craig Muni, and the fans at HarborCenter as some of the reasons why she’s ready to lace up her skates for a third year in Buffalo.

During the offseason, though, the NWHL announced an expansion. Speculation took center stage, as the league had held their third All-Star Game in Minnesota, and the Beauts had played an exhibition game in Pittsburgh. As Chesson commutes to Buffalo from her home in Columbus, Ohio, playing in Pittsburgh would cut her weekend drive time by four hours. Despite her two years with the Beauts, the option would be a tough one to turn down.

However, the expansion went to Minnesota, taking the Beauts’ starting goaltender, Amanda Leveille, with it. Having stayed in Columbus, where she played for Ohio State for four years, Chesson understands why “Lev” wanted to move back to her alma mater, the University of Minnesota.

The Beauts took the loss in stride, signing dueling Olympians Nicole Hensley (2018, USA) and Shannon Szabados (2010, 2014, 2018, Canada). “It was crazy,” said Chesson, noting that the players learn of new roster additions the same way fans do — through social media. Although Szabados is the third player on the Beauts’ roster with ties to Ohio (new defender Blake Bolden is from the Cleveland area), they haven’t talked about carpooling to Beauts games — probably because Szabados’ new home in Lorain is west of Cleveland, while Chesson’s route to Buffalo cuts through the eastern suburbs of Mentor and Chardon.

Although Chesson isn’t originally from Ohio, she’s been part of the region’s steady expansion of girls and women’s hockey. She cites the involvement of Columbus Chill Youth Hockey Coordinator Leslie Walker and Central Ohio Girls’ Hockey founder Natalie Darr for starting and feeding that growth, as well as some support from the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.

Ice hockey has exploded in central Ohio since the Blue Jackets came to life in 1999, and although their development programs have produced several NHL players and a slew of minor leaguers, that progress has been slow to arrive on the girls’ side. Chesson only played seven games with the Beauts in 2016-17, even missing the 2017 Isobel Cup final, because of her coaching commitment with a Columbus U19 program. Unfortunately, the team shuttered last year due to lack of interest— leaving Chesson available to play more weekends with the Beauts. Even if she could find enough girls to field a team, Columbus has such a severe shortage of ice time that teams sometimes hold practices in Newark or Springfield, both nearly an hour away. Those who do try to buy ice in Columbus have to contend with speculators and an expensive secondary market.

This year, Walker and Darr have a development team of 23 girls from ages 7 to 11, the highest level of interest the recreational level has ever seen. Some of it may be due to the quadrennial Olympics bump, but it doesn’t hurt that Darr screened the 2018 Isobel Cup final in her family-owned bar near Nationwide Arena last year. Girls from around the city, many of them wearing their own jerseys, watched Chesson and company play on a massive screen usually reserved for NHL matchups.

Even the women at THE Ohio State University got in on the action, making their first-ever Frozen Four appearance after a win over powerhouse Boston College. Chesson, who played at Ohio State from 2004 to 2008, was happy, but not surprised.

“The talent has always been there, it was just a lot of issues internally,” she sighed. “Some of those girls had as many coaches as they had years there.” She’s optimistic about the stability and experience third-year coach Nadine Muzerall has brought to the program, and excited to play with former Buckeye captain Juliana Iafallo.

“Yeah, the coaches were asking me about her last year!” laughed Chesson, revealing that the Beauts had an early eye on Iafallo. They followed through, with Iafallo becoming the only undrafted player to receive an offer from the Beauts after their free-agent camp in early June.

Chesson is enjoying the last few days of what passes for rest before the Beauts start their training camp next week. Because she can’t practice in Buffalo with the rest of the team, Chesson skates twice a week on recreational teams. Unlike the Beauts, those teams have been skating since August. Her highest-level team has a good share of championship titles in a league with a number of retired NHL players and men’s collegians, most notably former Blue Jacket and Sabre Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre. Then again, Chesson is an Isobel Cup Champion, Olympian, and two-time World Champion.

Despite an entire men’s professional team just a few miles away and the local development of NHL players like Jack Roslovic, Connor Murphy, and Sean Kuraly, Chesson’s Olympic jersey is the only sweater on the wall of any central Ohio rink.

Her Beauts jersey can wait— at least for a few more years. She’s not done chasing the crown just yet.

Lisa Chesson and the Buffalo Beauts begin their season October 7 against the Connecticut Whale at Terry Conners Rink in Stamford, Connecticut.