This is part one of the Q&A. Come back tomorrow for part two!
Buffalo Beauts general manager Nate Oliver is living the dream. Fifteen months ago, he was named General Manager of his hometown NWHL team after covering hockey as a journalist for years and serving as the Beauts’ Community Relations Manager for one season. Towards the end of Season 5, Oliver was pretty much the de facto GM when his predecessor Mandy Cronin was unable to attend certain road trips.
Having known Nate for as long as I have, I wanted to wait a while before conducting our first full-length interview, so he could find his way, go through the ups and downs, and really put his stamp on the Beauts franchise. Buffalo has by far signed the most players for the NWHL’s upcoming Season 7, but there is certainly a method to this master plan.
“I want to have our roster finalized shortly, with room for a late signing or two in September or October. But my goal is to have our whole roster situated by the end of July or by the first week of August,” said Oliver at the top of our interview that felt more like two friends catching up. “I’d like to do a lot of virtual team building over the rest of this summer and leading up to the season. I think that’s really important.”
“We found a lot of success with that, at least in terms of building morale, heading into (last season’s extended) training camp. So it’s been important to me to get our team signed, announced, and that’s why it may appear like we are being aggressive. To me, we’re just marching to the beat of our own drum,” added Oliver who has zero concerns about what the other five franchise’s plans are.
“I want people to be excited about this team, to be excited about the capability of this team. You can name any player on our roster and I can give you every reason under the sun why she is so integral to us and why she’s a part of our recipe for success. The players that we are going into this season with - I believe in wholeheartedly and I think they will bring us success. We want the Isobel Cup.”
Over the course of our hour-long chat with the second longest-tenured GM in the NWHL, Oliver’s passion for his job was on full display as we spoke about expectations for the Beauts in Season 7, his unique draft strategy, the business aspect of becoming a GM, and much more.
The Ice Garden: What has it been like during your first full off-season as a GM? A couple of years ago you were a hockey journalist wondering what GMs would do, now you’re behind the scenes running the show and making those decisions for real.
Nate Oliver: I wear my heart on my sleeve. I definitely feel a difference between this off-season and the last one because when I first took over my predecessor had already made four signings: (Taylor) Accursi, (Lisa) Chesson, CJ (Carly Jackson), and MJ (Marie-Jo Pelletier). The 2020 NWHL Draft had already taken place and obviously, I didn’t have any say in any of that.
I definitely reaped the benefits of some of those decisions, but certain things were done in a different way than I would have. This off-season I feel a lot more freedom and poetic license - this is the team that I can sculpt and build. I can wear it on my sleeve and take the good, the bad, and the ugly - but it’s something that I’m building with my coaches. I feel like it’s going in the direction I want it to go in. That’s a big difference from a year ago.
Yes, we’ve made a lot of signings, but it’s not willy-nilly. My coaches and I have been very deliberate with what we’ve done. I haven’t signed any player, or drafted any players, without my coaches being on the same page. I can’t speak for other teams and how they operate, but we’ve done our homework on all of these players.
TIG: As a writer, and fan, you already knew a lot of these players and have that as a foundation heading into your additional due diligence on each one. To me, that’s a nice weapon in your arsenal as you navigate an off-season of building a team.
NO: Yes, the league put together a scouting report of what players were eligible and what their thoughts were ahead of the 2021 NWHL Draft. I didn’t use that at all, and I’m not saying that to toot my own horn. I’ve been working on this since March - who we wanted to draft, who we wanted to re-sign, how we wanted our team to look.
I’ve known one of my picks since she was 14-years-old, (Anna Zíková) and watched her grow with the Czech National Team, watched her play at Maine, so I knew I would have a unique opportunity to draft her (we have not signed her yet). I know what type of player she is, why I think she is a fit for us and that maybe some other teams wouldn’t have some information that we have.
We kind of broke it down on a chart with different categories. Must-haves: we have to get this player re-signed and back with the Beauts no matter what. Another was, yes we want them back, can we live without them? There was no one we said that we definitely didn’t want back. Even though we have made a lot of signings, it’s still a long off-season.
Kennedy Ganser is another name that comes to mind. You look at what Auttie MacDougall did for us in Lake Placid - our leading goal scorer and arguably our most dangerous player last season. At the University of Alberta, Ganser was her center and they were a lethal combination there. For me, it’s making sure that you are studying the players you are looking at, seeing those connections, and certainly asking other players, too.
We’ve eyed players in the past - there was one who put up double-digit goals at a DI school every season - and you find out from a former teammate that she can be problematic in the locker room, or doesn’t have the best practice habits. Those are things you don’t find out just from talking to that player, looking at stats, or even talking with a coach. Sometimes that feedback from a former teammate is crucial.
TIG: You do have friendships with a lot of the players that you know, that have been on the Beauts. So, what adjustments are there for you regarding the business aspect of being a GM, and how tough are those real conversations?
NO: Those aren’t easy conversations, they never are. Sometimes it depends on the person. It depends on where they are in their life, where you are in yours, what they are looking to achieve, and what you are looking to do. Sometimes those outside factors make decisions go swimmingly, other times it can make those conversations really tough and tears can be shed. We probably had a 50% turnover on our roster between Season 5 and Season 6, and heading into this season it’s looking like it’ll be about 50% again.
Some of that can be due to attrition, you have retirements like (Jordan) Juron and (Emma) Ruggerio. Other players may be looking at school or other opportunities. You hate to see people go, but sometimes those decisions are made easier for you if the player makes it on their own accord. So yeah, some of those conversations are tough to have. One thing I’ve learned in management - in hockey and while working in higher education - people don’t have to like or agree with what you said or told them, but if you’ve garnered their respect they will respect your decision whether they’re happy about it or not. It’s a business decision, not a personal one. I re-emphasize that with the players. I always say this, and believe it wholeheartedly: once you’re a Beaut - you’re always a Beaut.
Maybe you won’t be a player with us, but there’s always an opportunity to be involved, and help us out. A prime example of that is goaltender Tiffany Hsu. We didn’t re-sign her last summer but we brought her on board as our assistant equipment manager. She has an engineering background and obviously knows the game of hockey. It was advantageous for us to bring her back to the Beauts in that role.
This season we are going to try to do more of building relationships with our alumni. One thing we did that I thought was amazing, and was well-received by our fans, was that we did a virtual package for our season-ticket holder fans since they couldn’t be in attendance at games. One of the benefits was that if you bought the package you were invited to a private Zoom meeting with a panel of Beauts alumni. We had appearances by players from our first season to Season 5 and it was great to be a fly on the wall and listen to them talk about their experiences with the team.
It’s something I want to take to the next level this season. I assume the league will release the Season 7 schedule sometime soon. I would like to have one of our home games be an Alumni Night or something similar. We have to be cautious (because of covid), but also prepare like it’s going to be a ‘normal’ season.
TIG: I’m really curious about the swap of first-rounders with Connecticut. Who approached who first about it? Obviously, you could have gotten Emilie Harley without the trade, but was picking up the extra selection a no-brainer? Conversely, after the deal, was there any worry that the Whale would take Harley over Taylor Girard, despite the latter’s ties to the Connecticut area?
NO: I wanted to get additional picks going into the draft, more than just the five we had. The reason why, and it’s something that (Head Coach) Rhea (Coad) and I talked about in detail, was that we felt like there might be a ‘sense of allegiance’ to the team that drafted you and we can use that as a building mechanism to select a player that may be on the bubble about turning pro after college, or maybe it never occurred to them that they could play pro. Those are things that have come up in my conversations with collegiate players.
Some people have thought or written that this might have not been a worthwhile draft before it even happened. But for myself, I knew there were some diamonds in the rough even without the marquee names being available, I knew that there were good players there. We did our homework and capitalized on letting the other teams believe that it wasn’t a deep draft. We thought otherwise.
The other thing is, Taylor Girard is someone who was very much on our radar. I spoke to her, I reached out to Quinnipiac, and she was someone we looked at and considered, and was someone we ranked high. People talk, word gets out sometimes, and I don’t know if other teams, besides Connecticut, talked to her. We certainly had an interest, but where she ranked overall regarding our draft board, I don’t think we went too far with it. We were looking at Harley and (Anjelica) Diffendal from Robert Morris University and it just worked out the way that it did.
When we looked into players in our neck of the woods - the eastern region - and after watching video, talking to coaches, players, and our staff, we felt pretty confident that we wanted Harley as our first pick. I had no idea who Connecticut was aiming for, maybe in retrospect, I guessed it was Girard. They reached out to me wanting to secure the top pick, and it made sense to me. We felt pretty confident that we could still get Harley, but if it worked out another way I might’ve been upset and kicking myself. The Whale wanted to ensure that they were getting the player they valued most in this draft and I was comfortable that we’d still get Harley plus get an additional pick in the draft and that’s what sealed the deal for me.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder, right? If you really want a player, if you badly want that player in your lineup and signed to a contract, I don’t blame them for wanting to secure that. Honestly, it was a bit of a gamble on my end because if they did take Harley I would’ve had to alter my draft board. We really did want her and I’m elated that we drafted (and signed) her for the upcoming season.
I definitely had some nerves that night, as I found out when everyone else did that Connecticut was taking Girard. In the end, I think it worked out great for us both. They’re happy and I know we are definitely happy. I love Emilie Harley and what she will bring to our team, and I think our fans will love her too. Not only what she can do on the ice, but her character and the type of person she is - which I’m learning more and more every day.