It’s the most wonderful time of the year — the days are shorter, the air is chillier, and I spend way more of my time huddled in the corner of a rink, eating concession stand chicken fingers and tapping away on my comically small Chromebook, than I do sleeping. That’s right — it’s hockey season, y’all, and with a later start to Year Eight than in seasons previous, there’s a lot more time for a team with a ton of turnover like the Buffalo Beauts to get to know itself and each other.
A couple of weeks have passed since training camp, and since then the Beauts have wasted no time jumping into regular practices, lift sessions, and community and team-building activities including escape rooms, moonlit boat trips, and hanging out with youth players from Caz Park in South Buffalo.
Even though so many of the names on the backs of the jerseys have changed, it’s obvious the vibes are still pretty much intact. General manager Nate Oliver has always stressed the importance of signing players who are just as good people off the ice as they are athletes, and while the results on the ice have been mixed, I’d say that culture is at the top of the league standings.
- At media availability for training camp, head coach Rhea Coad mentioned the Beauts’ identity, which they’d been struggling to really establish last season. As a result of this, the Beauts struggled to leave the PHF cellar and had a quick exit in the Isobel Cup quarters, despite some great games against top-tier competitors like Boston and Toronto.
This year she classifies the team’s identity as “fast, relentless, and in your face.” At first glance on the ice and at the roster, it definitely seems like an interesting mix of skill and physicality, and the practices have been fairly intense when it comes to the latter end especially. With that said, I wonder how a player who leans more toward the skill side like Mikyla Grant-Mentis will do on a team like this if not properly supported. The best teams are able to craft their game around that kind of skill and use their physical edge to protect it. I’ll be intrigued as to who will join Buckey on her line in order to do that.
- Another player who seems to have a ton of skill is Emma Nuutinen. Emma’s been the sole red-shirted player these first couple of weeks (meaning no-contact, injury unspecified as of this writing), but she’s been integrated into scrimmages bit by bit and has shown off a really smooth skating style and a pretty backhand. I’m excited to see what she can do at full strength.
- The practices themselves also look a little different. Full-ice drills are more commonplace, and it really seems like there’s as much of an emphasis on defense as there is on offense, which should make life a little easier for the netminders if it’s executed well. Toni Matzka is an early standout amongst the newcomers for me — her skating and positioning work wonders with her size, and she reads the rush extremely well. I’m looking forward to seeing more of her. Amongst the returning players, Allison Attea has also looked really strong skating-wise as well as with her offensive edge.
- I’m also super excited to see Whitney Dove back in Beauts blue. She has such a great blend of strength and speed, and she is relentless on the boards. At the tail end of practice, Rhea has taken to having all of the players skate down and back with a puck, including the goalies, and one night on the Olympic rink at Northtown she challenged a player to make it down and back within 10 seconds to get the rest of the team out of the drill. That player was Dove, who didn’t quite make 10 seconds but was close enough to make Rhea (as well as her 20 teammates) extremely happy. Hearing the other players cheering her on and seeing them swarm her on the boards at the end of it was honestly such a great moment I wish I’d thought to get on camera.
- A standout returner for me so far is Claudia Kepler. I’m going to have a feature up on Claude soon, but right now I can definitely see her snagging an A and flanking Dom Kremer as part of the team leadership. Obviously, she’s got a pretty great coaching resume herself at this point, having been behind the bench assisting at Syracuse last season, and that resume puts itself to work on the ice. Her communication and her ability to read plays are both excellent, and she also has that mix of skill and physicality that may have gotten her in trouble with a couple of penalties last playoffs, but when harnessed, can really boost an offense (as we also saw when she first came to Buffalo and scored two goals in her first three or so games).
- I know what you’re all thinking: what about the goalies? Well, Kassidy Sauve has definitely been looking extremely strong in practices. Easily the tallest of the netminders for Buffalo at 5’9”, she has some great athleticism and lateral movement, and I rarely have seen her get dragged out of position. Her glove is also one of the best I’ve seen and dare I say it might be one of the best in the PHF now. Obviously, TBD, but I’ve been impressed so far. Tera Hoffman is also providing solid support in her capacity as a practice player. I’m honestly very glad to see her here; she’s just got a wonderful positive energy along with her skill.
- Returning goalie Lovisa Berndtsson stood out in her first few nights on the ice in practice as well, making some solid pad saves and keeping her trademark cool in net under pressure. Recently, she’s been sidelined with a lower-body injury, which means she might not see a lot of time at least during the preseason in order to give herself some rest. It’s tough to see her sit, especially because I know she’s fought hard to get back to her play after a rocky first season in the PHF. But it’s better that it happened now than down the line, and I have no doubt we’ll see her suit up soon enough.
With all of that said, the Beauts are gearing up for a road trip within the next week, with a preseason tilt against the Metro Riveters Friday, Oct. 14 and Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Rivs’ new digs in the American Dream Mall. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the PHF has chosen not to broadcast these games or any games during the preseason, which I’ll have a lot more to gripe about in a column coming up, don’t you worry. But just keep an eye out on the Beauts’ social media for any updates. And of course, I’ll have plenty to discuss heading into Opening Weekend!