A (brief) history of the Buffalo Believes Classic

The Beauts enter their third year of celebrating the great outdoors with a big tilt downtown.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year... and no, I don’t mean Christmastime.

It’s the time of year when the chill in the air matches the chill of the rink, and the Buffalo Beauts play once again under the city skyline. It’s the Buffalo Believes Classic, the outdoor game made popular back in 2019 and resurrected in the 2021-22 season — and one circled on everyone’s calendar.

As a reporter, I love the stories that come out of a game like this, which so many players view as a treat in the middle of what can be a long season. As a hockey fan, I love the idea of a game under the lights and (somewhat) in the elements. As someone who lives close to downtown Buffalo, I love the idea of bringing the Beauts back to their roots in the city, even if not under the same roof.

I’m also just excited for some outdoor hockey, of course.

The history

It actually all started with a team-building activity. General manager Nate Oliver described an exercise the Beauts embarked on at RiverWorks back at the start of the 2019-20 season, where players did a ropes course. RiverWorks general manager Sean Green, now the Director of Athletics, broached the topic of creating something bigger with the Beauts organization, himself a hockey lover (and head coach of Williamsville South High School’s boys’ hockey team). At that point, the team was still headed by Mandy Cronin, whom Oliver credits with spearheading the process to bring outdoor hockey to the then-NWHL.

From there, obviously, we all know what happened next.

“The ironic thing is that we used that partially as a recruiting tool when we were talking to players [during the 2020 offseason],” Oliver said. “It was like, ‘You know, if all goes according to plan, we’ll be able to do an outdoor game, that’s pretty unique to the Beauts... and lo and behold, we hit full-blown pandemic and that ends up not happening.”

Still, neither the team nor its fans were willing just yet to leave the Classic in the past, and as soon as COVID restrictions in the state relaxed, Oliver said he felt “almost a sense of obligation” to bring back what has now become an annual tradition.

The venue

RiverWorks is at the edge of downtown Buffalo, in an area many locals call Silo City. Here, the ghosts of the historic grain silos loom over the waterfront and have contributed to the city’s trend toward “adaptive reuse,” or reworking some of the industrial and historical skeletons of Buffalo’s history to fit the modern day. This has led to some preservation, a little more gentrification (but that’s a topic for another kind of story), and lots of recreation for Buffalonians.

The owners of multiple brewing and dining facilities, including Pearl Street Grill & Brewery and the Hotel at the Lafayette, opened RiverWorks as a large-scale entertainment and sports venue in the mid-to-late 2010s, but it’s expanded to include a brewery, restaurant, ziplining, a ropes course, and it hosts the Queen City Roller Girls roller derby league. Nestled within its 60,000-square foot frame are two NHL regulation-sized rinks, used not just for the Classic, but for figure skating, rec leagues, curling, and more. These rinks give fans a gorgeous view of the Buffalo waterfront, but are also sheltered enough to keep the majority of snow and ice out (if it comes to that).

2019: The opening chapter

Notables: Taylor Accursi (BUF), 4 goals; Madison Packer (MET), 2 goals, 1 assist

Back in the 2019-20 season, the Beauts dropped the puck for the first time at RiverWorks against their storied rivals, the Metropolitan Riveters. The tilt started with all of the expected drama and then some — veteran blueliner Ashley Johnston made her season debut back in Riveters red, white, and blue in a surprise performance, and the Beauts and Rivs both had to acclimate to a new arena with its own little quirks.

The Riveters ended up with a win in the end, 7-4, but first they had to face an avalanche by the name of Taylor Accursi. The top-line winger and her linemates Iveta Klimasova and Corinne Buie combined for eleven points and all four goals, all of them scored by the legendary #95 herself in a feat now known by many who watch women’s hockey as the “Accursi trick” (though it has some other, less savory nicknames depending on whom you ask).

That offensive flurry pulled the two foes into a 4-4 deadlock until the Riveters finally pulled away with the game-winner off the stick of Tatiana Shatalova. Madison Packer and Cailey Hutchison (ENG) put a cap on the night, but it was still a magical start to a tradition everyone started looking forward to.

Cassidy MacPherson, now the longest-tenured Beaut and the only one who will have played in all three outdoor games, looks back on each of them fondly.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s the best game of the year, everyone gets so pumped up for it, so we just have to make sure everyone’s focused and sticking to what we usually do for games.”

February 2022: Stunning the Six

Notables: Claudia Kepler (BUF), GWG; Carly Jackson (BUF), 36 saves and first career shutout

The second Classic came after two years off the grid, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the opportunity to make it an annual event until this point. It also helped solidify the emergence of a young star netminder, already a fan favorite but who at this point solidified herself as someone to watch.

The Six had been at the top of the Fed at this point, having not lost a single game on home ice and very few on the road as well. They’d already stunned Buffalo a couple of times at this point, so the Beauts had their work cut out for them... but they were more than equal to the task.

In the end, it only took Claudia Kepler (then a brand-new addition to the team) to put one past Tera Hofmann, as Carly Jackson stopped all 36 shots faced to preserve their first-ever shutout as a PHF goalie and earn herself the first star of the game.

“Oh, that was fun,” Kepler said of the experience with a smile. “I didn’t really know what to expect. It was actually my first outdoor game, and my parents ended up surprising me that weekend, so it was cool to see them there.”

Dominique Kremer and Autumn MacDougall added two empty-netters to make it a 3-0 win for the home team and a rare bright spot for a squad that struggled all year.

Kepler made it clear that as much fun as a game like this can be, it’s important for her and her team to stay focused, especially this time around with a much longer road between this game and the post-season.

“We want to take it in and have fun, but part of the experience is playing hard. Points are on the line, you know? So with all that in mind, like, take it in, but also [focus on] showing up and working hard, and doing our jobs,” she said.

December 2022: ...Who knows?

Chapter Three could honestly go either way for Buffalo. Carly Jackson may get the start again, but this time they’re in Six red and undoubtedly hoping to commence a revenge tour of sorts against their old team after the Beauts let her walk to Toronto. She’s had success at Riverworks for sure, but it remains to be seen if head coach Geraldine Heaney believes in poetic justice enough to pull the reins from Elaine Chuli and let CJ have their moment.

Either way, Jackson says, she’s excited for what’s gearing up to be a homecoming of sorts for her.

“Returning to Buffalo brings up a lot of emotions for me,” she said via Instagram. “I’m most excited for the game, to see some friendly faces and some old friends. I had an amazing experience playing in the outdoor classic last year, and I’m sure this year will bring the same energy... It’s all business on the ice, but I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends, fans, and teammates.”

Mikyla Grant-Mentis, meanwhile, made the switch from Toronto to Buffalo over the offseason as well in a funny kind of All-Star swap, and over the last couple of games she has been looking to break through and become the dominant player we all expect her to be. With Hofmann alongside her (having joined the Beauts as a practice player), the pair hope to be able to revel in some of the joy their then-crosstown rivals experienced last season.

“No chirps yet, but as soon as we get on that ice I’m sure there’ll be chirps flying,” Grant-Mentis quipped when asked if she’s gotten to trash talk any of her former teammates. “You’ll definitely see me laughing the entire time.”

In addition, the Beauts boast a boosted blueline featuring Dominique Kremer, Whitney Dove, and Toni Matzka amongst others (more on Buffalo’s defense in a future post). Defense didn’t seem to be much of a problem for them last time against the Six either, but last time the Six didn’t have Brittany Howard, who seems near-unstoppable in her PHF debut season. She leads the league in goals (11) and overall points (13), and already has some highlight-worthy moments in only eight games played so far. With this being the first time these teams face each other in 2022-23, we could be in for a treat on either end of the ice if both she and Buckey can turn it on.

One thing is for sure: this game will be a lovely early Christmas gift for all involved, but it’s nowhere near the end of the road yet for a team still finding itself.

“You know, [last season’s Classic] was a big morale win for us,” Oliver said. “It was kind of the climax of our season, and we don’t want that to be the case. I think when you look at it from that perspective, you want to make sure that you’re not losing sight of where it is in the overall realm of the standings. This is just the fifth regular season game. We’ve got 19 more to go. So we don’t want to overlook that either.”