A new chapter: Buffalo Beauts’ Claudia Kepler ready to work and play hard in bigger role

I’m sure most of us whose twenties are quickly becoming a distant memory can’t look back and say they’ve been able to travel the world, win a professional championship, start their coaching career, survive a pandemic, and start a new life in a new state — all during that precious 10 years where you think you know everything and can't even begin to decipher any of it.

But Beauts winger Claudia Kepler has done all of that — and she’s just 27. It’s safe to say she’s more than a little bit ahead of the game.

With a two-year deal, a new home in Buffalo, and a newly-stitched A on her sweater, Kepler has had enough of the nomadic lifestyle that seems to have been a staple of the better part of her last decade.

“I think every year since college, I’ve moved, whether it was switching houses or transferring schools, going overseas, and then making ends meet during COVID,” she laughed, leaning against the wall outside of the Beauts’ locker room on the tail end of a late night practice. “I’ve lived a very fun young 20s and now I’m ready to just settle down. If I can do this for two years, then that’s great.”

Settling down definitely was not her thing a few years back — from three seasons at Ohio State, to a final year in Wisconsin, then overseas to Sweden and China before the COVID-19 pandemic forced her and her then-team, KRS Vanke Rays Shenzhen, to relocate to St. Petersburg. There, the Rays won the Russian women’s championship and barely had time to celebrate before lockdowns started happening, pushing her stateside once more.

From there, it was a year and a half of uncertainty, where she spent time learning how to drive the Zamboni at her hometown rink in Middleton, Wisconsin, and trying to figure out her next move, both in hockey and in life.

“It was so hard on me and a lot of other women’s hockey players too, because I was in like that weird age group where you just came out of college, you’re just getting a taste of what pro hockey is like, and — we were just gaining momentum, going overseas, and then COVID came,” she said of the experience. “It really slowed down the growth of our sport, and I was in that weird phase where I’m like, ‘Well, I’m in my prime as an athlete, but I gotta get a job. I gotta make money. But how do I stay in shape?’ And like — you gotta do what you can to stay in the game, but you gotta get work experience, you gotta find yourself because you don’t know when that next contract is gonna come.”

Then a spot assistant coaching at Syracuse opened up — and with it, so did the opportunity to continue her professional career in North America and the PHF. It was a chance Kepler said was always on the back burner, but everything has a funny way of timing itself perfectly.

“Well, I had always stayed connected with Nate [Oliver, the Beauts’ GM], like we connected right off the bat when I got out of college,” she said. “He kind of just planted the seed of like, ‘Hey, we would love to have you as a Buffalo Beaut,’ [but] I was exploring options overseas at the time, because I knew I wanted to explore the world.”

The door remained open, though, and once she was back in the States, midway through 2021-22 Oliver gave her a ring and asked if she’d like to join as an extra forward. She jumped at the shot, and went on to score three goals off of just 13 shots for the Beauts, tying for third-best in shot percentage (.214) during a season where Buffalo was starved for offense.

It was a time she said was incredibly challenging for her, as it was the first time she’d ever jumped into a season that was already underway — “I like to be prepared” — but was also what she describes as one of the best decisions she’s ever made.

“I really did miss playing, and I kind of felt in my heart that I wasn’t done, so getting a chance to get the gear back on was really special. I think that’s a major reason why I’m here this year.”

If you didn’t know Kepler’s name before, her immediate impact last season and her renewed energy this season certainly should make you sit up and take notice. A self-described power forward, Kepler is a bit smaller than some of the players that typically pop up in your brain at that phrase (think your Emily Janigas or your Kelley Steadmans). But don’t be fooled — she is just as apt to go through you as she is to stick handle around you, and it’s that edge that makes her a force to be reckoned with along the boards and around the net.

Her goal against La Force on Nov. 5 was one such goal; after Tricia Deguire made the first stop, Kepler kept working at the loose puck until she finally got it through Deguire’s pads and to the back of the net, tying the game at 4 with just over a minute to go in regulation. That kind of hard work paired with a deceptive shot and great playmaking ability means she’s versatile enough to be unpredictable to her opponents.

After a productive opening weekend (1 G, 2 A), EliteProspects has her projected for an incredible 36-point season, which if achieved would be a career-best for Kepler. In addition, she brings a coach’s eye to the game, which is something she has been passionate about having played both in different systems and under some of the best coaches the sport has to offer.

“I was surrounded by Mark Johnson, I was surrounded by Bob Suter, I was surrounded by all these ex-Badgers that still live in Madison today,” she said. “You go outside of Wisconsin and the style of hockey is so different. Once [I left] home, I realized, ‘Wow, I had some really great coaches growing up, and there needs to be more of them.’... you get that feeling where it feels better to help someone else learn how to shoot the puck, like I’d rather do that than score a goal.”

Luckily, at this point in her life she can do both, not just off the ice (something she wants to keep doing once her playing career is over) but on it as one of the leaders of a young Beauts team with a lot of promise. Whether that’s by working her tail off in practice or bringing her chocolate lab puppy, Harrison, around to brighten everyone’s day, she’s focused on making it a positive atmosphere.

“I’m just excited to see how much we grow as a team,” Kepler said. “With this squad, it’s never a question of effort, everyone’s always working their tail off out there. It’s just putting the pieces together and seeing how far we can go. They’re a great bunch, and that’s what I’m most excited about. We’re ready to have fun.”