New colors, but still true colors: Elena Orlando takes one more stab at it in Buffalo

The veteran blueliner is donning a new jersey and has an eye on the ultimate prize: the Isobel Cup.

It’s been a tale of comebacks this offseason, and for one new Beauts player, it means turning over a new leaf.

Even over the phone, there’s a liveliness to Elena Orlando’s voice as she talks about her comeback to the PHF, announced just two months after her retirement in mid-July. Yet still, though she’s quick to laugh and full of positivity, the message and the edge are still there.

“I haven’t won a Cup yet... and I want to win a Cup,” she said when asked why she took the opportunity to fill Lisa Chesson’s spot on the Beauts’ roster. “I really believe in this team and I think we can really do it.”

Back in September, when Chesson made the decision to withdraw from the 2021-22 PHF season, general manager Nate Oliver seemed to know exactly whom to call. Orlando had been trying her best to stay in shape and looking at potential ball hockey opportunities, including with Team USA, when Oliver approached her with the chance to start again. After quite a bit of deliberation, the defender decided she still had a season left in her, and even more importantly, she wanted to make the comeback.

Orlando says there were plenty of factors to consider when taking the plunge, including the work-life balance and how she would manage to make practices and games while also juggling her life as a nurse and a coach with the MidFairfield Stars, a youth hockey organization based in Shelton, Conn. Ultimately, though, the lure of another shot at Izzy was too good to resist.

“The Beauts have had a great offseason,” she said. “They’ve really put together a lot of great pieces on this roster, and I mean, the organization from top to bottom — Nate, the coaching staff, the facilities and training — it’s all you could really offer an athlete.”

Another big lure was the fact that the PHF has been, in her estimation, “taking strides in the right direction” with sponsorships, TV deals, and most recently, a landmark streaming partnership with ESPN+, all things that she believes bring the visibility that the league has deserved over the past seven years.

From there, it was figuring out the logistics of it all — “you know, when I could make practices, when I could do training, when I could travel” — and signing on the dotted line. And since then, Orlando has been juggling it all while making the most of her opportunities to mesh on and off the ice with her new teammates.

“It’s definitely different — you know, I was used to a certain system and certain players in Connecticut,” she said. “Having to learn new systems and start all over again has certainly been a process for me, but it’s been great.”

For his part, Oliver knew that Orlando would make a good fit for the club in more ways than one.

“It was a little bit of a unique situation because she had retired,” he said following the team’s training camp at the start of October. “But there’s something to be said for longevity and relevance. I think it takes a special type of person to have been in this league from the very beginning — the scene of women’s hockey has certainly changed and developed over the past [six] seasons, so the fact that she’s remained relevant in that time... and can jump right into this, is a testament to her character.”

“Character,” a word certainly overused in hockey circles, is nonetheless an effective one to use when looking at this roster, especially considering so many of these players have had leadership roles throughout their hockey career. Orlando, being a veteran and formerly an alternate captain with the Whale, only adds to that list.

“I think I bring a lot of experience,” she said. “I’ve played against the majority of these players for numerous season, and I think I bring a really strong, reliable game.”

Reliable, indeed — she’s played 96 career PHF games and built a reputation as someone with incredible shot blocking ability, tying for fifth in blocked shots during the last full season of play (2019-20). On a team poised for building from the net outward, that kind of presence can’t be overstated — a strong defensive anchor who uses every bit of her skill and body to protect the net and cut down on scoring chances? Yes, please.

Moreover, Orlando joins a roster with a lot of turnover and a lot of talent. The Beauts went 2-0 in their exhibition games against Brown University and Adrian College respectively, scoring an incredible 12 goals between the two matches. For a team that couldn’t even manage two per game last season, that is a marked improvement, and Orlando is well aware of that.

“I see us being top of the league,” she said of the team’s chances. “It’s going to be interesting to see the start of the season — you know, every team is strong this year, I don’t think there’s any team on paper that you really doubt, but I think we have a really good chance.”

That chance begins Saturday evening as the Beauts open at home against the Toronto Six. Puck drop is at 7 p.m. at Northtown Center in Amherst, and as mentioned will stream on ESPN+. International streaming is a mix of Twitch and TSN Digital.

2021-22 PHF Season Preview: Buffalo Beauts