By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Beauts had been struggling during the course of the women’s hockey season. They came into Monday afternoon’s game with the Toronto Six with a 3-10-1 record, which put them in sixth and last place in the Premier Hockey Federation.
It was time, as the lawyers might say, for a change in venue.
The Beauts had a special Presidents’ Day matinee in downtown Buffalo, and the setting was rather spectacular. The game against the Toronto Six was played at Riverworks, which offered an outdoor setting with the protection of a roof. Since the complex is right next to the Buffalo River, the few hundred fans in attendance could look out and see the waterway filled with ice boulders and debris. Since it was set next to Riverworks’ “unique” architectural style of “Aging Industrial,” the scene had a look from a science fiction movie.
The location couldn’t have worked out any better, at least for the home team. The Beauts knocked off the league-leading Toronto Six (now 11-2-1) by a 3-0 score.
“You certainly try to enjoy the moment, but it’s still business,” goalie Carly Jackson said after her first shutout with the team. “Coming out with a win, especially against the No. 1 team, was huge for us.”
“It was pretty exciting to go out there and do that today,” forward Claudia Kepler added.
All that was true, of course. The win was much-needed under the circumstances. Still, playing in the outdoors tends to bring out the little kid in the participants, since such games remind them of when they played in rinks and ponds that are exposed to the elements.
“It was so much fun – so much,” Jackson said. “You couldn’t have asked for a better day. It was really cool. I’d do it again and again and again. I wish we could play every game like that.”
Right from the start, it was obvious that this was going to be a different sort of pro hockey game. For starters, an adjacent rink was hosting a recreational league game at the same time. When a whistle blew in the other game, fans sometimes couldn’t tell which game had the violation.
Then there was the ice surface, which seemed to change the way the game was going to be played. Conditions deteriorated during the course of each period. That meant there weren’t going to be many fancy offensive plays, something which seemed to work to the Beauts’ advantage.
“I spent a lot of time on backyard rinks and ponds, and we’d go out every day after school,” Jackson said. “I was expecting to see a lot of shots because the puck would be bouncing and it would be a little heavier. But honestly, I loved that for our team. We were blocking shots and getting in the lanes. When the puck did get through, I was able to see it the whole way. It was huge. I thought conditions didn’t hinder us at all, and we are able to adjust and play our game.”
Meanwhile, the time to attack was early in each period. After a scoreless opening 20 minutes, Buffalo wasted no time in getting on the scoreboard. It came on a picture-perfect break in which Kepler got the puck past Toronto goalie Tera Hoffman at 1:14.
“I think it was right off a faceoff, and they won a battle along the wall,” Kepler said. “It was a two-on-one. I got a great backhand sauce pass from Cassidy (Vinkle) and I went right in on net. … I was aiming low, and it kind of went a little bit above her pad, and then off the post and in. I’m glad I decided to shoot low.
“The hockey gods must have given it to me.”
While both teams had some chances throughout the contest, after a while it seemed more and more likely that that one goal might hold up. Toronto came close a few times – particularly some power plays – but frequently the Beauts hustled back into position to prevent second chances on plays and get the puck out of trouble.
“We both knew we were playing in the same elements,” coach Rhea Coad said. “You can’t go down the rabbit hole with negative thoughts. We didn’t get away from what we wanted to be.”
As the minutes zipped by in the third period, it looked more and more likely like Kepler’s goal might hold up. Then in the final minutes, Dominique Kremer and Autumn MacDougall added empty-net goals – no sure things from long range on the ice surface at that point.
Sure, the win is nice for a team trying to create a little momentum as it gets ready for the playoffs late next month (all teams qualify for the postseason). But the setting might be the part that stays with the members of the team for quite a while.
“It’s a chance to interact with the community,” said Jackson, who had 36 saves. “People get to see us in a different place. We usually play in the north (Amherst). This is a place where people might walk in the building and say, ‘What’s going on?’ I hope we were able to make an impact in the city, and bring more people into our culture.”
So … anyone want to play an outdoor game again later in the season?
“I’m in for it,” Jackson said with genuine enthusiasm.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)