By Budd Bailey
Western New York has rivaled Disney World for the title as “the happiest place on earth” this week. The Buffalo Bills were only two wins from reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in a generation entering Sunday’s game, and hopes were high entering the Kansas City game on Sunday night that this could be the year that the team continues to climb up the ladder.
Bills-mania certainly has swallowed up the community ,,, and the hype reached the usual insufferable heights. What was clearly needed was a brief antidote to it all – a look at a local pro team that can only gaze up with admiration at the Bills and their many boosters at this time of year.
That brings us to the Buffalo Beauts, who hosted the Minnesota Whitecaps for the second time in 21 hours Sunday afternoon at the Northtown Center in Amherst.
The women’s pro hockey team doesn’t have a lot in common with the Bills right now. The first problem is the record. Buffalo fell to the Whitecaps, 6-1, a step down from a 3-1 loss to the same team on Saturday night. That made it seven losses in a row after a win over the Metropolitan Riveters back on November 20 – with four other games postponed along the way. Since Minnesota had a five-game losing streak coming into the weekend as well, this should have been a chance to the Beauts to get a win – but Buffalo couldn’t get there.
The Beauts had a respectable first period. They outshot the Whitecaps, 10-7, and had the edge in play despite falling behind by 1-0.
“I thought we came out flying,” defender Emma Keenan said. “I don’t think we felt the effects (of playing two games in less than 24 hours) at all.”
But then the second period started, and everything changed. Vancouver’s Haley Mack had a power-play goal at 44 seconds, and Jonna Curtis added a shorthanded score at 1:37. Buffalo came into the weekend averaging 2.28 goals per game, so a three-goal lead figured to be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
When asked if the early goals deflated her team, head coach Rhea Coad answered, “I’ll actually blame that on the refs. The biggest thing is that they need to be on the same page – blowing whistles, allowing other teams to take 10 minutes to change. I just think that in the end, they need to be held accountable, just like our players are.”
The margin grew to five by the end of the second period, and then to six in the first minute of the third. At that point, the Beauts were left hoping for a solitary goal for the best of reasons. It was “Teddy Bear Toss” Day, as fans were slated to throw bears to give to children through a local charity when they scored the first goal. Happily, Autumn MacDougall found the net with 9:15 left, so some area kids will have a new pal arriving in the near future.
It’s a tough spot for the Beauts, even if they know all of the teams qualify for postseason play so the possibility for redemption exists down the road. Coad saw plenty of reasons for optimism after Sunday’s game.
“If you look at our games this weekend as compared to last weekend, they aren’t W’s but there’s a huge jump,” she said. “In the end, we’re starting to get rolling with games. We’re hoping to peak at the right time.”
“This weekend was pretty exciting – the Pride Game being last night and the Teddy Bear Toss today,” Keenan added. “Just playing home games – we had a lot of energy coming into a barn with fans. It’s not hard to get excited. Everyone is excited to play again.”
The Beauts and the rest of their league have been fighting for attention in the local sports world since birth. The six-team circuit received a new name for this season, the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF). The old name was National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), and the league apparently wanted a name that would stand on its own merits and reflect gender equality. That’s a worthwhile goal, although it’s easy to wonder if starting over in terms of brand identification is the best strategy under the circumstances. Whatever it’s called, the league could use some balance. There are three teams that are well above .500, and three teams well below it. That makes the outcome of a good amount of contests almost seem predetermined.
The league is still suffering from a particularly ugly labor dispute, which sent several players into independent status in 2019. They’ve been playing some one-off games around the country, and some of the skaters and goalies will be on Olympic teams next month in China. While the PHF won’t be represented there, you can bet players and coaches from the league will be paying attention.
“We’ll be watching it,” Keenan said.
After the Games, let’s hope the two sides can settle their differences before next season, when the PHF is poised to expand by a couple of teams and try to capitalize on any interest created by the games in Beijing. It only makes sense to have all of the best players taking part in a pro league here.
In the meantime, the Beauts have a bit of a break to work on elements of their game. The All-Star Game was moved from Toronto to Buffalo earlier this month, thanks to Covid-19 regulations. The contest will be held on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at the Northtown Center.
Until then, there was still time to think about football. Many of the Beauts bought into Bills Fever. Team general manager Nate Oliver was even wearing his lucky Bills socks on Sunday afternoon; they were left over from the Super Bowl days of 30 years ago. The football team’s playoff run prompted a little friendly trash talk among the players.
“There were a couple of digs in the locker room,” Keenan said.
“If you weren’t Bills fans, we’ve made you into Bills fans,” Coad said with a chuckle. “A couple of them have been to games – with layers of blankets.”
Sunday night’s football game was on the mind of most people in the building on Sunday afternoon. While some of the fans had clothing on that was associated with the Bills, one brave youngster dissented. He kept running around the Northtown Center in a Chiefs’ shirt with “Mahomes” on it. It’s almost as if his parents put him in clothing with a “kick me” sign on it.
Much has happened in the six hours since the end of that hockey game, as the Bills and Chiefs played one of the most two-sided games in NFL history that ended in a heart-breaking defeat for the local team. Somewhere, there’s a kid in a Chiefs’ jersey who is celebrating … just before he enters the Witness Protection Program.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)