By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The feature rink of Northtown Center looked about half full on Saturday morning. No doubt some of those several hundred fans had the same question in mind when they came through the door.
What was this incarnation of the Buffalo Beauts going to look like?
This was supposed to be the season when women’s professional hockey took a big step forward. After all, a rival pro league in Canada had gone under during the offseason. Therefore the path to better days for the sport seemed rather clear. Figure out a way to get a bunch of teams in North America under one umbrella, and build a unified league from there.
But there are always such growing pains in such financial exercises. That’s particularly true in women’s team sports, which had trouble finding a paying constituency over the years. Think of soccer, where the pro leagues have had problems cashing in on the interest created by the play of the United States team in international competition.
Any thoughts of a league that would be super-strong and super-sized by the flood of new players entering the National Women’s Hockey League from Canada were dashed over the summer. Many of the top players banded together to form a Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, and they couldn’t reach an agreement with the NWHL. That’s surprising, since we’re not talking about a large pie that needs to be divided.
Then came the news that the Pegulas, the owners of the Beauts last season, had returned the franchise to the league. The Beauts gained a little credibility when the Buffalo team was associated with cousins like the Bills and Sabres – becoming part of One Buffalo, if you will. We’re all still waiting for an explanation of what happened there.
The Beauts left their former home of the HarborCenter downtown, and packed up for the Northtown Center in Amherst. You probably could argue that the new home was a bit closer to the team’s natural base of fans, since girls’ hockey on the scholastic level is generally played in Buffalo’s suburbs. You also could argue that the new home provides something of a step back in atmosphere, since it’s a facility that is more associated with high school games than something for the pro ranks.
The fans at the Northtown Center (which supposedly included a few of last season’s Beauts) could have used some roster sheets for the game on Saturday morning – although they weren’t forthcoming. Almost 150 players are on the sidelines because of the labor dispute. You can do the math of what that does to a league with five teams consisting of a roster with about 20-odd players per team. The union members certainly deserve a decent living wage, but they aren’t exactly bargaining from a position of strength. The NWHL doesn’t have many revenue streams, and the players aren’t household names in very many households. Maybe it would have been better to negotiate from the inside instead of the outside.
In addition, the five teams that made up the league this season are back with no additions. In other words, expansion to Canada, which seems like a natural fit, hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps there are lawyers somewhere accumulating many billable hours working on that.
Add this up, and we didn’t know what we might see on Saturday. We only knew that the Beauts were 0-2 and the Connecticut Whale was 0-1, and someone had to get win No. 1.
That game is now in the books, and the game – first things first – was competitive … if early. Not many sporting events begin at 11:30 in the morning.
“That was different,” Buffalo’s Brooke Stacey said. “I had to eat at 8:30, leave the house at 9, and get here at 9:30.”
The Beauts overcame the Whale’s leads of 3-0 and 4-2 to come back and win, 5-4 in overtime. The outcome was quite welcome after Buffalo had lost its first two games of the season, including an 8-2 thumping at the hands of Boston in its last start.
“I thought ironically we played better in our second game in Boston,” Beauts coach Pete Perram said. “We didn’t get the bounces, but we played OK. We were trying to execute a strategic play that is taking some time to develop. We wanted to maintain that. But going into this game, we weren’t getting the bounces on our side. Ultimately, we changed that.”
The Beauts crawled back from those deficits, slightly hampered by the fact that the team picked up 14 minor penalties along the way. Perram said he won’t have to practice penalty-killing for quite a while.
“They did an amazing job today,” Stacey said. “I think we were on the PK for most of the second period, which is pretty crazy. I need to go on the website to see how many penalties we had. Good job – PKs!”
Slight step down?
As for the quality of play, that’s tough to judge. I’m no hockey scout, but the teams looked to be a little bit slower and a little bit less skilled than the ones we saw at previous Beauts games. Would it be at the level of a very good college hockey game? That’s not a bad guess when looking over the roster. And it’s early in the schedule, so the guess is that more players may be arriving on the roster in the weeks to come. Getting everyone on the same page always takes time.
“You look at the other teams around the league, and some have more (returning players) than others,” Perram said. “We knew we were behind the eight-ball a little bit. But we took it seriously off the bat. We’ve been together long enough so that there are no excuses in that regard.”
Kim Brown of Buffalo scored the game-tying goal with about 12 minutes left, building on the offensive contributions of Taylor Accursi, Lenka Curmova and Stacey.
The Beauts started overtime two players down due to penalties, and it seemed as if the officials were among those a little stumped about how many players each team should use in that circumstance. (It’s usually four-on-four.)
“We were all confused on how it was going to go,” Stacey said. “And I’ve played in so many games.”
The all-female crew eventually came up with five skaters vs. three, and the Beauts killed off that major power play. Then Marie-Jo Pelletier scored the game-winner for Buffalo with 25 seconds left in overtime. You could almost hear Perram exhale from the bench.
“We wanted to make this the hardest possible way to win a hockey game, and this was how we did it,” said the happy Beauts’ coach, who looked sharp behind the bench by wearing a hat that channeled legendary Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake. “We had to make it entertaining.”
That they did. In the end, the home team won in overtime, and the fans were happy. That’s plenty of good news in the short term. We’ll have to wait for the long term before we see how Beauts 2.0 plays out.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)