By Kristina Rutherford in Buffalo, N.Y.
By Kristina Rutherford in Buffalo, N.Y.
On the ice as the National Women's Hockey League kicks off the most controversial season in its history

It’s Wednesday afternoon and Corinne Buie just finished her six-hour shift at Daily Planet Coffee Company, where the sign outside reads: “Do something nice for the planet, daily.” There are plenty of examples of that mantra inside this North Buffalo café, like uncooked fettuccini in lieu of plastic stir sticks. Buie made an espresso for her last customer of the day minutes ago. She just clocked out, poured herself a fresh coffee and took a seat on the café’s patio. “Check out my Beauts mug,” she says, grinning as she rotates her cup to display the logo — a buffalo with a crown floating over its head. “A fan actually made this for me.”

About six hours from now, Buie (“Boo-ee,” she emphasizes) will head to the Northtown Center at Amherst for her other job with the National Women’s Hockey League’s Buffalo Beauts, who practice tonight. She’s the team’s captain, and nobody has been on the roster longer than Buie’s four seasons. She’s been working just as long at Daily Planet, where you’ll find a copy of the Beauts’ schedule taped up beside the cash register. The 27-year-old Minnesotan works here in large part because she can tailor her hours to ensure hockey remains the focus. The sport is the reason Buie moved to Buffalo, after all.

On October 5, the NWHL dropped the puck on Season No. 5. Buie recorded a goal and an assist in a 3–1 Beauts win over the Connecticut Whale in the opener. And with that, the most divided season in professional women’s hockey history is officially underway.

About 140 of the best players in the world have chosen to sit out this year of pro hockey in North America — that means refusing to play in the NWHL, the only league on offer after the abrupt collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in March. Instead of playing this season, the richest and most famous women in the sport, led by stars like former Beauts goalie Shannon Szabados and fellow Olympic gold medallist and speedster Kendall Coyne Schofield, are part of a #ForTheGame movement backed by the great Billie Jean King, and they’ve come together to form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA). The women are taking a stand they hope leads to a sustainable league that would pay enough to make the sport a career, so players don’t have to also work in, say, a coffee shop to make ends meet.

“Am I crossing the picket line?”

That sounds like a dream come true to Buie. And, like a lot players, the veteran forward had to think long and hard this off-season about her decision to continue playing in the league she’s been part of since Day 1. It meant passing on the #ForTheGame movement chosen by many of her former teammates and current friends. It meant going against the popular grain and playing in the league that Coyne Schofield and Hilary Knight and other national team stars say doesn’t provide adequate salaries or have a viable business model that’ll lead to a strong future. “You think, ‘Oh, am I crossing the picket line?’” Buie says, forehead scrunched, hugging one knee on her chair. “Am I a scab?”

The goal of every elite female hockey player is the same. But there are different views on the best way to get there. And the path chosen by Buie, the Beauts and the more than 100 women who’ve chosen to play in the NWHL this season is to stick with the league that many of the world’s best have decided just isn’t good enough.

The Beauts began the 2019-20 season with a 3-1 win over the Connecticut Whale

Conflict and an uncertain future may be the big themes in women’s hockey these days, but there’s no sign of either on a Wednesday night in Buffalo as players get ready to hit the ice for practice. About 20 Beauts are waiting at the door of the Olympic-sized rink, chatting and laughing with each other as the Zamboni finishes its last laps. As soon as it’s safe¬ — the moment the big double doors close, the Zamboni now gone, the shoveling done — the Beauts explode onto the ice.

After a few warmup laps, practice begins. Forward Taylor Accursi rips around below the blue line, head up, puck on her stick. “Cursi,” as she’s known to teammates, is the owner of silky mitts and a goal celebration that features a dramatic sweep along with ice with her right glove. When a Beauts teammate scores, No. 95 says she’s often “cellying harder” than the goal-scorer herself. In 33 career regular games with Buffalo, Accursi has cellied hard for 10 goals of her own.

Accursi and the rest of the Beauts skaters are now crammed into one zone, and everybody has a puck. On the whistle, they transition from wheeling around while stickhandling to passing with a partner while staying mostly still. Buie saucers a puck over to Sara Bustad, an NWHL rookie who plays both forward and defence. Bustad recently gave up her job as the Tampa Bay Lighting’s coordinator of diversity development so she could play pro hockey, and she and another teammate just moved into an apartment in a former Buffalo firehouse, which she says is “so cool.”

On the next whistle, the drill transitions, and players battle one-on-one. Accursi wheels around while an assistant coach tries to get the puck off her to no avail. It’s 9:40 p.m. Practice is 10 minutes old.

Beauts head coach Pete Perram sounds off his whistle a third time and players begin to cycle through the three-part warmup drill again. A former head coach of the Swiss women’s national team, Perram is wearing a Beauts track suit with “PETE” spelled out on the front in bright white embroidered letters. “They’re all women playing at a high level, but they play like kids when they’re out there right now, don’t they?” he says, leaned up against the boards, revelling in his team’s love of the game. “It’s a very passionate group, and the sacrifice that they endure to be part of this team? Total respect. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Out here, you’ll find the NWHL’s first-ever Slovakian-born players, Lenka Curmova and Iveta Klimasova. Both defenders are members of their national team, and each put up more than 1,000 of their own Euros to fly from Slovakia to Buffalo for a free-agent camp in July. The women had tears in their eyes when they found out they made the Beauts.

Curmova, 22, and Klimasova, 21, also now work as nannies for a local family, taking care of four kids, including seven-year-old twins. They’ve never been nannies before, but they’re both older sisters. The family provides them with “everything,” Klimasova says, including food and housing. There’s a pool in the backyard and sometimes the two sit out there and watch deer eat grass. “It feels like home already,” Curmova says.

“I’ll go to the end of the Earth to be a part of this.”

Curmova is now passing back-and-forth with Marie-Jo Pelletier, who was captain of the University of New Hampshire Wildcats the past three seasons. Pelletier is from New Brunswick and she recently moved to a city she’d never heard of before (Thorold, Ont.) to live with a woman she’d never met before (teammate Kim Brown) so she could play for the Beauts and also work in Ontario (once she finds a job, that is). The commute to practices and games takes Pelletier and Brown 45 minutes each way, and both players are looking into getting a Nexus pass to speed up the border crossings — a tip from Accursi, who lives an hour and a half away in Ancaster, Ont.

Perram kicks an errant puck back into the zone, then blows his whistle twice and orders up a fast lap with a resounding: “Go haaaaaard ladies!”

The coach lives and works in downtown Toronto, and he makes the four-hour-and-change roundtrip about three days a week. Tonight’s practice ends at 11 p.m. “I’ll get home at 2 a.m.,” Perram says, just before he rounds up his team and explains the next drill. Ask him why he coaches so far from home and his eyebrows shoot up. It’s been a dream to coach professional women’s hockey, he says: “I’ll go to the end of the Earth to be a part of this.”

Beauts goalie Kelsey Neumann hugs a fan. The second grade teacher wasn't willing to miss an opportunity to play pro hockey.

The losses the NWHL suffered this off-season were nothing short of major. The Metropolitan Riveters said goodbye to Olympic gold medallist and three-time world champion, Amanda Kessel. The Minnesota Whitecaps lost both of their leading scorers, including Lee Stecklein, the five-time world champion who paced all NWHL defenders in points last season and scored the game-winner in the championship final. Connecticut bid adieu to Czech national team player Katerina Mrazova, who led the Whale in points as a rookie. Gigi Marvin, a three-time Olympian and veteran defender for Team USA, left the Boston Pride. And Szabados, Canada’s top goalie and the No. 1 jersey-seller in the NWHL last season, parted ways with the Beauts.

All these players — and plenty more — officially announced their departure from the NWHL on May 2, the day the #ForTheGame movement launched. But while the league’s product suffers in the absence of stars like Kessel and Coyne Schofield, the NWHL has played on without its national team members before. Not a single Team USA player participated in the 2017–18 NWHL season, because they were all centralized ahead of the 2018 Olympics.

Not all the stars fled. Of the 32 players who participated in the 2019 NWHL All-Star Game, 10 remain, including the league’s all-time leading scorer, Jillian Dempsey. She opened her season with two goals and a three-point night for Boston.

For Riveters captain and 2019 all-star Madison Packer, who trailed only Kessel among her teammates in points last season, the decision to return was made easy by improvements the league has made of late. The regular-season schedule expanded from 16 to 24 games. Twitch bought the rights to livestream every game for the next three seasons. And the NWHL now offers players a 50 per cent revenue split of league-level sponsorship and media deals. Packer made $15,000 in her rookie season in 2015–16, one year before the NWHL slashed its salaries to stay afloat. “I can say with full confidence that this year I will be making the most money I ever have playing pro hockey,” she says.

Packer, 28, signed for a base salary of $12,000 (the high-end salary in the league is around $15,000). In late September, the NWHL announced that players had each earned an additional 28 per cent of their base salaries thanks to the revenue split, bringing Packer to $15,360. Any other deals that come in will increase that number. “There’s real money in the door, there’s real money waiting to come in the door, and it’s not just sitting in a bank account for the league,” Packer says. “It’s going back to the players.”

“It’s a real incentive,” adds Pride defender, Kaleigh Fratkin, who won a 4 Nations Cup with Team Canada back in 2015, the same year she became the first Canadian to sign in the NWHL. “It really puts more responsibility on the players to say, ‘Hey, we have opportunities to really grow our sport.’ I think it’s an opportunity for us to be better brand ambassadors for our league and for our actual teams.”

“The NWHL is proven progression of what we’ve been working on for over a decade.”

Fratkin’s team in Boston has the added benefit this season of being the league’s lone privately-owned franchise, bought up by a group of investors this off-season who’ve promised to “treat us like pros,” Fratkin says. The team recently landed a new sponsor in Legal Sea Foods, and the restaurant will be giving fans free chowder samples at home games and launching foam lobsters into the crowd. Among the NWHL’s league-wide sponsors are Dunkin’ Donuts, its official ice cream sandwich is Chipwich and American Giant is outfitting all teams with track suits and leisure wear.

“Every time I go into the dressing room, they’re getting more free stuff,” says Beauts General Manager, Mandy Cronin. She played in and helped found the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and backstopped the Brampton Thunder to the league’s championship Clarkson Cup in 2008.

“I just look at what we have here,” Cronin says, midway through one of two weekly Beauts practices. “The NWHL is proven progression of what we’ve been working on for over a decade.”

Pros across North America are divided over the best way to grow the game. Buie, right, thought long and hard before returning to the NWHL.

It’s little more than four minutes into the first game of the season, and the Beauts are on the power play in a so-far-scoreless game. Pelletier makes a pass over to Curmova on the right point, and the Slovak fires a wrist shot through traffic. When Curmova sees that red lamp light, she throws up both arms while her teammates pile on with hugs.

It’s 1–0 Beauts, and the rookie Slovakian has the first goal of the 2019–20 campaign.

Curmova never thought she’d play professional hockey in North America; let alone feel like she belonged in a pro league on this continent; let alone score 4:20 into her debut. “Scoring this goal is probably the top moment of my life,” she says. But had players not sat out this year, Curmova and Klimasova, both alternate captains on the Slovakian team, never would’ve taken the chance to even try out. “We were so nervous to come here because we didn’t even dream about NWHL, it was not even our dream, because we thought that we can’t make this team, like ever — girls from Slovakia,” says Klimasova, who had an assist in her first NWHL game. “It was hard for us to think that we can be here. Skill level, and it’s far, and we are the first Slovakian girls in this league. This is why we didn’t think about this.”

Now that they’re here, the women who each broke onto their national team at age 15 are doing big things for the game at home. Klimasova and Curmova are among fewer than 600 female hockey players in the country of more than five million, according to Slovak Hockey — and they’re easily the most famous in that group at the moment. Curmova had more interview requests from back home than she could handle after scoring in the opener. “Oh, we are all in television,” Klimasova says. “Yeah, we are like superstars,” Curmova adds. “It’s really, really big for our country and for Slovak women’s hockey. Because we show them it’s possible, because nobody think that it’s possible to play professional [in the U.S.] before. We didn’t think that it’s possible even. It’s going to be huge step for the whole national team in Slovakia. We hope it pushes national team, and we are going to get better and better.”

Curmova, left, and Klimasova "want to show little girls in Slovakia that everything is possible and dreams can come true"

Opportunity has opened up for a lot of players who wouldn’t otherwise have made an NWHL team or simply didn’t take a shot before players elected to sit out. Meg Delay, the 22-year-old Beauts defender who also works as a server at Chuck’s Roadhouse back home in Fort Erie, Ont., first tried out with the Beauts a few years ago but didn’t make the team. Delay won a Clarkson Cup with Markham in 2018, though she was a healthy scratch in the final. “This boycott went on and I thought, ‘Well, I think this is my chance to slip in the door,’” she says. “Here’s my shot, so I took it.”

The same is true for Beauts goaltender, Kelsey Neumann, who has her dad’s catchphrase stenciled on her helmet: “Pull your head out of you’re a$$.” She got cut from the team last season because Buffalo had a pair of national team goalies. “For me it was like, ‘Hey, if I get a chance to play, I’m not passing that up,” Neumann says ahead of practice, shortly after finishing up a lesson plan for her Grade 2 students. “I believe this league is the starting block we need.”

For Curmova and Klimasova, the hope is the league is a starting block for better things not only for the game in North America, but back home, too. “We want to show little girls in Slovakia that everything is possible and dreams can come true,” Klimasova says. “Of course you can be a pro in the best league.”

"ARE YOU NO. 95?"
Meeting a little girl wearing her sweater at a hockey clinic in Florida convinced Accursi to return to the NWHL

Nearly a month after NWHL teams could begin re-signing players and inking draft picks, the Beauts signed their first player of the 2019–20 season. She is the only player in league history to play in every Isobel Cup Final. She is the winner of three pro hockey championships.

Buie was first despite taking her time with the decision. She didn’t want to rush signing because, as the two-time Isobel Cup champion puts it (she lost by a single goal the other two times), “I’m not the type to ruffle feathers.” She originally tweeted out the #ForTheGame message the same day all the women involved did. It seemed like everyone was heading in that direction, and: “Well, Billie Jean King, you know?” she explains. Buie was ready to join any movement supported by the former tennis star who waged and won a legendary fight for equality.

Most of the Beauts stars had already left. Gone were the league’s MVP in Maddie Elia, defender of the year in Blake Bolden, and the players’ choice for player of the year, Hayley Scamurra. The Beauts owners, the Pegula family — the Bills and Sabres owners who’d provided the Beauts with more ice and gym time and per diem than any other team and had plastered their faces on billboards around Buffalo to promote the Beauts like never before — had also cut ties with the NWHL. That meant the Beauts lost their home at the Pegula-owned Harborcenter, which hosted the league’s second-highest per-game attendance last year, an average of 1,101 fans.

“Hopefully we’re all growing the game, because we’re all in the same boat.”

The Beauts needed a new coach and new management, too. In short, the only team to advance to every NWHL final in history was decimated. But as weeks passed and some of those positions were filled and announcements were made, Buie started to second-guess her decision. And, after speaking with Cronin, newly installed as the team’s GM, she changed her mind entirely. “It just started me thinking: ‘What am I thinking?’” Buie asks. “Why would I not play hockey? I live here to play hockey and I need to play hockey. I’m not going to just sit out for a year. This league has given us a lot, and it’s the only league that pays its players. It hasn’t been perfect, but it still exists and it’s growing and it’s here for us. Hopefully what [the PWHPA] is doing grows the game, too. Hopefully we’re all growing the game, because we’re all in the same boat.”

Though this Buffalo team looks almost nothing like it did last season, having lost the bulk of its stars, this isn’t the first time the Beauts have faced long odds — they won the franchise’s lone championship in 2016–17 as a major underdog.

That win capped Buie’s first season in Buffalo. Sitting in her patio chair at the coffee shop, she stretches out her arms like she’s holding a stick and she handles an invisible puck as she replays the move she made to beat Boston goaltender Brittany Ott. Her goal stood up as the winner against a Pride team that included world and Olympic champions like Knight and Brianna Decker, a 3–2 upset. “We beat them, the stacked team,” Buie says. “For the Beauts, who nobody expected to win, for our team to come out and beat the team that was full of Olympians, it was shocking and it was thrilling to be a part of.”

Cronin is hopeful this Beauts team can come up with another shocking and thrilling and unexpected championship effort this season. It’s a driven group, with something to prove. “I think we’re all eager to show that we each belong here, and I think there’s also a little sense of, an NHL team gave us back,” the GM says. “There’s a little feeling of maybe they didn’t believe in us, and we want to prove to the community, to Buffalo, that we belong here.”

Accursi saw that point firsthand this off-season. The 24-year-old had planned not to return to the NWHL, figuring a year off could be spent focusing on her career off the ice. She recently applied to the OPP. Then, while she was working at a hockey clinic in Tampa Bay, a little girl wearing Accursi’s No. 95 skated right up to her.

“Are you No. 95 on the Beauts?” the girl asked. Accursi confirmed, yup, she was. The child’s dad explained the family were big Beauts fans.

“I’m like: No. Way!” Accursi says, slamming her hands on the table in front of her, while sitting in the top level of the Northtown Center before practice. “No way. In Tampa? Of all places?

“That was the moment for me, the defining moment of: I’m coming back. Ever since that moment — if we can have an impact on kids that are all the way in Florida? How is this not growing the game?”

Buie only wondered if she’d crossed that picket line, if she was a scab, for a moment. “You see these little girls watching our practices. People love us — they love the Beauts,” she says. “That’s helping the game.”

Curmova notched the first goal of the NWHL season, a highlight she calls "the top moment of my life"

It’s the final drill of the night and Klimasova just scored on a wristshot she wired from the point. Her Beauts teammates cheer and tap her shin pads with their sticks as she glides back into the lineup along the blue line, smiling.

When the clock hits 11 p.m., Pellam blows his whistle and gathers his players at centre ice. He talks about how excited he’s been about the team’s development over the past few weeks, and then the players and coaches all get together for a loud “Beauts!”

It’s 11:02 when Accursi beelines for the door, then runs in her skates on the rubber floor toward the dressing room. She’s hoping to be in bed by 12:30 a.m. It’s going to be competitive.

Buie, Bustad, Klimasova, Curmova and a few other locals stay on the ice after practice, skating around and firing pucks on net and chatting. It’s one of those rare nights when they don’t have to hurry off for the Zamboni. No group has the 11-12 hour booked.

Since she made the decision to play another season for the Beauts, Buie hasn’t once questioned it. She’s getting as much ice time as she can. “I want to play hockey,” the captain says. “And what’s wrong with that?”

Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Michael Hetzel/Buffalo Beauts; Bryan Johnson/NWHL; Michael Hetzel/Buffalo Beauts; Bryan Johnson/NWHL; Michael Hetzel/Buffalo Beauts; Bryan Johnson/NWHL; Bryan Johnson/NWHL.