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Hopefuls for Buffalo entry in fledgling league take to ice

Every four years, women’s hockey captures the imagination and the spotlight.

Cammi Granato, Angela Ruggiero and Hayley Wickenheiser became Olympic stars by showing the world that ponytails can mingle with slap shots and hat tricks. The gold-medal game in 2014 drew nearly 5 million viewers on NBC, with all of them riveted by an overtime thriller between the United States and Canada.

The time has come to see if the sport can entertain on a weekly basis, too.

The National Women’s Hockey League will launch in October with teams in Buffalo, Boston, New York and Connecticut. Buffalo’s franchise – the Beauts – is holding its inaugural training camp this weekend in its HarborCenter home. The first professional league for women will have an 18-game schedule and conduct the playoffs in March.

“The product has progressed so much and the women’s game has evolved so much, even in the last 10 years, that it’s the right place and the right time to have a women’s professional league,” Commissioner Dani Rylan said Saturday.

Rylan teamed with Ruggiero to found the league, which owns all four franchises. Teams will have a $270,000 salary cap, with a minimum salary of $10,000 for the 18 paid players on each roster. The league will operate on income from sponsors and the NWHL Foundation, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to promoting women’s hockey.

Dubbing a franchise in Buffalo as a “no-brainer,” Rylan said the league’s first All-Star Game will be held Jan. 24 in HarborCenter. The sellout crowds for the recent under-18 women’s world championships showed that Western New Yorkers will watch quality hockey no matter the gender.

For the women, it’s an opportunity to continuing playing – and get paid for it – after their collegiate careers end and between Olympiads.

“I would have loved to have continued to play, but there was no opportunity for me,” said Beauts General Manager Linda Mroz, who played for Niagara University’s Frozen Four team in 2002. “For them to have this, it’s fantastic.”

Buffalo’s coaches are two-time U.S. Olympian Shelley Looney and former Sabres forward Ric Seiling. The camp includes graduates of Boston University, Maine, Colgate, Vermont and Buffalo State.

The opening day of camp was for skills assessment, while Sunday’s session will include a scrimmage. It will run from 3:45 to 5:15 p.m. and is open to the public. A live stream will also be accessible through the league’s Twitter account (@NWHL).

Buffalo is the final team to conduct training camp. Some players, including Celeste Brown of the Rochester Institute of Technology, have attended all four camps.

“It’s really exciting to see girls come from all over with a whole bunch of different talents,” Brown said. “I think we’re going to catch the Northeast by surprise right from the start.”

While the formation of the NWHL is thrilling enough for Rylan, the former player at Northeastern University really gets excited about the league’s potential impact on the next generation.

“Somebody asked, ‘Where do you see the league 15 years from now?’” Rylan said. “In 15 years, a 6-year-old who may start skating because of this league will be draft eligible. I’ve told this story like 10 times, and I still get goose bumps thinking about it.

“The league started out as an idea, and before I knew it, it snowballed into this beautiful thing.”