It’s a slightly uncomfortable thought for Emily Pfalzer. She’s just a humble hockey player who loves to play. She’ll do what it takes to grow the women’s game, especially in her hometown. Her willingness to talk about women’s hockey and the emergence of the professional league puts her in front of the public and the media on a regular basis.
So comfortable or not, Pfalzer is the face of women’s hockey in Western New York and an emerging personality for the sport on the national level.
“It’s amazing but I don’t feel like that at all,” Pfalzer said. “I just play hockey because I love it. It’s very humbling if someone thinks of me that way, but I just love playing hockey and I’m happy to be able to do it in my hometown.”
But Pfalzer doesn’t just play hockey. She’s one of the best defensemen in the game. The captain of the Buffalo Beauts, she also is the captain of one of the teams for Sunday’s inaugural National Women’s Hockey League All-Star game in HarborCenter. Those honors come with responsibility, and Pfalzer has impressed her teammates with her ability to balance commitment to hockey and commitment to cultivating a public persona for the team.
“I don’t think she’s changed at all, which is good,” said Beauts teammate Megan Bozek. “There’s a lot of pressure put on her to be the first captain in Beauts history and be the hometown girl and the hometown hero so to speak, but I think she’s done a great job balancing all that with hockey. She’s so level-headed and such a competitor that she does the best for our team and the best for our league and I think she’s done a great job with that.”
“I’m just Emily,” Pfalzer said “but it does make you realize that little girls look up to you. When you’re around the rink, people are watching, and I think you should always be who you are. I like to say that I’m a hardworking person, so if I’m in the gym and someone sees me, I hope they see me working hard. Whatever I’m doing, I want them to see I’m giving 100 percent. It’s a little different. It’s something I’m still getting used to.”
To be clear, Pfalzer is used to giving 100 percent. It’s that effort combined with skill that took her from Nichols to Boston College and to a spot on the U.S. National Team.
What’s different is that after graduating from college, she became a professional hockey player and had to adjust to a different set of demands on her time and an increased level of publicity.
“It’s everyone’s first time being a professional hockey player so I think everyone’s learning what that means and what that feels like,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said. “Emily has done a great job of getting out in the community, taking the interviews and really becoming the face of the Buffalo Beauts. And I think that’s going to translate to her growing and maybe becoming a face of the U.S. National Team or the NWHL.”
The first season of the NHWL meant the first season of regular paychecks for women’s hockey players. So while Pfalzer is like many elite athletes who make the transition from college to the pros, she lacked an established base of veterans and alumni to help her feel her way through what it means to be a professional women’s hockey player.
“You have to feel your way around things and what works and what doesn’t work and what responsibilities you want to take on and which ones you don’t,” said Hilary Knight, the other all-star captain and forward for the Boston Pride. “I think that’s extremely hard to do right out of college and be a professional athlete. The great thing about Emily is she was really thrown straight into the fire right out of college. She’s captaining a team up here, she’s an all-star captain, she speaks very eloquently and she’s also really interactive on a community level here. She’s got everything it takes – and the on-ice skill obviously. The full package. It’s nice to see that.”
As for Knight, currently the face of the U.S. Women’s National Team, getting her first paycheck was a bit surreal.
“When I opened the envelope I thought, ‘I just got paid to practice,’ ” Knight said. She then took herself out, alone, for a steak dinner.
While Knight has always taken hockey seriously and approached the game with a combination of love, respect and professionalism, getting a paycheck does create some changes.
“I feel more responsible for the sport in general and making sure this league will be around for a long time,” Knight said.
“On a personal level, I started my first savings account as a 26-year-old. I’m little behind there, but it’s taking a tremendous amount of weight off our shoulders financially. We’d like to see the salaries increase when the league can afford that, but even a little here and there makes a huge difference.”