The initial reaction was surprise leaning toward shock.
Did the Buffalo Beauts really just sign Shannon Szabados, the best goaltender in women’s hockey and one of the sport’s most recognizable names?
But soon, the shock turned to no-brainer, at least for Jacquie Greco. The 27-year-old Buffalo native who also signed on for her third season with the Beauts saw the rush of big-name signings by Buffalo as part of the natural growth of professional women’s hockey.
“I realized, no this shouldn’t be a shock. This is what Buffalo is about – getting the best players in the world to come and play in Buffalo,” Greco said. “We want these world-class players in our league.”
And the world-class players want to play in Buffalo.
Szabados was the head turner, but the Beauts have added mega-talent in goaltender Nicole Hensley and forward Dani Cameranesi, who both won gold at the 2018 Olympics with Team USA.
But why Buffalo?
In part, it’s location. That was the primary reason the Beauts were on Szabados’ radar two years ago when she started thinking about her hockey life after the 2018 Olympics. She was going to move to Ohio with her boyfriend. If she was going to keep playing, Buffalo would be the closest option.
But that’s just part of the story.
Because once the Beauts came under the Pegula Sports and Entertainment umbrella, everything changed.
“We definitely have more of an organizational structure,” Greco said. “We have a general manager, then coaches, then we have team managers that help with day-to-day activities. Before, the coaches had to plan everything and sometimes they lost sight of the game. The extra support the Pegulas have offered this team made us an all-around better team. There’s more tools and assets to help us be a world-class team, a professional team.
“We feel we’re treated like professionals now more than ever. We don’t make millions of dollars, but we’re treated as professional athletes.”
It was late December when Kim and Terry Pegula acquired the Buffalo Beauts, becoming the first private owners of a team in the National Women’s Hockey League. The other three teams – the Metropolitan Riveters, Connecticut Whale, and Boston Pride – are owned by the league, although the Riveters do have a marketing partnership with the New Jersey Devils and play at the Devils' practice rink. A fifth team was added in May when the NWHL acquired ownership of the previously independent Minnesota Whitecaps.
That private ownership didn’t appear to alter much from the outside. Same players. Same league. Same salary cap with players expected to make between $5,000 and $7,000 this season. The 16-game regular season runs from late October to mid-March.
But that feeling of being treated like a professional, that’s not a small thing.
While the NHWL gave women an opportunity to play hockey and collect a paycheck for doing so, that’s only one prong of the sports management equation. There’s more to putting together a team than just the players and coaching staff. There’s strength and conditioning work, ordering equipment, taking care of travel arrangements and securing ice time. Then there’s marketing and public relations, selling tickets and merchandise along with running game-day operations.
The NHWL was doing all of that from scratch, mostly with volunteers and shoestring budget.
When the Beauts became part of the PSE universe, they were able to plug into an already established organization that manages four professional sports teams – the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, and Amerks. Despite the ownership change coming in midseason, PSE took over all operating costs, including player salaries, immediately after the sale and began a marketing push in conjunction with the Sabres.
Suddenly, the coaching staff didn’t have to worry about booking the bus and hotel for an upcoming road trip. They could focus on coaching. Greco didn’t have to serve as the team’s ad-hoc public relations coordinator. She could focus on getting better as a player.
That in part helped them turn the season around and reel off an 11-game winning streak, advancing to their third consecutive Isobel Cup Championship, losing, 1-0, to the Riveters.
And it’s no surprise that attendance at Beauts games at HarborCenter increased as well. (At least anecdotally. The league does not include attendance on its postgame reports.)
Winning draws attention, but so, too, did the investment by ownership. Shortly after they purchased the team, the Beauts had their first billboard advertisement, which drew attention not just from fans but from players.
“I swear the number of people at our games tripled from just one billboard we had on the 190,” Greco said. “The Sabres were supporting us. We were part of their family now. It’s almost as if it legitimized the team and the league and proved to the Buffalo fan base that this is a team I should check out.”
Usually once fans did check out a game, they came to the realization of what most in the hockey world already know – it’s just darn good hockey.
“I’ve always been impressed because the game itself is awesome to watch,” said Nik Fattey, who became the Beauts GM when the team was acquired by the Pegulas, but who has been around HarborCenter and the team for the past four years and was an NHL scout for nearly a decade. “They’re skilled, they’re fast, they work hard. They bring it every game. It almost reminds me of college hockey in that with few games, you’re going all-out every night. The potential? I think the sky’s the limit. Everybody has eyes on the sport right now.”
The NWHL is entering its fourth season while the Canadian Women's Hockey League was established in 2007 by a group of players (including Jennifer Botterill, the sister of Sabres general manager Jason Botterill). The CWHL expanded to China last season and for the first time paid its players, a minimum of $2,000 and a maximum of $10,000 with a $100,000 salary cap per team.
Women’s hockey is coming off an Olympic year, when the sport always gets the benefit of the media spotlight. The U.S. winning Olympic gold for the first time since 1998 thrust them into a national media tour, which again helped to elevate the profile of the game.
And Buffalo is the perfect market to be on the forefront of women's professional hockey, not just because it's a hockey type of town but because the depth of talented players from Western New York is impressive. It includes Olympian Emily Pfalzer along with Greco, Julianna Iafallo, Hayley Scamurra, Maddie Elia, and Julia DiTondo.
"Buffalo is a unique spot," Fattey said. "We have all these great local players with amazing pedigrees and backgrounds. There is so much competition locally. Then we're able to add some world-class players to an already great mix."
Beyond Szabados, Hensley and Cameranesi, the Beauts signed two-time NWHL All-Star Kelly Babstock, who noted the enthusiasm by Beauts fans that she saw as an opposing player.
"The fan base has always been passionate," she said. "I'm excited to play in front of a great crowd."
NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan notes that investment has helped change the perception of the league in the NHL ownership circle.
The NHL has long been asked about supporting a women’s league, much like the NBA did to help the WNBA get on its feet in 1996. Women’s professional basketball in the United States certainly went through growing pains, and continues to evolve, but in those early years, teams benefited from the relationship with NBA teams and the already in-place infrastructure that builds an organization.
Potential NHL involvement with the two pro women’s hockey leagues (Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League) has always been slightly contentious among supporters of women’s hockey. And there are potential problems, particularly when it comes to releasing national team players during Olympic years.
But many see the involvement of the NHL, or at least NHL clubs and ownership, such as the Pegulas, as a way to bring women’s hockey out of the mom-and-pop startup phase and into a true professional endeavor.
That’s what PSE has begun to provide for the Beauts. And the success, and relative ease, of that template has already garnered some attention around the NHL.
Rylan declined to give specifics of potential additional investors but noted there have been talks with some NHL clubs. She has said she hoped the league would be at six teams by the 2019-20 season.
The Pegulas taking the leap helped open that door and given the league a metaphorical letter of recommendation to the rest of the men’s pro hockey world.
“What PSE had done takes some of the salesmanship off the NWHL’s plate,” Rylan said. “We’re not saying here’s the NWHL, a start-up league. We’re saying here’s how one of your peers in the National Hockey League is making it work. Here’s how easy it is and here’s the return on your investment in professional women’s hockey. I think it’s fair to say that Buffalo and PSE and One Buffalo have already started to see that return.”