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When the Buffalo Beauts look for players, they start close to home

Julianna Iafallo finishes her required coursework to qualify for graduate school, where she wants to study physical therapy, and coaches at the Academy of Hockey. Hayley Scamurra studies speech and language pathology as a graduate student at the University at Buffalo. Maddie Elia trains and works on the Buffalo Sabres’ game-night operations staff.

When Iafallo, Scamurra and Elia attended the Nichols School earlier this decade, they had no idea they would return to Buffalo to live, work and play professional hockey.

They’re now in a fitting situation. They are three of eight Nichols School graduates playing in the National Women’s Hockey League for the Buffalo Beauts.

Joining them on the Beauts' roster are 2014 graduate Annika Zalewski, 2012 graduates Julia DiTondo and Emily Janiga, 2011 graduate Emily Pfalzer and 2009 graduate Jacquie Greco. The Beauts also drafted Olivia Zafuto, a forward at Colgate and a 2015 Nichols graduate, in December.

The eight players helped Nichols become a regional hockey power, and they are building the foundation of the fourth-year NWHL team.

“Coming here and knowing the girls from high school, you feel a little more comfortable,” said Elia, a forward from Lewiston and a 2013 Nichols graduate. “You’re able to be a little more confident and that’s been huge, for all of us to be able to stick together and to have the other players grow off that. It’s a happy, comfortable environment.”

The Beauts (4-3) open a five-game homestand at 2 p.m. Saturday at KeyBank Center against the Minnesota Whitecaps (6-2). The Whitecaps, Scamurra surmises, may be the only team in the five-team NWHL that has players who can play hockey within driving distance of where they went to high school and where they grew up.

“Buffalo and Minnesota are the hockey towns that really produce those kinds of kids,” said Scamurra, a forward from Williamsville and a 2013 Nichols graduate. “They start playing early and they want to keep playing, because hockey is a big deal here. It’s important.”

The start of a tradition

Scamurra and her teammates knew of Nichols as the only competitive option to play high school hockey in Buffalo. Nichols began its girls varsity hockey program in 1995, a year after Meaghan Sittler graduated from the school and joined the women’s hockey team at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Sittler grew up in East Amherst, about 100 miles from Toronto and far enough from the glare of the spotlight on her father, Darryl, an NHL Hall of Famer. She skated with the boys and played for the Buffalo Bisons youth hockey program, established by 1963 Nichols graduate Warren Gelman. Many of Nichols’ female players joined the program to play youth hockey.

Sittler is thrilled by the growth of women’s hockey in the Buffalo area at the youth, high school and professional levels.

“To be able to have a team and an outlet to play sports, you have this schedule of events that’s positive and healthy and good for you, that’s so important,” said Sittler, who now is a life coach in Burlington, Ontario. “It’s great they can do this in high school and at Nichols, and to know that this can take you to a good education and to so many good opportunities.”

Nichols created a competitive and educational arena for aspiring female hockey players.

“There really wasn’t any other powerful girls leagues around,” said Iafallo, a forward and a 2014 graduate from Eden.

“Nichols was a place where you could get a very good education, and it could set you up for college. You played in two leagues – an American league and a Canadian league, and that helped us because it was a tougher competition.”

Another door opened in 2015 when the Beauts were born as part of the NWHL. Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the team a year ago.

It gave female hockey players in Western New York the opportunity to play professional hockey a short drive from where they grew up or where they went to high school.

Having the Beauts and Nichols as avenues for girls to play hockey, Sittler said, is valuable for girls and young women in the Buffalo area, not just on an athletic level but on a holistic level.

“It builds and shows proof of what you can strive for, which is always a nice thing to have, as an athlete,” Sittler said. “To have goals and to see someone else living your dream, too. I grew up wanting to play in the NHL. That was an impossible dream. It makes it real. Now, that there’s opportunities to get paid to play, I feel that women and girls deserve that, too.

"It’s really great they can look up to that and see someone who can achieve that. They can learn from them and learn about their character and what it takes to get there.”

From pipe dream to pipeline

The Beauts’ Nichols graduates are part of the women’s hockey boom in the last 20 years. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations. 3,016 girls played hockey at 271 high schools nationwide during the 1997-98 school year, including girls playing on boys teams. Nearly 10,000 girls played hockey at 631 schools in 2017-18.

The success of the United States women’s hockey team at the Olympic and international levels cultivated that growth.

Third-year Nichols coach Shelley Looney helped the 1998 U.S. women’s hockey team win the gold medal in Nagano, Japan. Yet, she said, “My players weren’t even born when that happened.”

She turns to an assistant – Zalewski, a forward for the Beauts – to communicate the experience of being an elite hockey player on a level to which high school students can relate.

“Because of the ties of some of those players at Nichols like Annika, they get a great connection, because they don’t just talk about hockey,” said Looney, a former Beauts co-coach and a hockey director and coach with the Bisons. “They talk about school. They talk about other sports. And it’s an ultimate testimony, that girls get to look at other female athletes as role models in their sport.”

Annmarie Cellino is an attorney in Buffalo and an original Beauts player. The 2005 Nichols graduate grew up watching the Niagara University women’s hockey team, but never thought she’d play professionally or see a professional women’s franchise in Buffalo.

“Now, the players at Nichols can watch the Beauts play, and say, ‘That’s going to be me one day!’ ” said Cellino, who is a Beauts season-ticket holder. “I really enjoyed it, and I really enjoyed playing.”

Marykate Oakley graduated from Nichols in 2004 and played hockey at Princeton. Like Cellino, the idea of living, working and playing hockey in Buffalo seemed like a pipe dream.

“It’s an awesome thing to see the fruits of so much labor and all of the work that went on in the early years, to see it come full circle,” said Oakley, who lives in Northampton, Mass., and is working on her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts. “The representation at the pro level from the Nichols community, that speaks volumes to the strength of Nichols, and the sense of belonging in the community.

"It speaks to the way that hockey has been such a formidable part of these girls’ development. And it shows that the development doesn’t have to stop when college is over.

“Every time another Nichols player appears on the Beauts' roster, I’m excited. I feel a sense of pride for a school that has provided girls with so many opportunities.”

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