Buffalo Beauts goalie Shannon Szabados stopped near center ice for a quick pre-practice stretch Friday in HarborCenter when she noticed several young fans gathered in the penalty box.
Szabados, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, opened the penalty box door and took a picture with the girls before the Beauts gathered around coach Cody McCormick to begin a typical practice ahead of a game.
The mood was light during the high-tempo, hour-long session that followed, despite a tumultuous five weeks in which the team lost its coach, assistant coach and general manager. McCormick was hired as interim coach Dec. 7 when Ric Seiling and Craig Muni were fired, and added interim general manager to his duties Friday after Nik Fattey's resignation this week.
Suddenly, the Beauts’ hockey operations – including a roster dotted with Olympians – are in McCormick's hands.
“It adds some more structure,” McCormick said of being named Fattey’s replacement. “I welcome the challenge. I want to mold this team into something I’ve seen previously with my experience. Looking at the group we have here, it’s a special group that is willing to go forward.”
The Beauts, now third in the NWHL standings at 6-4, host the Metropolitan Riveters in HarborCenter on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. McCormick will coach the game and likely the rest of the season with only one assistant: goaltending coach Ryan Vinz.
Fattey, who also served as vice president and director of hockey at HarborCenter, named himself an assistant coach under McCormick following Seiling's departure and filled in as coach for a 3-2 win over the Connecticut Whale on Dec. 8. Fattey was a former scout for the Sabres before being named general manager of the Beauts.
The Beauts won the Isobel Cup during their second season in 2016-17 and were purchased by Terry and Kim Pegula in December 2017. Following a loss in the championship game last season, Fattey made several prominent signings, including Szabados, Blake Bolden and Emily Pfalzer, who was a two-time captain of the Beauts before she won a Gold Medal with Team USA at the 2018 Olympics.
“Everyone from day one has been a pleasure to work with,” Szabados said. “Same today. I have nothing but positive things to say about everyone that’s been involved in our organization and was a big reason why I came here.”
“For me, I was just excited to come home after being away for a year,” Pfalzer said when asked of Fattey’s impact on her decision to return. “Just excited to come back to playing in Buffalo and playing in front of the Buffalo fans.”
A source confirmed to The Buffalo News that Fattey resigned Tuesday. McCormick was announced as general manager Friday morning through a post on social media, rather than an official press release.
McCormick, 35, played 11 NHL seasons with the Sabres, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild before a blood clot forced him to retire in 2016. Prior to being named interim coach, he worked with Beauts players as a skills coach for the Academy of Hockey.
Ahead of a Dec. 8 game against Connecticut, Fattey said during a news conference with reporters that he would begin the process of finding a full-time coach for the Beauts. McCormick missed that game because of a previous commitment but the team is 2-1 with him behind the bench, and they have outscored opponents 9-0 during a two-game win streak. McCormick called the job an “absolute pleasure” and brushed off any notion that another departure creates any additional challenges.
“It is what it is,” McCormick said. “With Nik leaving, it was something he chose to do. It’s something we accept and we move forward.”
In addition to McCormick and Vinz, Sean Wallace, a coach with the Buffalo Junior Sabres, conducted drills during practice Friday. Wallace drew on the white board and gave instructions, though he only works with the team when he's "available," according to McCormick.
It remains unclear why Fattey chose to resign only a few weeks after overhauling the Beauts' coaching staff. His departure came shortly before the resignation of Mike Gilbert, a longtime Sabres executive who was most recently senior vice president of administration and general manager of HarborCenter.
Like McCormick, Beauts players insisted a series of staff changes will not have a negative impact on their play and their singular focus is on the ice.
That was powerfully illustrated during practice Friday.
Players joked between drills. McCormick began practice with a lighthearted conversation and gave individual instruction throughout. All the while, Beauts players showed the world-class skill that raised expectations following Fattey's busy offseason.
The Beauts are adapting to McCormick's system and continue to develop chemistry, which can be challenging given the NWHL's schedule.
Most players travel to Buffalo from out of town for practices every week, and there are long stretches between games -- they went three weeks without a game in December and won't play for 14 days following Saturday's matchup against the Riveters.
That hasn't prevented them from bonding, Szabados said. She and other Beauts players expressed confidence the team is realizing its potential and they don't plan to allow another personnel change to get in the way.
"The girls take it in stride," Szabados said. "It’s constantly smiles no matter what’s going on. We’re just going out there supporting each other. Having as much fun today as we were day one."