Another achievement that takes the cynical Buffalo Sports Curse and gradually removes it from its old moorings, the 2017 Isobel Cup victory has propelled the Beauts into the heroic mainstream. Defeating the defending champion Boston Pride in front of a what felt like a capacity crowd at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, it was an opportunity for a group of talented women to shape the sporting future in Western New York.
While the season began with the brave revelation of Harrison Browne, helping to set the tone for a culture of teamwork and loyalty, it culminated with a series of achievements that positively impacted many of the team’s other inspiring competitors.
Among the most revered of these fascinating individuals included world-class goaltender Brianne McLaughlin, bringing her superlative career to a glorious ending with multiple storylines only adding tremendous substance.
As the second NWHL season unfolded, it was one that solidified McLaughlin’s legacy, bringing her career full circle. As the first player signed in franchise history, she simultaneously took on the role of ambassador, emerging as an icon in the local sporting community, while bringing a major league presence that made her as admired as the heroes from the NFL’s Bills and NHL’s Sabres.
No place was this admiration more present than the second NWHL All-Star Game. Hosted in Pittsburgh in February 2017, expanding the impact of women’s hockey in the Rust Belt, it was the setting for a heroes’ welcome, as McLaughlin received the loudest applause among the hardcore fans in the crowd.
Having starred at nearby Robert Morris University (RMU), where McLaughlin graduated as the NCAA’s all-time leader in saves, she shepherded the sport there. At a time when hockey in the Iron City was experiencing a renaissance, with the arrival of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the NHL’s Penguins, the early aspect of their careers ran parallel to McLaughlin’s time with the RMU Colonials.
For a player whose efforts have helped make women’s hockey culturally relevant, while maintaining a wholesome friendliness, the All-Star Game signified the start of a career reaching a glorious climax. It provided McLaughlin with an encouraging momentum, while allowing the fans the treasured chance to appreciate her goaltending brilliance for the remainder of what proved to be a phenomenal climax to her final season.
McLaughlin’s hockey swan song took on a legendary luster in the Isobel Cup finals. After playing her final regular season game on home ice, waving happily to the jubilant fans which showered her with a standing ovation, neither player nor fan wanting the evening to end, McLaughlin still had plenty left for the postseason.
Providing said fans with an even more captivating performance, McLaughlin played the game of her life. Stunning the opposing Pride by recording 60 saves in the championship game, she single handedly nullified a high powered scoring attack led by world class forwards such as Brianna Decker, Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight. Showing nerves of steel in the greatest goaltending performance of the season, it was only fitting that she would be recognized as the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs
“Ending a chapter in your life is never easy, especially when it’s been such a huge part of your life and passion. I feel extremely lucky to have ended my career with a Championship. I was dreading taking off those pads for the last time but winning the way we did with the team that we had made it extra special. I got to walk away from the game with a smile on my face.”
Another competitor who played her collegiate hockey in the state of Pennsylvania was equally integral to forging the nascent Beauts lore. Originally penciled in as a reserve player for the Beauts, Kelley Steadman had competed with Erie, Pennsylvania’s Mercyhurst Lakers. Having scored the first goal in Beauts history, it marked the beginning of a legendary time for Steadman, which saw firmly entrenched as an essential component in the team’s rise to prominence. From that iconic first goal to becoming the first MVP in All-Star Game history, which was staged on home ice in Buffalo, Steadman is one of the game’s most underrated superstars.
Recognized as one of the captains for the second NWHL All-Star Game, it only added to a growing legend that has Steadman make a meaningful impact wherever she has played. Currently serving as the Director of Operations for the RMU Colonials, admirably balancing her playing obligations with the Beauts, Pittsburgh has become a second home to Steadman, allowing her to be a hockey hero simultaneously in two cities.
“This season has definitely been one of the most memorable in my career. Getting to share the All Star game with friends, family, and kids in my second home of Pittsburgh was incredible. And then obviously winning the Isobel Cup with an amazing group of teammates was the best way I could picture finishing out the year.”
Such heroism has translated into the unique feat of two championships in one season. In addition to capturing the first Isobel Cup in franchise history, Steadman was part of the administrative staff that saw the Colonials capture the second College Hockey America (CHA) championship in program history.
Considering that Steadman has also won the CHA championship as a player with Mercyhurst, the chance to achieve that plateau in her post-playing career (with a second program, no less) is a remarkable feat. Coincidentally, former Mercyhurst competitor Emily Janiga was also a member of the Beauts’ championship roster.
Adding to this remarkable haul of hockey hardware includes a Clarkson Cup in 2013 with the Boston Blades, where she scored a goal in the championship game. The Isobel Cup win four years later makes Steadman just the eighth woman to have won both Cups in a career.
During 2013, Steadman would add gold at the IIHF Women’s World Championships, handing Canada their first silver medal on home soil. Along with a Russian league championship in 2014 with former Blades teammate (and 2016 Isobel Cup champion) Cherie Hendrickson, her career is synonymous with success.
Although this recent championship sees Steadman at a hockey crossroads, contemplating another season, there is no question that regardless of her decision, the amazing body of work that defines such a career is one built on more than just championships. From being a cherished friend, a role model and a model teammate, Steadman is the type of player that embodies her own belief of being surrounded by great people.
“It’s funny because the other day I was thinking that I’m probably the only women’s player to win a championship in every pro league in the world: Clarkson Cup with the Boston Blades, European Championship with the Moscow Tornado, and then the Isobel Cup this year. It was really cool to think about, but is just a testament to the amazing teammates I’ve been able to play alongside.
There is something to be said about team chemistry, and I’ve just been lucky enough to be on great teams with great people. I am not sure if I will be playing next year, so if winning the Isobel Cup against the Pride is the last game I ever play, I think I can be okay with that.”
During an eventful offseason for the Beauts, which saw the visceral loss of fan favorite Meghan Duggan to the Boston Pride, the club also dipped into the free agent pool. Among their significant acquisitions, the pieces towards an exciting and stirring championship were coming together.
Signing one of the Pride’s most promising players in Corinne Buie, she would emerge as the prized acquisition of the off-season. Having captured the inaugural Isobel Cup with the Pride, it was not her first championship representing Boston. Of note, she also hoisted the Clarkson Cup with the Blades, playing alongside former Providence teammate, and current Riveters star forward, Janine Weber.
Emerging into a scoring threat for the Beauts, Buie became the cornerstone of the offense, providing consistency and tireless effort. Bringing an amiable smile to the rink every day, Buie’s down to earth demeanor and affability certainly helped to set the tone for an optimistic team culture.
Statistically, she would also carry a significant chunk of the offensive load on her shoulder, displaying tremendous commitment to providing her team a chance to win. Finishing as the team’s leading scorer, a significant improvement on the seven points registered in her only season with the Pride, Buie exceeded all expectations, also emerging as a power play specialist.
Culminating with a very well-deserved spot in the second All-Star Game, this breakthrough season was a coming-out party for the pride of Edina, Minnesota. Adding to this remarkable feeling of jubilation is the fact that the high school team from Edina, where she once starred, allowing her insatiable love for the game to take root, won their first-ever state championship.
Scoring the Beauts third goal of the finals, it allowed for a three-goal cushion, as the previous goals were scored by Megan Bozek, the 2017 NWHL Defensive Player of the Year, and Janiga, registering her third goal in two postseason tilts. Pride fans were stunned to see their favored team collapse into a downward spiral, going scoreless for 55 minutes of play. While the Pride bounced back, hoping to resuscitate their championship hopes with two goals, it would prove to be not enough, as Buie’s goal stood as the Cup-winning tally in a 3-2 final.
Said goal only added a well-deserved hallmark to Buie’s career. Emerging as one of the true feel-good stories of the women’s hockey season in 2016-17, the fact that she scored the championship clinching goal against her former team adds a true storybook finish. With a significant level of emotion to an already intense competition, as it marked a rematch of last year’s Finals, Buie remains euphoric over the final results,
“Any championship game is emotional, but playing in one against my former team definitely added to the excitement. I knew it would be an intense high tempo game. We battled hard for 60 minutes and to come out with the win felt unbelievable.”
While the overtime goal firmly entrenched Buie in the growing legend of the Isobel Cup, another element only adds to her place in its lore. Of note, said goal propelled Buie into rarified air, capturing three professional women’s hockey championships in a row, only the second woman to do so, behind Julie Chu’s three straight Clarkson Cup wins from 2010-12. Achieving this well-deserved milestone was also enhanced by the fact that Buie now stands proudly as the first player to capture back-to-back Isobel Cups, let alone the first two in the history of its contention.
“It means a lot to me to have had a role in both championships and to make history in that way. Last year and this year I was fortunate to play with talent that came together at the right time to succeed. It feels great to have been on the winning side for both seasons.”
Another free agent acquisition that gained All-Star status was fantastic forward Shiann Darkangelo, whose sporting endeavors also included skating for the US national team. Formerly of the Connecticut Whale, Darkangelo starred collegiately in the Nutmeg State, skating for the Quinnipiac Bobcats. Among her efforts with the Whale, her most notable features participating in the inaugural NWHL All-Star Game.
Similar to Buie, Darkangelo was a lunch pail worker, bringing a solid effort and poised demeanor built on the values of a positive attitude. Providing the Beauts with another dimension to their offense, her contributions were most welcome, resulting in double digits in points by season’s end, ranking among the league’s top 20 scorers, subsequently supplying veteran leadership for a young team.
The chance to be part of the Isobel Cup championship team represented more than just a career highlight for Darkangelo, gaining the first title in her professional career. Darkangelo gained the opportunity to be part of an empowering era for women’s sports in the community, adding to the legacy of the Western New York Flash, a former women’s pro soccer team from Buffalo/Rochester that captured multiple national championships.
“Coming to Buffalo to win the Isobel Cup was an awesome experience, I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of history alongside so many great teammates.”
For a club that entered the postseason as the number 3 seed, with defending champion Boston ranked number one, firmly entrenched as the favorite to repeat, the presence of both Darkangelo and Buie would prove to be essential towards a victorious team effort. Considering that free agency altered the complexion of all the teams in the league, the balance of power affected, it also shaped Darkangelo’s outlook as the postseason arrived.
In the season prior, Darkangelo was part of a Whale roster that spent the first half of the inaugural NWHL season in first place, only to experience a free-fall in the closing weeks. Despite managing to hold the number two seed in the 2016 playoffs, the club endured difficult first-round elimination at the hands of the Beauts, proving that parity was evident.
Having learned from that playoff run that any team is beatable, Darkangelo was not discouraged at being a number 3 seed in 2017. With the first round of the playoffs resulting in a historic matchup, as it marked the first time that two teams from New York State contested each other in the NWHL playoffs, Darkangelo could feel the sense of success taking shape as the Beauts managed to dispose of a New York Riveters squad that featured Goaltender of the Year Katie Fitzgerald and super rookie Amanda Kessel.
“Heading into playoffs as the #3 seed was huge, not having to face the #1 seed in semis. I feel are success came from sticking together as a team and believing that we could win if we all did our jobs by putting the team before ourselves.”
This great collection of outstanding talent, Buie, Darkangelo, McLaughlin and Steadman proved to be more than just individual stars. Their game involved devotion to their team, dedicated towards the final result. What this championship means to each of them holds a fascinating level of intrigue that only makes a postseason run so much more memorable.
With McLaughlin and Browne having both announced their retirements in the aftermath, the championship is also part of a rich narrative, resulting in treasured memories for fans and players alike, representing a lasting legacy in the NWHL.
As McLaughlin reflects on her sensational seasons in Buffalo, her hockey odyssey is defined by far more than just wins and losses. While there is great pride in the achievements which add to her legacy, her outlook is evidenced by the admiration of the people who helped make this final chapter of her playing career such an important one.
Surrounded by a group of sports fans who are among the most loyal in major league sport, along with teammates who were like sisters, all working together to make professional women’s ice hockey viable in the United States, the last two seasons were a true labor of love for McLaughlin. These essential elements truly enriched McLaughlin’s time in the Queen City, brining new value and enhanced meaning to the word teamwork, the essence of what transformed this group of compelling individuals into champions,
“With any experience, it’s always the people you surround yourself with that makes that experience a good or bad one. I probably will remember a game or two, but I will mostly remember our time in the hotel, bus rides, days off being lazy at the Pfalzer house and slowly integrating myself into their family as the favorite daughter, and the girls that showed up to every single one of our home games in two years. I got to see firsthand the Buffalo sports fans at their finest and be a part of a legacy growing women’s hockey in Buffalo.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Troy Parla, some images also obtained from Twitter
Acknowledgements: Katrina Doell, Britney Talty