It’s not the best of years to be a member of the Buffalo Beauts, but yesterday’s win could stand out as a turning point in a rough season, both for the quality of the competition and the uniqueness of the rink where it was played. The Beauts entered the game on Monday last in the PHF, with a record of 3-10-0 and a goal differential of -26, and they were going up against the Toronto Six, who stood atop the league with just one regulation loss and who had beaten Buffalo by a combined total of 14-4 in a weekend back-to-back last month. But at an intriguing outdoor venue with industrial aesthetics, just off the river in downtown Buffalo, the Beauts managed, for one afternoon, to flip the standings and possibly build some momentum toward a late-season charge.
The final score was 3-0, but for all intents and purposes this was a 1-0 nail-biter dulled only by a pair of late empty-netters. Claudia Kepler got the game-winner early in the second when she finished off a 2-on-1 breakout. But the star of the show was the 24-year-old Beauts goalie Carly Jackson, who made 36 saves in her first career shutout.
Whereas a dominant offensive explosion—like the way the Habs beat up the Leafs last night—can have exhilarated fans leaping out of their seats, a commanding performance from the crease has always given me a much different feeling, akin to the warmth of a heavy blanket in the midst of a howling snowsquall outside. Even as the Six tilted the ice more and more towards her in the intense final minutes of the game, Jackson’s steady shot-stopping quieted even the nerviest of Six chances. She seemed so unflappable that, by the end, it felt like only the gravest of misfortunes could have put a puck behind her. And if cruel fate did in fact try to influence the game back into a tie, it was stymied into powerlessness by Jackson’s reflexes.
A major, usually pretty explicit part of the marketing around any outdoor hockey game is some kind of return to innocence. It’s not only supposed to conjure images of the sport when it was in its earliest, uncommercialized form, but also—for Northerners at least—these games try to poke at our own nostalgia for time spent skating outdoors in the winter. When I was a teenager, I had a connection with a family whose older sons used to play, and the parents would still set up a rink in their backyard when it got cold, so we’d come over and grab old equipment out of their basement and play bundled-up 3-on-3 with snow shovels leaned up against the nets playing goalie. It’s something I dearly miss whenever winter rolls around in my adult life.
As usual, it’s got to be a weird time to be a women’s pro hockey player. Recently hired PHF commissioner Tyler Tumminia is leaving at the end of the season without a clear explanation as to why, and there are reportedly more employees in the league office ready to follow her out the door. The executive director of the PHF Players’ Association, Alex Sinatra, was dismissed last month just weeks after her hire was announced. And while the popularity of Olympic hockey would be an ideal springboard for the PHF to bring in new fans, its lack of players from the U.S. or Canadian national teams—who stand in solidarity as part of the PWHPA—is a glaring problem that prevents the league from ever living up to the word “Premier.” Even in yesterday’s Six-Beauts game, the fact that ESPN’s primary camera at the venue was placed at an angle where it struggled to catch any action on the near-side boards felt like a symbol of how tough it is for the PHF to handle even the basics that more-established leagues take for granted.
Was any of that uncertainty and chaos running through Carly Jackson’s head throughout this game? If it was, it went unnoticed by me, and certainly in the postgame it was entirely overshadowed by the goalie’s love for the atmosphere of this outdoor win. Jackson, who hails from the frozen backyards of Nova Scotia, talked afterwards about how much she wanted to stay on this unconventional ice far beyond the final horn.
“It was just honestly a dream,” she said. “I wish the game could keep going. I’m glad we won, but I could play out here every day.”
It’s a simple pleasure, and ultimately just a temporary one. But sometimes all you need is a great sport in a cool place.