Love On Ice: U.S. Women Go Pro For the First Time

boston prideBoston Pride defenseman and two-time Olympic silver medalist Kacey Bellamy handles the puck during a November game against the Connecticut Whale.

When you’re a kid in small town New England, you’re going to spend a disproportionate amount of your life playing street hockey. Even if your parents aren’t crazy enough to commit to the early morning practices and threat of potential injury that comes with actual hockey, they’re definitely going to put a stick in your hands and send you out to shoot around once the weather gets nice. It’s a rite of passage and an integral part of the typical New England childhood—even your author, arguably one of the least athletic people on earth, participated in this tradition.

What isn’t typical, though, is when a kid from the neighborhood actually makes it beyond your little podunk town to the big leagues. Even less typical than that? When that kid from the neighborhood doesn’t just hit the big leagues but actually helps build the big league from the bottom up.

Lauren McAuliffe is that kid in my neighborhood, the one who actually stuck with the sport through thick and thin, through college and beyond, to become the first assistant coach for the Boston Pride, the city’s new professional women’s hockey team. The Pride joined three other teams—the Buffalo Beauts, the New York Riveters and the Connecticut Whale—for the inaugural 2015 season of the National Women’s Hockey League.

“It’s been kind of a learning process for a lot of people,” McAuliffe says as she drives to a Wednesday night practice. “But it’s been a good experience for people to have, especially for the girls.” The Pride practice in nearby Everett, but home ice is Harvard’s Bright-Landry Hockey Center.

McAuliffe, a Somerville resident, rose through the ranks from player to high school coach to college coach before being recruited by Boston Pride GM Haley Moore this past spring to join the NWHL. The formation of the NWHL marks the first time a truly professional women’s league has formed in the U.S.—like, with people actually getting paid and everything—and so begins a new era in local sports.

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The Pride ready to face off against the New York Riveters.

“I had heard a little bit about the league but didn’t know exactly what the deal was or where the money was coming from,” says McAuliffe. “The more [Moore] talked, the more viable it seemed. They had a business plan and all sorts of resources … And when I learned about the players, who was actually on the roster, the more impressed I was.”

The concentration of talent was too much to turn down. “It’s just so much fun to coach at such a high level that I couldn’t really say no to it.”

McAuliffe joins head coach Bobby Jay, who has worked with the women’s Olympic team and Merrimack College, in guiding this upstart bunch into uncharted territory. The team itself features some of the burgeoning sport’s biggest names, including U.S. National Team forward Hilary Knight and University of Maine alumna goaltender Brittany Ott. It’s a team that has McAuliffe feeling confident that fans are going to enjoy what they see.

“Honestly, the hockey itself is just impressive. Anybody that’s a hockey fan will absolutely enjoy watching these women play,” says McAuliffe. “They are very skilled and very fast. If you like college hockey, if you like NHL hockey [you’ll enjoy the NWHL].”

She says that there are some material differences in the way these teams play—less clutching and holding, for example, and none of the official body checking of men’s hockey. “It’s based on skill. If that defenseman can stop you or that forward can get by you it’s based on skill rather than their size and their strength—it’s neat to watch.”

McAuliffe isn’t the only one that thinks it will be neat to watch. This fall, the Pride inked a deal with local cable network NESN, home of Boston’s marquee sports franchises the Bruins and the Red Sox. And on New Year’s Eve, the team took to the ice at Gillette Stadium for a Winter Classic exhibition match against Les Canadiennes of Montreal (a Canadian Women’s Hockey League team). McAuliffe’s excitement is infectious, her genuine enthusiasm for the sport, for her team, for her players underlining every word that comes out of her mouth.

“The determination of the girls is just great to watch. A lot of them are just committing their lives to this right now,” says McAuliffe. “Just to see that level of commitment and how that shows itself in their performance has been pretty neat to see.”

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