Kelsey Neumann, Anya Battaglino and Sarah Bryant.
In the inaugural NWHL season, Kelley Steadman lit the league on fire with her performance (20 points: 13g-7a in 10 games), which isn’t a huge surprise after she racked up 132 points at Mercyhurst University in 140 games. But during her first season with the Buffalo Beauts, Steadman was on the practice squad, meaning she would only get paid when she played in a game.
This upcoming season, more players will be transitioning from practice player to roster player, and we spoke with three players to get an idea of the challenges they face.
Not playing often can be a tough pill to swallow for any athlete with pride, but they all handle it like true professionals and team players by showing up at their team’s home games (and some road ones, too), supporting and cheering on their team any way they could.
“It's always tough not getting to play, not just because you put in the time and the work, but because you want nothing more to be on the bench with the team, cheering them on,” said Cheeky Herr who played in two games with the New York Riveters last season. “It, however, wasn't as hard, once I realized I had a different but equally important role, which was to just be incredibly supportive and a cheerleader for the women playing.”
Cheeky Herr on the bench for the Riveters. Photo by Troy Parla.
“Being positive even when we weren't playing well or losing and finding the joy in what could be a joyless situation. Once I figured out my role on the team, I told myself I'd be the best at that role. It's really tough, but every player has a role on the team that is integral to the success of the group.”
Sarah Bryant warming up with the Riveters. Photo by Troy Parla.
One of Herr’s teammates, goaltender Sarah Bryant, is also making the switch from practice to roster player next season. “Honestly, I came in knowing that I was the third goalie, and from the beginning of the season to the end, I considered it my role to prepare my teammates for games by giving them my best on the ice at practice every week and by being as supportive as I could off the ice.”
“Of course I always knew there was a chance I might see the ice in a game, so I was always preparing for that as well, but I had the utmost respect for my goalie partners,” said Bryant, who briefly appeared in two games totaling under eight minutes of ice time. “I never felt at all slighted because I wholeheartedly believe that they were consistently two of the best goaltenders in the league.”
Goalie Kelsey Neumann, who is one third of the epic goalie comedienne trio #McLevMan, also earned a full-time gig. Now Neumann will be spending more time on the ice as Mandy Leveille’s goalie partner after Brianne McLaughlin rode off into the sunset with the Isobel Cup.
Unlike Bryant, she did not get on the ice last season. “It's never easy not getting to play. However, it gave me the chance to really focus on improving myself on and off the ice. I helped my team prepare for games by attending all of the practices and challenging them to get better as I got better,” Neumann said. Her coaches did, however, ensure that she did feel like part of the team. “I loved being able to dress for a few games, just being on the bench with the team was so exciting.”
Like Neumann, Herr and Bryant were regulars at practice and shouldered the blame for losses even when they weren’t on the ice.
“I didn't miss a single practice this past season!” exclaimed Bryant. “Like all of the practice players, we participated in the whole practice, even when we were getting skated after a poor performance. However, as I said before, my role on the team was to prepare my teammates to win games on the weekends, so losses were as much my fault as anyone else’s.”
Herr had the same attitude as Bryant, which is one of the many reasons the Rivs were such a tight-knit group. “I did practice as if I was a rostered player. You never know when somebody would get hurt and you'd have to step up to the plate,” she said. “As a player, I'm glad this was the case; it would've been harder to be on the team if I wasn't treated like every other player during practices.”
Imagine the joy when these players all inked new deals with their teams as roster players for the upcoming third NWHL season.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention Anya Battaglino, who was a practice player (although the above tweet looks like she's the resident goofball at practice!) in each of the first two seasons and recently signed a contract to be a roster player for the Connecticut Whale this upcoming season. “Signing a season three contract with the Whale is one of the proudest moments of my NWHL career,” Battaglino, who is also Director of the NWHLPA, said in a press release. “I am a full contract player now after working hard as a practice player. I am so happy to have earned a full-time spot with the Whale.”
“The satisfaction of signing a contract this year is unquantifiable and indescribable,” Herr said so eloquently. “But I'm excited, honored, and cannot wait for another year with the Rivs. I love this game, I would've signed on to be any type of player on this team just to get to play more!”
Anya Battaglino on the ice for the Whale. Photo by Michael Hetzel.
Kelsey Neumann signing her new contract in her goalie equipment. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.
The same can be said for Neumann who was one of the first players that Buffalo re-signed (in her goalie gear, obviously!), and gets to help defend the Isobel Cup with her partner-in-crime Mandy Leveille. “When I got my contract for this season it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was extremely satisfying to have the chance to sign with the Beauts for a second season,” Neumann told us. “When I was invited to be a practice player last year, I set a goal for myself to become a full-time player for this upcoming season. I committed to working hard in the gym and on the ice and it is very gratifying to see this goal accomplished.”
As for Bryant, she put it all into perspective when asked about how satisfying it was to see all of her hard work (and long drives from Washington D. C.) pay off. “When I was a kid, or even in college, I never would have imagined I'd play professionally for even one season,” she said. “I feel incredibly fortunate to be coming back to the Riveters for a second season.”
So now that this trio has made this well-deserved leap, what are their goals for season three in the NWHL?
“My overarching goal is to be someone who represents what it is to be a Riveter. One aspect of that is to be a positive ambassador of the league by engaging with the fans and a larger community, as well as being as authentic a role model as I can,” Bryant told us. “The other aspect of that is fulfilling my role on the team. I know that I have a lot more to give this team, and I have been committed to training hard this off-season so I can come to the team in October in much better shape than I was last October (I was coming off a surgery). If the opportunity comes to play in a game, I'll be ready for that, but my focus is on preparing the team to bring home the Isobel Cup, one practice at a time.”
Everyone will be gunning for Neumann’s Beauts this season as they begin defense of their title. “I am continuing to focus on improving my game on and off the ice. I took about 2-3 days off after the season ended before I was back at Impact Training working hard to have success in net for the team and myself,” said Neumann. I am looking forward to taking on a bigger role with the team as we defend the Cup.”
Despite appearing in two games last season, Herr didn’t truly get to show what she can do on the ice. “I don't really have any (expectations) for myself. I just plan on working hard and know I will have to earn every minute I might get in a game,” she said. “But the act of earning it makes it that much sweeter, that much better. For the league, I expect it to keep growing and touching more and more people. October cannot come soon enough!”