BUFFALO, N.Y. – On June 24-26, the NWHL held their second free agent camp of the 2016 offseason. The camp consisted of four 90-minute sessions, which included two on June 25.
The attendees of the camp varied in skill level, from pioneers who had played in the league’s first season, to those who were contract-ready upon entering camp, as well as those who may have lacked some of the experience required to play at such a highly competitive level.
Friday’s session had an easy pace about it. It was later stated that the first skate of the camp was rather informal, to allow the players to ‘shake off the rust.’
Despite the slower pace and laid-back tone, a few players stood out from the pack, setting a high bar for the rest of those in attendance. Many of the drills that took place allowed the goaltenders to see a high number of shots, and all three who attended played well throughout the camp.
Saturday’s morning skate was an amped-up version of Friday’s. Players were put in one-on-one situations, and drills were set up to make sure the goalies stayed active throughout.
Shyler Sletta, who was backup to Beauts netminder Amanda Levielle while the two attended Minnesota University, said she had travelled with Levielle and had been training with her through the summer to prepare for the camp.
“Travelling with Levielle has been good,” Sletta said. “She told me after the first practice, ‘Hey, you did good!’ I wouldn’t mind playing with her again here in Buffalo. I’m thankful for the opportunity and looking forward to talking with the coaches.”
Amanda Makela was the Beauts go-to backup goalie in their inaugural season, but because of the diminished roster size, she may be losing her spot. She came to camp to prove herself and find a position with another team, if necessary.
“I just really want to play hockey next year. I’m using this as training, and if I get a contract here, that’s great, if not, then I’m using it as training to try to go somewhere else,” she said. “The ‘CW’ [Canadian Women’s Hockey League] is always an option, overseas is always an option…there are always options to play hockey somewhere.”
Saturday’s second session and Sunday’s skate were inter-squad scrimmages. Upon their arrival at camp, players were issued either a white or a red jersey, and those teams faced off against each other for the two 60-minute officiated games, with goaltenders rotating every five minutes.
In these two sessions, players really began to stand out. Sarah Casorso, a defenseman from University of British Columbia, earned a contract with the Beauts after her performance on Saturday. Casorso displayed incredible control while defending opponents, and rarely lost a battle, but perhaps most impressive was her offensive capability.
Much like the first free agent camp, which was held in Newark, NJ on June 10-12, the players who had an NWHL season under their belt were some of the most capable at the camp. Sydney Kidd, who had played defense for the New York Riveters in her first season, was hoping to earn a spot on Buffalo’s blue line.
After the scrimmage on Saturday, Kidd was asked what she was hoping to demonstrate. She replied, “I wanted to be more of an aggressive defenseman. I’ve played both forward and defense, and I ended up playing defense in New York last year, but I feel like I filled the role of a stay-at-home defenseman. I wanted to show that I could do both. I was trying to pinch and create offensive chances.”
It is interesting to note that once it was announced that Casorso had signed, Kidd played forward for Sunday’s scrimmage. Her speed was on display as she worked with her team to develop several odd-man rushes, and even scored a goal in the second half of the scrimmage.
Hayley Williams, who played forward for the Beauts in 2015-16, had another strong performance at camp. From the outset, she took a leadership role, and helped to get the on-ice drills set up, but also was one of the standout performers at forward.
She worked well with Buffalo State College graduate, Tara Bolliard in Sunday’s scrimmage, and the pair worked a strong cycle from behind the net to the front of the net throughout the session. She was confident, but anxious when speaking with the media about the pressure of having already played for a season.
“It’s do or die time,” she said. “Some of these girls haven’t been seen by the coaches before…maybe they’re going to have the best weekend of hockey of their whole next year of playing, and that’s all the coaches will see, but the coaches have seen me play for a whole season. They know my ups and downs.
“I know I have a lot to prove,” she continued. “I plan to earn it. I know nothing is given to me. I will earn it.”
With about a month left in free agency for the NWHL, there are over 30 full-time roster spots and 20 practice squad positions to be filled. While general managers work to sign the players that will be the best fit on their team, camps like the one held in Buffalo have helped them to identify potential targets.
At this time, there has been two players signed from the Newark camp and one from the Buffalo session. As teams move forward, those that stood out at these camps may find themselves living their dreams and playing professional hockey.