Heading into the final weeks of the NWHL season, Buffalo Beauts defender Lisa Chesson and her team are on a nine-game winning streak, and are set to enter the Isobel Cup Playoffs as the defending champs with one game left in the regular season.
Chesson and the Beauts now know that they'll be hosting the Boston Pride in the first round of the playoffs, a fact that wasn't certain several weeks ago when I spoke to Chesson after one of the team's recent wins.
At 31, the Plainfield, Illinois native is the oldest player on the Beauts; just over nine years separate her and Jordan Ott, the team's youngest skater this season. This season is Chesson's second in the NWHL and with the Beauts.
"I thought my hockey career was over," Chesson said of her time before the NWHL was founded. "The first year of the league, I didn't choose to play, but I'm really glad I got back in it. It's nice to have that competitive game every weekend, and it's nice to see all the girls get excited, too."
Chesson is the second-oldest player in the NWHL; she's almost two years younger than Connecticut Whale netminder Laura Brennan. After playing four seasons for Ohio State University between 2004 and 2008, Chesson appeared for Team USA in three World Championships, as well as the 2010 Olympics, where she won silver.
She's one of the more seasoned veterans in the league this season, and says that women's hockey is growing -- an opinion supported by things like the positive reaction in the U.S. regarding the USWNT winning Olympic gold, the 2022 Olympic women's hockey field opening to 10 teams, and the growth in popularity of both the NWHL and CWHL.
The NWHL's recent All-Star Game in Minnesota, in which Chesson participated, had over 580,000 unique viewers on Twitter.
"Anyone's that watched for the first time comes away and they want to see more," Chesson said. "It's all about getting them to that first game."
"Women's hockey is growing," she added. "We don't always get the respect we deserve, but once people get in and watch, I think they're hooked."
The Beauts defender is one of just nine players returning to Buffalo from last year's championship season. The mishmash of new and returning players showed in the team's struggle early in the year, but Buffalo has been on a rampage lately and hasn't lost since December 10.
"It started off a little slow, a little rocky," Chesson said of her team's season, noting that the players were often unable to practice as a complete group. "The second half of the season, we're starting to gel; a lot of us are able to make it to practices. I think it shows in the way we're playing."
Perhaps coincidence, perhaps more, but the Beauts haven't lost since before the team was purchased from the NWHL by Pegula Sports & Entertainment. Although there haven't been any major public changes, Chesson said the little things have made a big difference, including getting team meals and help with things like skate sharpening.
Chesson, who calls herself more of a "lead by example" type than a vocal leader, lives in Columbus, Ohio and works there full-time. She commutes the roughly 329 miles to Buffalo for games, practices, and to catch the bus for road trips.
Although there have been no specifics about possible future NWHL expansion or markets for such an expansion, Chesson said she believes that Columbus would be a great fit.
"It's a great community," she said. "Hockey's growing there. I think facility-wise, it's a perfect fit, too. It would be amazing."
If the NWHL did go to Columbus someday, would Chesson consider playing for their team?
"It'd be really tough to leave Buffalo," she said. "But it'd make a lot of sense."
Chesson has registered five points (1G, 4A) and 21 shots on goal in 14 games so far this season. She also notched the game-winning shootout goal in the tenth round of the team's 1-0 win over Boston on January 27.
For now, the focus will remain with the Beauts, their current nine-game winning streak, and the upcoming battle for the Isobel Cup championship.
Could Buffalo become the first team in NWHL history to win the championship twice?
"If we keep playing the way we are, I think the chances are really good," Chesson said.
Chesson and the Beauts will round out their regular season with a visit to the Whale on March 10 before hosting the Boston Pride on March 17 for the Isobel Cup Playoffs. The championship will be played the following weekend, and will be hosted by the highest remaining seed.