(Photo: Melissa Burgess)
For Buffalo Beauts goaltender Nicole Hensley, going coast to coast in the net is nothing new. Going coast to coast in her playing career? Well, that’s a different story.
Up until recently, Hensley had played out most of her hockey career in the western portion of the United States. The Lakewood, Colorado native played in her home state until college, when she ventured out to Missouri to tend net for Lindenwood University, a liberal arts institution in St. Charles.
After a handful of World Championships appearances in Kamloops, BC and Plymouth, MI, she went to the Olympics in Pyeongchang with Team USA. Now, Hensley has found herself living in the northeast United States, playing in the NWHL for the Buffalo Beauts.
How did she get here? Well, it's in part thanks to her U.S. National Team teammate Emily Pfalzer, who previously played with the Beauts and is back with the team again this season as one of three alternate captains.
"Pfalzer reached out to me early in the spring," Hensley said. "I got in contact with Nik [Beauts GM Nik Fattey] and he was just really excited about what Buffalo had to offer. With what he was saying, I was really excited for the opportunity to come see it."
Hensley made the trip to Buffalo in May, a venture that allowed her to meet some of the Beauts’ veterans and see the city itself.
"To see how excited people were about the Beauts, and the direction the Pegulas are taking this team, is really, really exciting," Hensley said.
Although Hensley had kept an eye on the NWHL over the years – especially her teammates who have competed in the league – she wasn’t initially sure if she wanted to join the league.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to move out to the east coast to play,” she said. “After the Olympic year, I just realized how much I missed playing games, so it was a really great opportunity. I had to take it.”
Hensley’s signing with the Beauts was announced on June 13. Two weeks later, Shannon Szabados came on board. Two games into the NWHL season, each goaltender has appeared in one game; Hensley stopped 10 of 10 shots against in her first action, a win over the Connecticut Whale.
"It was a lot of fun," she said. "We have a great group of players on our team. It's such a great group off the ice that I think we're starting to gel really well on the ice. It was just a great feeling to finally get out there and play a game with them."
While Hensley faced only 10 shots, Szabados saw 22. Both goaltenders registered shutouts. Historically, Beauts netminders have seen far more shots against – sometimes upwards of 40 in a single game. (Just ask Brianne McLaughlin or Amanda Leveille.) Throughout her career, Hensley has been on both sides, and says it's all about staying focused either way.
"When you're seeing less, it usually means your team's playing well, so, that's always a good sign," Hensley said. "Playing in college, I saw a lot of shots through my games there so I'm comfortable with seeing a lot. Then through my time with the national team, I kind of had the opportunity to not see as many shots."
"So I've kind of seen both ends of the spectrum and you know, just the biggest thing for goaltenders is staying focused no matter what's going on and doing your best just trying to help your team in any way you can," she said. "That's what your job is, just make the saves that you can make and a couple that you usually wouldn't make. And hopefully at the end of the day you're on the right side of the score."
Regardless of how few or many shots they're facing, Hensley and Szabados are arguably the NWHL's strongest goaltending tandem this season.
At 24, Hensley already has an impressive resume that includes an Olympic gold medal (2018) and a pair of World Championships gold medals (2016, 2017). Eight years her senior, Szabados has her own collection: three Olympic medals (gold in 2010 and 2014, silver in 2018) and five World Championships medals (gold in 2012, silver in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2017).
"With Shannon in net, you know, she's the best in the world," Hensley said. "Just getting to sit next to her in the locker room and watch her practice, watch her in the weight room… it’s obviously an unprecedented learning opportunity for me."
"I've had the chance to play with Jessie Vetter; gone to camps with Molly Schaus, Alex Rigsby, Maddie Rooney. Now, getting to see Shannon, that's just another opportunity for me to get better," Hensley added.
The duo will attempt to continue to stonewall opponents as the NWHL season goes on. The Beauts have a bye week and return to action on October 27, heading west to visit the Minnesota Whitecaps for a pair of games. The 7:30 PM Eastern puck drop on Saturday, October 27 will be the NWHL's Twitter Game of the Week.