It’s been nearly two years since Niagara unceremoniously dropped its women’s hockey program.
Candice Moxley still can’t find the words to describe her feelings. She was a standout for the Purple Eagles’ teams, one that went to the Frozen Four her freshman year. She ended her career with 34 goals and 78 points in 135 career games.
The sting still lingers, and the removal of the women’s championship banners from Dwyer Arena feels to many as if Niagara is erasing its women’s hockey past.
But even without a team, Niagara is having an impact on women’s hockey. The thumbprints of Purple Eagles are all over the game as former players, both men and women, are moving into the coaching ranks of collegiate women’s hockey. Moxley is part of that trend, completing her first year as head coach for the Buffalo State women’s team, surviving a difficult season with a roster of just 10 skaters.
Moxley came to the Bengals after spending time as an assistant coach with Nate Handrahan (former Niagara men’s hockey player) at Ohio State and Robert Morris.
Handrahan’s former teammate, Chris MacKenzie, is the head coach of the Connecticut women’s team with his younger brother, Casey, an assistant there.
Allison Coomey, a former player and coach for the Niagara women, is in her sixth season as an assistant at Boston University along with Katie Lachapelle.
In Rochester, Scott McDonald (Niagara 1996-2000) led RIT to a Division III national championship in 2012 and has guided the transition to Division I. Working with him is Shivaun Siegl, a former assistant coach at Niagara.
Add to the list Kristin Steele (head coach at Connecticut College), Josh Sciba (assistant at Colgate) and Allyson Weidner (graduate assistant at Mercyhurst). It adds up to a large impact on the sport of women’s hockey.
“It’s awesome because honestly, well, I still can’t find the words to describe my feelings after they cut the program on the one side but just knowing that we still have such an impact in the hockey world is a nice feeling,” Moxley said. “It’s really nice to see we’re still making an impact even though the program’s not there anymore.”
“As much as it’s still disappointing that Niagara doesn’t have a team, the people coaching now can in some ways carry on that legacy of Niagara,” Coomey said.
The legacy continues with Moxley as she gets her first opportunity to run her own collegiate program, though she will have to dig deep into those reserves as she tackles building at Buffalo State.
The Division III Bengals finished ECAC West play with a 3-12-1 record. They close out the regular season against non-conference opponent University of New England on Friday and Saturday and need to wait to see if they did enough to grab the sixth and final playoff spot.
Women’s hockey started at Buffalo State in 1999 and has had just one winning season in 15, going 11-4-1 as a D-III independent in 2000-01.
It’s a challenge, but one that Moxley embraces.
“Having my own program was huge. It was the next step for me development-wise. I had been an assistant coach at the Division I level for a while but I wanted to get to the next level as a coach,” Moxley said. “This opportunity opened up and it was a perfect fit. I was back in the Buffalo/Niagara region. It’s closer to home for me. I have friends and teammates who are still around here. Ultimately, I think we can build this program.”
A native of Markham, Ont., Moxley is able to receive support from her family and close friends. Her familiarity with the Buffalo area allows her to have a better balance in her life while stepping into an established support system.
Last Saturday, for example, when former teammate Kim Barton came to the Bengals’ game against Neumann (a 3-2 win for Buffalo State, by the way), with her own family in tow.
“That was so great to have her there,” Moxley said. “I want to grab all the Niagara alumni and bring them into our program now.”
While she’s bringing support from former Purple Eagles, she’s also bringing in her first recruiting class. The process of getting players on board is a vastly different experience at the Division III level. Without athletic scholarships, Moxley is looking at players on the Division I bubble who are also good enough in the classroom to earn academic scholarship help.
But as she looks to grow the program in the future, Moxley also been focused on establishing the culture and expectations for her program.
“She’s not afraid to sit people,” junior forward Kara Goodwin said about Moxley. “If there’s someone who can do better, she’ll sit you and doesn’t have a problem with that. I think with a small team people kind of settle with they’re doing all right. She’s not going to sit me because we have a small team. She’s not afraid to, so you still have to perform your best or else you’re going to sit.
“This year we’ve learned more. We’re getting more out of it. It’s just little things. I’m more confident, too. That’s what they’ve taught me, too. They’ve made me feel more confident with how I play.”
The record is a bit deceptive. The Bengals have been in the majority of their games, especially late in the season. They have players with talent, passion and dedication. They just don’t have many of them.
And yet Moxley has remained optimistic amid the losing.
“Sometimes I look at it, and I don’t know how she does it,” said Coomey. “She has amazing patience and the ability to see things will get better down the road. She’s a student of the game. She’s played at the highest levels. She’s coached at the highest levels. Things are only going to get better there.”