This is a story about a Buffalo Beauts goaltender. No, not that one. Not Shannon Szabados. The other one. The one who won Olympic gold in Pyeongchang. The one who out-duelled Szabados at the 2017 World Championship and captured gold with a tournament-best .964 save percentage. The one whose signing was met with far less fanfare, and far less widespread attention, than her Canadian counterpart. This is a story about the Buffalo Beauts goaltender who has been every bit as impressive as — and some might argue even better than — her legendary crease compatriot.
This is a story about Nicole Hensley, a rapidly rising star in the women’s hockey world and the lesser-known of the two keepers who have transformed the blue paint into a brick wall in Buffalo this season.
Hensley, like Szabados, is fresh to the NHWL scene. Don't take that to mean the 24-year-old hasn’t been pursued by the league in the past. After wrapping up her four years in the NCAA, where she excelled at Lindenwood University, Hensley was considered a netminder with outsized potential with all the tools to do well in the professional ranks. But with her sights set on the American national team, as well as an opportunity to step behind the bench as an assistant with her alma mater, Hensley put off any pursuit of the professional game. Until now, that is.
“When I had the opportunity the first time around, I wanted to stay where it was a comfortable training environment for me and I knew that I had everything I needed to continue training and getting better. I wanted to stick with what was working for me at the time," Hensley said. "At this point, it was time for a change for me, personally. It was just a good time to make the decision.”
And what played into the decision is the longing feeling that cropped up over the past two seasons. After minding the net at the 2017 World Championship and 2018 Olympics, as well as other international contests along the way, Hensley got the itch to play again. She began to miss it, the consistent grind that comes with competing on a regular basis. So, she signed a contract with the Beauts, said goodbye to her coaching position, packed her bags and was Buffalo bound.
At the time of her signing, Hensley seemed like a surefire starter for Buffalo, particularly once it became official that defending NWHL Goaltender of the Year, Amanda Leveille, had signed on to join the expansion Minnesota Whitecaps. Two weeks later, though, Szabados signed. And while that could have been a disappointment for Hensley, who was potentially about to lose her opportunity to start for an Isobel Cup frontrunner, she has only taken time to see the positives while building a friendship with her crease-mate.
“It’s been amazing to get the chance to play with Shannon,” Hensley said. “To see her work ethic day in and day out, the way she prepares for a practice and games. That’s been something that has been one of the biggest plus sides of playing for this team, getting the opportunity to talk to her, see how she does things. She’s the best in the world, so to get to learn from her every single day is an experience that not too many goaltenders get to have. I’m just trying to take advantage of that and challenge her as much as she challenges me.”
Challenge her, Hensley has, too. Though Szabados isn’t about to give up the mantle as best goaltender in the world with any ease, she’s getting a run for her money from Hensley as far as top NWHL keeper is concerned. Entering the all-star break, Szabados sits atop the league with a 1.38 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in 480 minutes in goal. Hensley is nipping at her heels, however, with a 1.40 GAA and .941 SP in 300 minutes of action. They both have two shutouts to their name, as well.
Even still, the only real competition between the two — and we’re talking of the dog-eat-dog variety — is in jest. Said Hensley, the netminders, both of whom will be heading to the NWHL all-star weekend in Nashville, have had razzed each other about lining up on separate sides of the ice at the festivities. Hensley will take the net for Team Stecklein at the showcase, while Szabados will be tending goal for the aptly named Team Szabados. But it’s not just in the all-star showdown that the two will square off. During Saturday’s skills competition, Szabados and Hensley will go tete-a-tete in the Fastest Goaltender competition.
What this season has provided Hensley with, more than competition, is a learning experience, and she sees herself taking little things from Szabados. Mindset, in particular, has been something Hensley has picked up. “When things aren’t going well in practices or games, the way (Shannon) is able to let goals roll off her shoulders like, ‘Eh, all good,’ and get right back to being the top of her game is definitely the reason she is who she is,” Hensley said. “Just trying to learn from those off ice things has been the biggest upside for me.”
And in a position that is as much mental as it is physical, those things matter. So do the little things Hensley picked up from two years spent behind the bench, things that have helped make her a better goaltender. Specifically, Hensley points to her understanding of how teams are beginning to run power plays — low to high instead of blasting away from the blueline — to counteract the way goaltending has been taught in recent years. Watching that from the safety of the bench helped Hensley alter her own reads on the penalty kill.
“It’s being aware of what that person at the side of the net is looking for; are they looking for that person in front, is there someone creeping down from the point for the back door,” Hensley said. “It gives you more of an idea of what to look for as opposed to kind of seeing who’s set up for a one-timer.”
It’s that attention to detail, not to mention Hensley’s natural ability, that has made her every bit as important to the Buffalo crease as Szabados. And come season’s end, be it Hensley between the pipes or Szabados getting the starts, the two goaltenders who squared off at the 2017 World Championship could very well be holding an Isobel Cup high while standing side-by-side.