For Buffalo Beauts defender Richelle Skarbowski, a 2019-20 professional debut in the NWHL has been a few seasons in the making. The Orchard Park, New York native wrapped up four campaigns of NCAA play, ending with the 2016-17 season. She served as team captain of the SUNY Cortland Red Dragons in that final go-round. Now after a two-season break, Skarbowski is donning the “Beauts blue” of her hometown team.
“It means a lot,” she explained. “It’s something that your whole life growing up playing hockey, you think about it, you dream about it. Being able to be home in front of my whole family – especially having younger nieces that are starting to play hockey, and having them being able to come out to the games and see it all come to fruition – knowing that you have family and fans who really care about the team is so big. All around, just happiness and excitement both for myself and for my family.”
Skarbowski has played in all 10 of the Beauts’ regular season games thus far. With 14 more regular season games still to go, head coach Pete Perram seems inclined to utilize Skarbowski as one of his main defensive specialists.
“I’m definitely a very defensive, reserved defender,” she told THW. “I think that comes into play during target games where we’re playing against teams that are quicker and who are in our end more. I really feel that I provide a good presence back there, especially with my size. That’s what I really like to focus on and take care of.”
A Big Body and a Big Heart
Listed at 5-foot-10, Skarbowski is the tallest skater on the Beauts’ roster. She possesses a very long reach with the stick, and utilizes her strength to battle in front of the net and in the corners. Still looking to record her first NWHL point, Skarbowski has blocked seven shots along the way.
“It brings me a lot of pride to be a stronger defender in the back end,” Skarbowski said. “Playing a little offensively and doing what I can in that regard, but I know my role is more of the stronger, reserved, defensive-side of things. Trying to work hard and grind it out in the corners. Do what I can for the team.”
Skarbowski has primarily been paired with another stay-at-home Beauts defender in Ana Orzechowski. The duo have been Perram’s third D-unit for the majority of the season. Though neither Skarbowski or Orzechowski are called upon to generate points, they possess size and physicality to the extent that opposing shooters are given a rough go whenever they are working around the Buffalo net.
The 2019-20 edition of the Beauts is a tightly-knit bunch that has developed a “we’re a family” mindset very quickly. Skarbowski is one of the team’s 19 newcomers to the NWHL. No matter if she is working with Orzechowski, a different D-partner like the sandpapery Ashley Birdsall, or any of her other teammates, there is a reassurance that Skarbowski feels on the Buffalo bench and in the locker room.
“It’s very special to walk into a team that comes together like that,” Skarbowski said, “especially in such a short period of time. Coming from all different backgrounds, and just the sheer number of us that are coming into this new home. It’s nice to have the support of the returners helping you along the way, but it’s also like we’re all in this together as the newbies into the group. It really helps to bring that bond in, both on and off the ice. Very positive, very constructive to have that kind of support out there from your teammates.
Timing Is Everything in Life
Skarbowski split her NCAA career between two different collegiate women’s hockey programs, following her high school years with the Ontario Hockey Academy . She initially started at the University of New England. From 2013-14 through 2015-16, Skarbowski compiled 64 penalty minutes in 43 games for the Nor’easters.
After her sophomore season, she would move a bit closer to home by enrolling at SUNY Cortland. Skarbowski would continue to play hard-nosed, defensive hockey, and would eventually become captain of the Red Dragons in her senior season. By the time her NCAA career came to a close, she had accumulated 112 PIMs in 84 career games between the two schools.
As is often the case for more physical players, Skarbowski’s style would begin to take a toll on her body during the final months of her collegiate career. Though she would finish the season by playing in all 25 of Cortland’s games, she needed a breather afterward.
Some athletes find that time away from the competition hampers their level of play. For Skarbowski, taking a full two seasons off following college was an opportunity to become rejuvenated.
“College took a bit of a toll on me physically,” she said. “Going through some injuries with my back and my hips. I really took advantage of the last two years to just reset and bring myself back to basics. Regaining that strength and mobility that I found myself lacking toward the end of my college career, battling through those last couple months of my senior year. Taking a break for some might be detrimental, but for me it enabled me to get healthy again, and to a place where I’m feeling stronger than ever. More mobile than ever, and just was ready to play hockey again.”
The Hometown Support of Family and Friends
Of the 22 players on the Beauts roster, Skarbowski is one of six who grew up in Western New York. Buffalo’s home games are played inside the hospitable Northtown Center – or what is more affectionately known as “Fort Beaut” – in the city’s suburb of Amherst. Members of Skarbowki’s family have been in attendance for each of the Beauts’ home games this season, and their support has been extra special for the team’s tallest rearguard.
“There’s such a level of support that when you’re far away from home you don’t always have,” Skarbowski said. “Support and more excitement. I get excited to play for them, and especially my dad. He’s been my coach growing up when I was younger. Every step of the way, him driving 12-plus hours for one of the games. Being able to see his excitement and his support, it motivates me even more on the ice.”
The Beauts are the only team in NWHL history to make it to the Isobel Cup Final in each of the league’s four prior seasons. Skarbowski and teammates are hoping to make it a “drive for five” and win the championship that has not been theirs since 2017. A number of smaller goals must happen along the way in order for the season to culminate into a championship.
For Skarbowski, it starts with putting her best skate forward – day in and day out.
“Personally,” she said, “I think my goals are becoming the best player and the best teammate I can be to help our team with success. Really just tighten up my game, especially in the defensive end. That’s usually my biggest focus. Tightening up and trying to perfect it so that I can bring my best game for the team every single time we step on the ice.”
“Professionally, I think my biggest goal is to consistently bring a positive attitude – both as a teammate and as a person off the ice to our fans. Not only as someone who enjoys the game, but enjoys bringing happiness to people who are coming to watch us play. Really make people feel welcomed and included. Being from Buffalo, I love seeing our city’s sports fans – and I’m one of them!”