By Janet Schultz, Women’s Hockey Writer
Just what is success?
If you ask coaches, players, parents and fans they will say the most wins and taking home a championship.
With the Buffalo Regals team it’s much more. It’s having a team that has been together since they were 9 years old, respect each other, continue to develop their skill set and just play the best hockey they can. The outcome…not only a trip to the USA Nationals last season but a team that knows each others moves and brings it on the ice at the highest level.
Jersey Phillips began her hockey career at 6 years old and at 9 she became a member of the Buffalo Regals under Coach Tom Ruggiero.
Now at 17 she is still a Regal and is one of the most skilled players in the WNYGVIH league with the Lancaster/Iroquois/Depew team.
Her goal is not only to play college hockey, but to be a starter at that level. Then she hopes that the NWHL will expand and she will be part of the women’s professional hockey movement.
Phillips explains that the Regals success comes from players not moving in and out. This group of girls has been together since they were nine years old. They know each other, they respect each other and they sometimes even play against each other on their school teams.
“People stay with the Regals once they come,” explains Phillips. “Coach Tom is tough and sometimes plays with your head, but that what it’s like at the college level and he is preparing us.”
The highlight of her career as a Regal was last season when they had an “awesome” season, winning tournaments and getting to the top.
“We would fall apart at practice right before a tournament and then hit the ice in the tournament and everything would come together,” she said.
“Last season we won all six games in the State Qualifiers, including beating Bishop Kearney (a WNY private school). At the States we lost but by staying competitive we got the bid to the Nationals,” she continued.
“By beating the top 10 teams in the nation at some point in the season, we got noticed.”
Her teammate, Abby Ruggiero, has played since she was four years old. Ruggiero is in a unique position since her Dad is the Regals coach, and has been since the beginning of her career.
She agrees with Phillips that this team has a special connection.
“Most of us have played together since we were younger, we have a bond and when a new player came into the locker room, they see that bond and are welcomed,” said Abby.
“It makes it special and this season we are all together again.
When Abby says all together, she means it. Coach Tom explains that when he turned in his roster for the 2019-2020 season he told the Registrar he had no changes. The Registrar thought he was kidding. Coach Tom said no one left, no one came in and there were no changes in the parent’s situation. The roster of the Regals 19U team from 2018-19 is exactly the same this season.
Abby is focused on developing this year, as it is her last before heading off to college.
“I want to see myself improve more and I want this team to go further,” she said.
Going further means winning the USA Nationals in Blaine, Minnesota in April 2020.
After that she plans on playing college hockey and thinks it would be cool to follow her sister.
That sister is Emma Ruggiero, who just signed a contract with the NWHL Buffalo Beauts.
Coach Tom puts everything into perspective.
“Parents pay a lot of money for the girls to play, the players come to work and they are a tremendous group of young ladies, but there are expectations,” explains Coach Tom.
“This core group started out together and win or lose they play at a high level.
“It’s not easy to build a team and keep a team. We have had opportunities to bring on ladies that may have been more skilled and as much as we want to win, and we play to win, we feel we have the right young ladies in the locker room right now and don’t need to change that.
“We take our accomplishments year by year, the parents buy in and the players buy in. That speaks volumes,” continued Coach Tom.
He admits that it hasn’t always been easy. But as long as the parents, players and coaches buy into the expectations they keep things as they are and have a lot of pride in that.
He agrees that their goal this year is to get back to the USA Nationals.
“The girls believe and know they are good enough to go back,” he says. “As coaches we want to put them in the position to play the highest level of hockey that they want.”
The 16U team played the toughest schedule in the US last season. They beat teams like the Chicago Mission and Bay State; internationally they beat Stoney Creek and Oakville.
“We go to high profile Showcase Tournaments because it helps them get better by playing the best teams,” Coach Tom explains.
Coach also tires to keep his development new by changing things up when drills get stale.
But the bottom line with this team is that the girls have a chemistry, they developed it.
While he would love for all of them to be best friends, with that many players he knows that is not going to happen.
His philosophy is that they have to respect each other both on and off the ice.
“These 20 girls wanted to be Buffalo Regal;s, so if you aren’t best friends, respect each other.
“When you step in the ice, if you have team success, you have individual success,” emphasizes Coach Tom.
“The Regals are the place to be,” said Coach Tom. “You must be willing to make a commitment, there are no shortcuts.
“I have given up so much including friends, things at school, other sports; it’s insane how much you have to put into this, but the girls that don’t put anything into it don’t get anything out of it,” she explains.
“You have to 100 percent for this sport; especially this team and Coach Tom, to get something out of it,” said Phillips.
For the players that something is a national championship, placement at the DI or DIII level of college hockey and possibly a place in the NWHL.
The Buffalo Regals team had a 2-2 record in the Beantown Women’s Classic Division, advancing to the Gold Division Playoffs.
They were 2-2-1 at the Stoney Creek Midget AA Showcase
Tournament Champions, Buffalo Inferno with a 4-0-1 record
Two Nations College Prep, 2-3
East Coast Wizard Holiday Invitational, lost in Finals to Bay State, 4-1-1 record
NYS Championships lost in finals to Bishop Kearney
USA Hockey Nationals, 2-1 record losing to Shattuck St. Marys 1-0; losing to Connecticut Polar Bears 2-1 in overtime and beating the Penn Elite 3-0.