Teaching moments abound for Neumann

Kelsey Neumann CWHL Draft
Kelsey Neumann teaches English, and previously learned some Russian and goaltending from an expert. Now she hopes her underdog career path will force her to master French. (Photo credit: Shanna Martin-Book/CWHL)

Kelsey Neumann knows all about playing backup and paying one’s dues.

The Les Canadiennes de Montreal draftee played one period of intercollegiate Division I hockey. On Groundhog Day 2010, her Clarkson Golden Knights made a simple drive down the road to St. Lawrence. There she gave junior goaltender Lauren Dahm her only night off of the year, stopping 22 shots in a 4-1 loss.

After transferring to Division III’s SUNY-Plattsburgh, she mustered 60 minutes and 54 seconds over three regular-season appearances in 2011-12. Her name never showed up on any other Cardinals stat sheet.

Time for the educator in the making to swap out the pads for a pad and pencil? No, not completely and not for good.

In 2016-17, as a walk-on rookie with the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts, Neumann logged two periods in as many exhibition games. Team USA veteran Brianne McLaughlin, the eventual playoff MVP, was the clear go-to goalie for the Isobel Cup champions.

This past winter, she finally saw action against a fellow NWHL club. But her shift lasted 32 seconds in a 4-1 win over Connecticut. Naturally, the credit for the victory went to all-star Amanda Leveille, as did the rest of the campaign’s crease time.

But in between, Neumann stood out as the Beauts’ first recipient of the NWHL Foundation Award. Since 2016-17, the league has singled out one player from each team for “actively applying the core values of hockey to her community as well as growing the game and improving hockey culture.”

Taking Somali, Congolese and Eritrean immigrants on their first excursion to an ice rink is one way of doing that. This summer, Neumann did so as a way of combining her game with her sunlight vocation as an English as a second language (ESL) teacher.

Now on the cusp of attaining her teaching certificate, Neumann has honed her pedagogy through the Buffalo-based Journey’s End program. The opportunity presented itself when one full-time ESL instructor took maternity leave. Upon the predecessor’s return, she and Neumann briefly rotated before the old incumbent moved to another department.

Since then, Neumann has built a team of her own with her teenage and twentysomething Anglophone apprentices.

Journey’s End Refugee Services was founded in 1979 when a slew of Cambodians settled into the Buffalo area after the Khmer Rouge crisis. Today the organization caters to those fleeing more than a dozen troubled nations with resettlement, education and job-training.

Teaching ESL at the ground level, Neumann sees the skills break out in every fashion. Sending a student to the program’s second rung is the culmination of a given relationship.

“Their reading ability is about Pre-K to end-of-first-grade reading level,” she told Pucks and Recreation. “Whenever I get to see them improve on paper, that’s great. But I may have some students who don’t have the ability to read the test.”

That is when they show what they have absorbed through conversation instead. And it’s not always restricted to flavorless fundamentals.

Following a year-round itinerary, Neumann’s class will at times have a student absent for a week-plus at a time. But on one pupil’s return from a breather, the craving to delve back in was palpable.

“She came into the classroom the other day so exicted and so happy, saying ‘I missed all of you!’”

With assistance from an intern, Neumann helped another learner nail the phonetic difference between B and P. The achievement elicited a round of high-fives. It was one testament to the teacher’s goal of creating “as fun and great an atmosphere as possible.”

“Yes, we are a school,” she said. “But we try to get them out of school, field trip-wise, and that kind of stuff.”

So at the end of June, when the NHL’s Sabres ran their annual prospect camp at HarborCenter, Neumann naturally filled an off day with an optional trip to her other workplace.

“A handful of (students) met us,” she said. And there, next to the only NHL arena where two national anthems precede all games, a cornucopia of cultures converged.

Athletic dream chasers from around North America plus the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden constituted the attraction. Outright novice viewers finding relief from the strife of their native lands in Africa looked on.

As the master of the sport in the stands watched her fellow spectators, she could “see their excitement grow.”

Climbing north
The prospect of playing for Les Canadiennes spells Neumann’s first chance to uproot to another country. That fact is a tad surprising given how much she has darted around the Lower 48 through her first 27 years.

If you know her background and aspirations, but not her phone number, you could anticipate any one of 10 area codes on your screen after scheduling a call. Even then, you just might see an 11th code when she rings.

Neumann was born in Southern California, but admits she moved too early to remember living there. She subsequently lived in Texas and North Carolina. Her father, Tracy, is still based in the latter as chair of a pastoral council.

For the better part of Neumann’s early upbringing, her mother, Cindi, homeschooled her and her older brother, Justus. But the siblings has plenty of chances to learn outside their walls and outside their native tongue.

“My brother has an ear for language,” she said.

Neumann would scoop up some American Sign Language and Italian. But following her brother’s precedent, she established a lofty connection to Russian.

After taking lessons at Justus’ request to Cindi, the two younger Neumanns frequented Vladislav Tretiak’s goaltending camp in Minnesota. From the ages of eight to 14, Kelsey honed her craft under the Soviet stopper’s tutelage.

As a bonus, “every once in a while, we could have a short conversation in Russian with him.”

After her last go-round with Tretiak, Neumann moved to Wisconsin. She spent one season on the predominantly male 2005-06 Madison Capitols bantam team, opposite Amanda Kessel.

From there, she completed high school over three years at the North American Hockey Academy in Vermont. That was the most recent time she held a starting job in net, let alone put sparkling stats on paper. She left the academy with 54 shutouts, a .930 save percentage and a slender 1.16 goals-against average.

NAHA was also where she established her scholarly aptitude as an honors student. For a time that appeared to be her sole professional foundation. In what could have been her senior season at SUNY-Plattsburgh, she was not even on the roster.

By then, Neumann had graduated with a degree in communications, then went to Canisius College in Buffalo. There she worked as a teacher’s aid at local schools and obtained her master’s in childhood education and special education in 2015.

That autumn, Journey’s End came calling and the Beauts began play as one of the NWHL’s Founding Four franchises. By that point, Neumann was three-and-a-half years removed from her last competitive game. Moreover, with McLaughlin, Amanda Makela and Kimberley Sass, Buffalo had sturdy goaltending depth.

But the serendipitous local connection was too tempting to ignore. In June 2016, Neumann attended the Beauts’ free-agent camp. They would ink her to their taxi squad that fall.

Meantime, with her students, she suspects she has unwittingly lived out Gordie Howe’s old saying about the two languages all hockey players speak. With Arabic, Congo, Somali and Swahili in the melting pot, she makes the effort to let the pupils play teacher on occasion.

But, she admits, “They might all not be appropriate words. They all laugh whenever I say it. I’m not sure.”

If Neumann has it her way in the crease, though, she will not seek any pardons for uttering French. She already has her Buffalo day boss’ blessing. Jacqueline Ashby, the coordinator of educational services at Journey’s End, is Canadian expatriate and proficient Francophone.

“My boss knows about the (Montreal) camp, and she’s very excited,” Neumann said. “At the same time, I know it’s more of a tryout camp. So I’m hoping to be able to tell her a bit more.”

Out of the ‘bleu’
When she entered the CWHL Draft, Neumann was not banking on Montreal, since the club did not interview her. Yet in the eighth round on Aug. 28, Les Canadiennes picked her up.

The next step is mid-September’s training camp. It will be her turn to do what she watched with her students 11 weeks earlier.

And she hopes she will earn the need to nail the local lexicon. She wants a turn going international and reversing her role outright.

“Going into the draft, I didn’t even know I was anywhere near Montreal’s radar,” she said. “So I find it really fitting.”

Hockey-wise, not much is changing for Neumann besides the setting and the personnel. She is again facing a steep path to the goaltending stable.

Last year’s Les Canadiennes had the CWHL’s winningest netminder in Emerance Maschmeyer. Over the offseason, they obtained league veteran and two-time Canadian Olympian Geneviève Lacasse.

But, Neumann says, she has reiterated her own lessons of repetitive preparation for herself while teaching some of her own nation’s newcomers. Hers is the same fundamental approach to imparting language lessons or becoming a full-time sentient Shooter Tutor (or better).

“It’s all about making sure you’ve done everything that you can to make sure the next day is going to go smoothly,” she said. “I want to know that I’m putting in the work.”

Because you never know when you might get the call. You might even know where it’s coming from, let alone what the party on the other end speaks.

Al Daniel

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