Twenty years later, Peter Scamurra still keeps that old card on a wall next to the refrigerator at the family house in Williamsville, as a ready reminder of just how far his daughter has come in hockey.
Hayley was 7 years old at the time, playing for her dad on the boys’ travel mites team in Wheatfield. The team put together a booklet of player cards of the kids, who had to list their favorite players, favorite team, and their personal goal in life.
“It was a boys’ team, so they all wrote that they wanted to be NHL players,” Hayley said last week from the USA Hockey training site in Minnesota. “I wrote that I wanted to be an Olympian. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy to think about.”
Peter, who played four years for Washington in the NHL and was inducted into the Great Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2019, laughed at the memory. “Where that came from, I have no idea,” he said. “We never talked about it.”
Women’s hockey had been added to the Olympics a few years earlier, when the U.S. won gold in Nagano in 1998. As a little girl, Hayley couldn’t imagine pro hockey as a realistic ambition. But the Olympics, now there was something any girl could aim for.
Little did Hayley know that making the U.S. national team would be such a distant, seemingly unreachable goal. In fact, she played professionally before ever lacing up skates for her country for the very first time.
Scamurra grew up to be a fine hockey player. After playing three years of junior Canadian hockey during high school (she went to Nichols), she played four years at Northeastern University, where she was named the top defensive forward in Hockey East as a senior in 2017.
Still, by the time Scamurra left college, the Getzville native had never received an invitation to a Team USA training camp. The women’s national hockey team was occupied by talented women who had been involved in the program for years, and it was difficult for any outsider to get serious consideration for a spot.
“It frustrated her, and it certainly frustrated me,” Peter Scamurra said. “Not that she didn’t make the team, but that she wasn’t one of the 60 players picked (to try out). Even after she graduated college, she had no word, no contact with them whatsoever.”
It wasn’t until Scamurra joined the Buffalo Beauts after her senior year in college – and then became the NWHL Rookie of the Year in 2017-18 – that someone from USA Hockey finally called and invited her to try out.
Scamurra made the national team. She played in the rivalry series against Canada in the winter of 2019, then was part of the USA team that won its fifth straight gold medal at the World Championships in Finland, beating the host country in a shootout to win it all.
She has been a fixture on the national squad ever since. And on New Year’s Day, as expected, Hayley achieved her childhood goal when she was selected for the USA women’s hockey team that will defend its Olympic gold next month in Beijing, China.
“I’m overjoyed,” Scamurra said. “A lot of things had to go right for me to find this path. I was lucky enough to be able to play professional hockey in my hometown with the Beauts. That’s ultimately what then led me to have this opportunity with the national team.”
It’s an elite, experienced group, with 15 of the 23 players having previous Olympic experience. Hilary Knight is playing on her record-tying fourth Olympic team. Kendall Coyne Schofield, Amanda Kessel and Lee Stecklein are going to the Games for a third time.
Those four women were part of a USA team that won Olympic gold in a shootout over Canada in South Korea in 2018, ending Canada’s streak of four straight Olympic titles. They also suffered a crushing overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
That’s a lot of talent on one roster, one that is expected to meet Canada for the gold medal in one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports.
“Yeah, it’s so amazing,” Scamurra said. “You have so much more respect for them now, going through the process and knowing how much time and energy it takes to make it that many times. It’s really just unbelievable to excel as much as they do.
“They tell me to just enjoy every moment. It flies by and it’s the coolest experience ever. Just take everything in as much as you can. It’s a different beast compared to other tournaments we play.”
Of course, these Olympics will be even more unusual because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Athletes will be tested daily for the virus and Chinese authorities will keep the athletes and media in a closed loop or “bubble” that will incorporate housing and transportation.
Also, no outside spectators will be allowed to enter China during the Olympics from Feb. 4-20. Families of U.S. players won’t be able to attend, same as at last summer’s Games in Tokyo.
“Horrible, horrible,” said Peter Scamurra. “For her first Olympics. I would never say this to her, because it would ruin the experience. But I’m sure she’s disappointed, too, that there can’t be fans or her family.
“We were all set to do it,” he said. “We assumed that it would be over with by then. Little did we know. Now I just hope that they manage to get over there and play the games.”
Seeing Hayley make the Olympic team was emotional for Peter, who in 1975 became the first Buffalo-area player taken in the NHL draft. He had one chance to play for the U.S. men’s national team but was cut after trying out for the 1976 World Cup team despite being one of the top scorers in camp.
“I always wanted her to play for her country and have that thrill and that experience,” said Peter, who coached Hayley’s three brothers when they were young. “It’s something I always wanted to do and never accomplished. It’s neat to see her come out with the USA jersey on and be part of that elite situation. It’s nice to see.”
Hayley said it felt as if she were realizing two goals by making the Olympic team. Peter began coaching her on the rink he built in his backyard. He coached her until she was 12 years old — officially, anyway. She says he’s been offering guidance and advice her entire career.
“It’s something we’ve both been dreaming of together,” said. “He’s been with me through it all. He was traveling with me; he was coaching me, he put in a lot of effort and time to help me get to this point. Yeah, he’s definitely relishing this along with me.
“He was so excited. He was so proud. I was definitely tearing up a little bit.”
Scamurra turned 27 last month. That’s typically an athlete’s prime and it feels that way to her.
“I feel really good physically and mentally,” she said, “and this is kind of the best hockey I’ve played in my career, which is exciting to say.”
She’s a fourth-liner for the American team, a physical power forward who prides herself on checking and creating plays for her teammates. That sounds familiar to the man who coached her 20 years ago.
“She was on my energy line,” Peter recalled. “She would go in there and forecheck and retrieve the puck, which is what she does well now. Her strength is her puck retrieval, her forecheck, that kind of thing. She always had that tenacity, a winger mentality and an aggressiveness to go in and get the puck.
“Even against the boys, she was very effective at it.”
Scamurra was an effective scorer at Northeastern, where had 111 points in 123 career games and was a staggering plus-83. She led the NWHL in scoring in her final season with the Beauts in 2018-19.
Regrettably, her professional career halted after that season. Scamurra was among a group of around 200 women’s players who boycotted the NWHL — now called the Premier Hockey Federation — and joined with players from the Canadian women’s league to form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.
The PWHPA hoped to create a new league that would become a sustainable vehicle for the best women’s hockey players in North America, one that would provide livable salaries and benefits and some of the perks that men’s pros take for granted.
They partnered with some NHL teams for exhibitions in ensuing years, including the NHL all-star game. The pandemic hurt their momentum. But the Olympics is a chance to shine a light on the women’s game, especially with the NHL players not taking part.
“I think the Olympics is normally our time to shine for sure,” Scamurra said, “and I feel like it puts women’s hockey on the map. There’s data that shows it grows women’s hockey exponentially, especially after the gold in 2018. So, I’m excited for what we’re going to showcase here.”
On Tuesday, in fact, the Premier Hockey Federation announced it was doubling each team’s salary cap to $750,000 over the next three years — an investment of more than $25 million — to capitalize on the Olympic interest and improve relations with the PWHPA.
Scamurra is hopeful that she’ll be able to resume her pro career after Beijing. She said her hockey career might have ended after college if not for the Beauts, and she’s forever grateful for the opportunity.
“We’re looking at what the landscape will look like for a professional league,” Scamurra said. “From there, I’ll most likely be moved to wherever my team is located, if that’s possible, based on salary and stuff. But I do feel like there will be something special after the Olympics for our group of post-graduates to play in.”
For now, she’s focused on the opportunity of a lifetime at the Olympics, a chance to win a gold medal.
“I think it’s something she wanted really, really badly and was never too vocal about it,” Peter said. “But I knew deep inside she wanted to achieve that goal.”
He has the evidence next to the refrigerator at home. Peter said he wrote Hayley a “nice letter” that she can read when she arrives with the U.S. team in China.
It’s pretty crazy to think about, but that little girl finally made it.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.