Kelley Steadman could be considered one of the biggest success stories in the two-year existence of the National Women’s Hockey League.
Steadman, now 26, was a four-year regular at Mercyhurst, but with just the U.S. National team to look forward to after graduation, she was on the outside looking in. She played a handful of World Championships games without scoring a point, but was never selected for an Olympic Games roster. With just 23 spots available for full-time, top-flight women’s hockey in the United States, Steadman was left in the cold. She played one season with the Boston Blades of the amateur CWHL and another year in Europe.
Finally in the summer of 2014, she took a job as an assistant coach with the Robert Morris women’s team. For most athletes, the start of coaching is the end of competition and Steadman didn’t think she would be any different.
In 2015, the NWHL came into existence and flipped that script.
Steadman, a season and a half removed from competition, joined the new league’s Buffalo Beauts as a practice player to see what she had left. It turns out, that was a lot. She led the Beauts in scoring with 20 points in the inaugural season and finished fourth in the league in scoring (first in points per game) and third in goals.
She was named to the league’s first All-Star Game, won the most accurate shot portion of the skills competition and then scored the first all-star goal in league history. Her sweater from that night is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. At the end of the season, she helped lead the Beauts to the Isobel Cup finals. Most impressively, she did all of that while continuing to coach the Colonials to a College Hockey America postseason berth of their own.
“That’s been a huge part of our ethos, giving these women an opportunity to play after college and to have players like Kelley Steadman step up,” NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan said. “She may not be on the US National Team, but she’s one of the best players in the NWHL.”
Originally from upstate New York, Steadman has spent years playing hockey as an itinerant. From college to national team camps to her journey overseas, all of it was spent in short-term accommodations. She now makes her home in Pittsburgh, but spends her weekends driving to Buffalo or farther to make her NWHL games.
With the NWHL All-Star Game coming to Pittsburgh this weekend, it’s pretty fitting that Steadman, the kind of player the league was essentially designed for, will be the one to benefit most. Instead of an hours-long commute to a game, Steadman will get to sleep in her own bed and make about a 20-minute drive to the game. It’s a concept that’s taken some time to get used to.
“Even in my brain, I’m thinking the All-Star game is ‘here,’ meaning here in Buffalo and I’m still going to drive three hours,” Steadman said. “One of the [Robert Morris] girls at practice was saying that it’s cool that they’ll have a home game Saturday and then can watch on Sunday. That’s pretty cool.”
Though she’s been coaching and playing at the same time for over a year and a half now, not very many of Steadman’s players have gotten the opportunity to see her strap on the pads in competition. The Beauts usually play on Sundays — the only day off for the Colonials team when they play Friday and Saturday nights.
“Last year, a couple girls came to one of our home games in Buffalo because we had an off week with Robert Morris,” Steadman said. “I think only three of them have ever watched a game. It’ll be nice to see them come out.”
The Robert Morris women won’t be the only group that will get to watch Steadman play for the first time. Several local youth organizations are planning to be on hand and Steadman thinks the event will be a great way to show the strides that women’s hockey has taken in the Steel City.
“It’s huge. I think Dani [Rylan] really saw the potential for a great market here,” Steadman said. “There’s so many good youth teams and the Pens Elite organization. I think it’s an awesome opportunity for a new city to see what the NWHL has and what our players bring to the game. It’s an awesome idea to just get a little bit of expansion. Pittsburgh is obviously a great hockey city and I think we’ll be really warmly welcomed.”
Steadman can be sure about the warm welcome that the Pittsburgh hockey community can bring because it’s something she’s experienced, as well. After several years of transience, she’s settled into her dual role as a pro player and a collegiate coach and into the adoptive home town that’s given her the opportunity to do so.
“I often tell people that I came here when I got back from overseas thinking that I would just be here for a year, work with Robert Morris and then move on to a full-time coaching position,” she said. “Obviously, I fell in love with my job, fell in love with the city and the people here, so I stuck around for a couple more years and I’m hoping to stick around even longer.”
Steadman will be one of the captains for the All-Star Game, as “Team Steady” will face “Team Kessel,” captain by Amanda Kessel, the sister of the Penguins winger. The skills competition will take place at 4 p.m. on Saturday and the All-Star Game starts at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are available at the NWHL website.