Hockey keeps strange hours. At 10:30 pm this past Sunday, Aviator Sports and Events Center, a former airplane hangar at the empty end of Flatbush Avenue, was hopping. For the second time that night, a line of fans extended out the door. The first line had been to watch the New York Riveters play. The second line, later that night, was to meet them.
The Riveters had just played a grueling, physical game that started an hour and a half late and ended in a 7-1 loss. Many of them had to work regular jobs the next morning; still, they sat at a table, chatted with fans, signed autographs, and kept smiling for another hour. No one went home empty handed – or no one I saw, anyway. I left before they did.
The Riveters are one of four teams in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), the first in North America to actually pay its players, who range from marquee names like Olympian Hilary Knight, a forward for the Boston Pride, to Manhattanville College star turned beer league stalwart Cherie Stewart, a practice player for the Riveters. The NWHL is clearly committed not only to building a relationship with their fans, but also to growing the women’s game; as Knight pointed out, “USA Hockey is trying to create opportunities for girls all over the country.”
It seems to be working. The stands were packed with girls’ hockey teams, who joined the NWHLers on the ice for a handshake line before puck drop. Brooke Ammerman described what it meant to see all those local sweaters in the seats: “we want them to aspire to be better than us one day.” Ashley Johnston added, “(They’re) the best fans in the league; they just proved that today.” The question is, will they prove it again next weekend? How about next year?
Commissioner Dani Rylan says yes. Two weeks into the NWHL’s inaugural season, with Rylan and others pounding the press circuit, coverage of the league has increased, and the marquee has expanded as more players make their names known. Riveters forward Janine Weber stopped by MSG Network and juggled clementines for fans at Aviator. Knight may be the best-known player for the Pride, but it was Brianna Decker who scored twice, once short-handed, in Sunday’s game. And former Princeton Tiger Gabie Figueroa, who netted the Rivs’ lone goal, is using her degree in civil engineering to help design the Kingsbridge National Ice Center in the Bronx. (Her mother remarked to me after the game that, while she was thrilled to see her daughter playing professional hockey, “It was a little more physical than I was used to! I was getting a little worried. Most of them need to get up and make a living.”)
When it comes to making the league equivalent of a living, the Riveters especially face a daunting task, because as far as Manhattan-dwellers are concerned, their home ice may as well be on Mars. Going out to Aviator is a commitment: there’s no nearby subway, just one bus (you have to request the stop), and the games end late on a school night. You can’t simply drop by; you’re in or you’re out. In fact, in that sense, it’s a lot like playing hockey.
That similarity may actually help the Riveters succeed. Hockey fans, like hockey players, know that their game is tough to love. The NHL falls short of some college sports in popularity, but that just makes its devotees more, well, devoted. And those folks who are used to waking up at 5 am to drive their kids to practice? Going to inconvenient places (Lake Placid, anyone?) at strange hours is par for the course.
So find a friend with a car and make the trip, because there’s damn good hockey waiting at the end of it. This weekend’s games were fast, fierce, and physical. Zoe Hickel of the Pride assured reporters that “the level of play is just going to get better; we’re going to get better as a team, and so is everyone else. There’s better and better hockey to come.”
The Riveters will need to get better, fast. Even though the score didn’t reflect the battle on the ice, after two losses, coach Chad Wiseman was frustrated. It wasn’t the loss that bothered him so much as the level of play. “You want to keep raising the bar every game, even if you’re not winning you’re raising the bar and getting better … We just have to be better. There’s no excuses here.”
It’s only fair to point out that the Riveters have been playing together twice a week for just five weeks, while some of the Boston Pride have passed the puck for five years. Still, women’s hockey is a pretty small world, and many in the NWHL have crossed paths before. Riveters D Ashley Johnston agreed: “Those girls, they’re good, but we beat their college teams, lost to their college teams, but we played against them. It’s not like they’re in a whole different league.”
The league they’re in now has a few issues to iron out – first and foremost, how physical these games are going to be. Will fights and double-digit penalties be the exception, or the rule? Hickel described the scrappy play as “awesome – we all want to play hard and we want the refs to let us play, but we want to stay safe, too.” However, her teammate Knight admitted to being “a little upset; the ebbs and flows of the game could have been handled a bit differently.” Knight had good reason to be concerned: one of the game’s harder “ebbs” had sent her spinning into the Riveters net.
Asked if the NWHL needed a clearer code in regard to physical play, Johnston responded: “It’s not rocket science. If somebody does a cheap shot, we’re all teammates, we’re all there to protect each other. If one person goes in, that means we all do.” Code or no code, Johnston and the rest of the Riveters will need to show off skills other than shot blocking and penalty killing if they’re going to win games – and fans.
Can the Riveters raise the bar that high?
It’s worth the trip to Aviator to find out.