Before the start of the NWHL's inaugural season Ashley Johnston was not a household name in women's hockey, but it hasn't taken long for the shut-down defenseman to demonstrate that she is the keystone of the Riveters' exceptional group of blueliners and to be discussed as one of the biggest breakout players in the NWHL. The unheralded Canadian was born just outside of Toronto in Burlington, Ontario and played her college hockey at Union College alongside current teammate Shenae Lundberg. In her senior year at Union the defenseman affectionately called "Stretch" by her teammates served as one of her team's two captains. That year she blocked 59 shots (second on her team), put 53 shots on net, scored six points, and was never penalized in 34 games with the Dutchwomen.
After her senior year Johnston served as a volunteer assistant coach at Union last season while working as a mechanical engineer in upstate New York. Somehow, Johnston continues to manage her career in the NWHL in addition to her work at a robotics firm just outside of Albany, New York. In addition to her two careers Johnston has also made a mark in every community she has ever been a part of with her dedication to help, enlighten, and encourage off of the ice.
Johnston's exceptional efforts to make a difference off the ice were on full display at Union. She was the recipient of the Award for Community Service and Outreach at Union College as a senior. The left-handed defenseman was also a candidate for the NCAA's Hockey Humanitarian of the Year Award during her senior year for her development of a prosthetic limb made to grow as its child-wearer grows.
Yep, it's safe to say that Ashley Johnston is very special person off the ice.
It should come as no surprise that Johnston is a student of the game given her day job. Johnston, who played a season in the CWHL with the Burlington Barracudas in 2009-10, is just 23 years old but displays a calm and composure on the ice that is well beyond her years. She is unflappable on the ice which is an invaluable trait for someone who is one the ice as frequently as Johnston is and how frequently she is asked to keep the top players on the opposing team in check. Ashley Johnston has been utterly invaluable to the Riveters through the first seven games of the NWHL season. Stretch is the kind of defenseman that you notice because of a big blocked shot, a broken up two-on-one, or perfectly executed stick-check that disarms an attacking forward in her zone. She does so much so well but has still found a way to escape the notice of far too many fans of women's hockey. Given how she's played this season for New York, I expect that to have changed by the end of the league's first season.
Johnston, like all of the Riveters, is quick to deflect praise directed her way to her teammates and especially her goaltenders, but she has undoubtedly been one of the Riveters best players this season. Elected as the franchise's first captain by her peers, Stretch is a towering figure on the ice that plays an exceptionally intelligent game. Being six feet tall gives her a crucial advantage in reach, but the Riveters' captain is also a smooth skater capable of jumping up into developing rushes, even if she has a natural tendency to play exceptional stay-at-home defense. With her thunderous slap shot, discerning defensive game, and commitment to improving herself and her game Ashley Johnston is anything but a one-dimensional hockey player.
Let's get to know the captain of the New York Riveters a little bit better.
: How old were you the first time your fingers tied up a pair of skates?
I was in first grade. My parents put me in a program to learn how to play ringette and skate.
MM: How and when did you discover that Shenae Lundberg, your teammate at Union, also signed the Riveters?
Shenae and I were both on the same team at the Beantown tournament. We talked throughout the weekend about the league, the team, etc. On the Sunday I think we both signed one right after the other and then went to play in our playoff game. It was a great moment that I am glad we both got to share and represent our college program so well.
MM: As a defenseman what has the transition been like from NCAA Division I Women's Hockey to the NWHL in regards to the quality of play?
You're playing against the top percentile of NCAA players so every aspect of the game is better. It's faster, there's a higher compete level and it's more physical. As the level of play rises, it definitely causes myself to play better in order to not just keep up, but also try to contribute every time I'm on the ice.
Johnston prowling the blue line for the New York Riveters.
MM: As one of the league's tallest players how much has your height shaped the way you play the game and how have you been able to stay out of the box in a league with so many players that are significantly smaller than you are?
I think the biggest thing is knowing my strengths and weaknesses in order to utilize them accordingly. I have always stressed using my stick and positioning to my advantage. It's an aspect of the game I continually work on through video and drills. On the flip side, in youth hockey I went through a huge growth spurt and with that a few leg and hip injuries, which really hampered my skating technique. Knowing that it was weakness, I've tried to continually work on it to make it a strength. Penalties I don't think about too much, but a lot of times, penalties are taken when you get out of position. I try to not be caught out of position very often, but when I am, I try to be able to recognize it immediately and recover.
MM: You were chosen as the captain of the New York Riveters by your teammates. Can you describe what that experience was like and what it means to you to wear the "C" for the Riveters?
It'll forever be a huge honour. The best part though is how supportive all the girls are. They are all huge leaders with the same core goals, which makes it easy to bring everyone together. This team has the best character I have ever been a part of.
MM: You are asked to play a lot of minutes on the Riveters' blue line. Are you doing anything in regards to training differently than the steps you took in college to prepare for games?
One of the biggest things I learned in my year off between college and the NWHL is to listen to my body. I've always been a big believer in high volume work - I can always be doing more to get better. If I'm not doing more, then someone else is and they'll beat me when the time comes. I learned that sometimes more means less. Doing more of the little things I never necessarily prioritized before: mobility, stretching, eating the right food, sleeping the correct amount of time, etc. Additionally, I think I've become mentally stronger. Before, I used to be my own worst enemy - I held myself to an almost impossible standard. I'd get so pissed at myself for making a bad play, causing a turn over, or having a shot blocked I'd have to have such a mental battle to be ready for the next shift. Now, I just appreciate the opportunity to play, to put on a jersey, and compete. I still have the same competitive edge, but I'm being more positive to myself, which allows me to have a clean slate not just every shift, but every play.
MM: So many precedents are being set in the NWHL's inaugural season including things like what is and isn't a penalty. As a captain, how do you decide when to have a few words with the officials about something that you disagree with?
You really have to pick and choose your battles. They're working just as hard as us and trying to make the correct calls. I make sure to show respect in order to have factual, not emotional conversations. As long as there is some clear cut validity and confidence to the call they made, I usually don't pursue it any farther unless it's a critical call that I or the coaching staff clearly disagrees with and will need some further discussion.
MM: Is it challenging to stay focused and get prepared for games with just two practices a week?
Ashley Johnston: I wouldn't necessarily say it's challenging, but it's definitely different. It makes you appreciate the ice time so much more. It's extra incentive to make every stride, every shot, every drill completed to the utmost effort. I'd say what's harder is the ice time. To wake up at 6:00AM, work 8 hours, drive 4 hours, lift for 1 hour, then try to be 100% checked in to a 1-hour 10:00 PM practice where every minute counts is difficult. It's taken some adjusting, but I'm definitely getting into a routine. I've also realized just how important sleep and nutrition are. There's nothing worse than being hungry halfway through practice.
Johnston's hard, accurate slap shot makes her a threat from the blue line.
MM: Do you have any pregame traditions or rituals that you like or need to do to before you take to the ice?
Not too many. I like to change it up as much as possible. I enjoy playing keep ups and doing some visualization before the game. The biggest thing for me is to not get into a routine where I'm just going through the motions, but instead be alert and slowly building excitement.
MM: What is Ashley Johnston doing when she isn't on the ice with the New York Riveters?
Working, sleeping, working out, volunteering.
MM: When did your passion for mechanical engineering start?
I always enjoyed building and inventing things. I originally wanted to go to med school, but the pre-req courses didn't really catch my attention. I realized I liked the physical action of building and designing medical equipment more than the actual biology of the human body. I switched into an engineering program at Union during my freshman year and absolutely loved it.
MM: What is your favorite off-ice memory so far with your teammates?
Our first win. That moment will only be beat by winning the Cup.
MM: Ashley, for some reason you have to be stranded on a desert island (you're definitely being rescued - probably by your teammates in a helicopter) with a small solar-powered television that has a built-in DVD player and, mercifully, plenty of survival gear. What five DVDs would you bring?
MM: In your opinion which New York Riveter is the biggest chirper on the ice?
Hmm.. I'm not too sure about that one. Ask me at the end of the season!
Johnston meeting a young fan on Military Appreciation Night.
MM: If you had the choice of what ends up on your plate, what would be your last meal?
Rare steak. Some of the girls laugh, I'm always eating. I eat a Macro style diet, which essentially just causes me to continually "graze" throughout the day, but all the time I'm having some sort of red meat. Rarer the better!!
MM: In your Double Overtime piece for NWHL.co you talked a great deal about how important it was to you to be a pioneer in a league that makes professional hockey a reality for little girls. What does it mean to you meeting the Riveters' honorary captains at Aviator and seeing the stands filled with young girls who are growing up in a world where paid professional women's hockey is a reality?
One of my favorite quotes is "Remember there is always a little girl in the stands that wants to be just like you, don't disappoint her." Prior to this league, there were so few professional female athletes who can be role models for these kids, especially in hockey. Essentially, the professional athletic world was letting down that little girl (and in many sports still is). There was no little girl in the stands because there was no league for her to support and thus no direct player role model for her to have. In creating a professional female hockey entity, we have provided young girls with 72 amazing role models for them to look up to. It's an incredible step in the correct direction.
MM: Is there anything you'd like to say to the New York Riveters fans that might be reading this interview?
Thank you all so much for your support. This league wouldn't be where it is today without your help. Additionally, thank you to everyone who has purchased my jersey. Instead of receiving my 15% profit from them, I have chosen to donate it to "The Fast Break Fund" which helps send unprivileged youth and youth with disabilities to camps and different athletic programs. Check them out: http://www.fastbreakfund.org/
I'd like to extend a sincere thank you to Ashley Johnston for taking the time to do this interview despite having an extremely busy schedule. You can support Ashley Johnston's charity of choice and the NWHL by picking up her jersey at the NWHL's online store. Stretch and the rest of the Riveters will be back on the ice this weekend at the Aviator Sports and Events Center in Brooklyn when they play host to the Connecticut Whale. The Riveters will be collecting new, unwrapped toys for Toys for Tots. After their meeting with the undefeated Connecticut Whale the Riveters will do some globetrotting when they travel to Japan for a three game exhibition series against Team Japan.
It's safe to say that the New York Riveters chose their captain well when they awarded the "C" to the woman they call Stretch. Make sure to come out to Aviator and watch her and the Riveters take to the ice, grow the game, and play their part as pioneers in women's hockey.
Let's go Riveters.