Hockey requires a special kind of stamina, the ability to go all-out, mentally and physically, for 45 grueling seconds at a time. We've seen the videos: Chris Kreider leaping from a pool on the strength of his legs alone; Derick Brassard hauling weights at the most expensive "gas station" in Connecticut. What happens when players don't have access to that training, but still have to play that game?
The women of the NWHL have spent the last three months finding out. I spoke to a few of the New York Riveters about what it's like to be "part-time" players with full-time responsibilities: building a professional team and a brand-new league.
While big-name players from national teams were game-ready to start the season, others, some of whom had thought their hockey careers were over, were not. Beth Hanrahan explained, "Even just having a spring off [from] hockey, you know, not training as hard as you would because you didn't know you were going to be playing ... it takes all summer to get back into shape."
Keep in mind that, unlike NHL players, NWHLers must schedule workouts around full-time jobs. Captain Ashley "Stretch" Johnston relies on the time management skills she developed while playing for Union College. "One of the best aspects of college hockey is it teaches athletes how to balance life and how to be a professional. A typical day in college could look like morning skills, classes, practice, then studying. Your time was very structured. Now, our time is our own, but we all know the things we need to do to be at our best. Lift, conditioning, skills, video, practice ... time management becomes a huge factor in our success."
Alternate captain Morgan Fritz-Ward agrees. "Coming from college last year and working this summer, I have gotten used to a routine/schedule that has made it easier for me to adjust, getting the things done that I need to while also training to my highest ability. It takes a little practice to work out the kinks, but it's like anything else; the more you do it the easier it gets."
It sure doesn't sound easy. Hanrahan goes to the gym first thing in the morning, followed by her full-time job, then works as a coach. Sounds doable? Add a 10 pm Riveters practice. "When girls are up at 5am that's a tough practice to be checked in for," Johnston admits. "Between that and doing lift beforehand, sometimes practice can feel like a very long third period."
Speaking of long third periods, even the most enthusiastic NWHL fans couldn't help noticing how, in the league's first few weeks, teams seemed to run out of gas before the final buzzer. "The level of hockey is exceptionally high and fast paced," points out Johnston. "At the beginning, we saw the effects of that in the third period where we would make costly mental mistakes ... if one person has a mental miscue on the ice, it can be the difference between a normal 30-45 second shift and a 2 minute gut check shift. Those 2 minute shifts would then kill us for the following shifts, especially when we were running just four D."
So what did they do? They worked. "We condition hard as a team during practice and during team lifts, but also on our ‘off' days [we] condition on our own and trust one another to do what we need to do to get better," Fritz-Ward told me. "It's easier to do it with the team right by your side pushing you than it is when you're by yourself ... but I know my team is always working hard!"
Keep in mind that, while NWHLers are paid to play, they still don't have access to anything remotely resembling NHL facilities. "We don't have regular access to ice or hockey-specific gym equipment. Many of us also have to pay for gym memberships or additional ice," explains Johnston. "But we always make it work. There are many things you can't out-train and excuses are probably number one. If you always have excuses, it doesn't matter how much you train, you'll never be as good as the person who gets to work and grinds no matter the situation."
The Riveters grind off the ice as well as on. Cherie Stewart plays ball hockey for Team USA. Fritz-Ward runs. Johnston does CrossFit and plays rugby: "You have to be quick and agile to react to plays (and also to run away from people) but also very powerful and explosive. I've always had a hard time staying low playing hockey. Rugby helps hugely with this; if I'm not exceptionally low, I'm going to get rocked!"
With all the teams improving rapidly, is there any way to predict right now which of the Original Four will take home the first Isobel Cup? Fritz-Ward doesn't think so. "Everyone is not only getting better, faster, and stronger, but also team play itself is flowing better as the teams are getting used to new systems. The games are getting closer and becoming more of a battle."
Johnston concurs. "Anyone can beat any team at any time. I think [the November 22] games showed that the best: 3-2 between Boston and us and 6-5 between Connecticut and Buffalo. Doesn't get much more exciting than that. Also definitely tells that you can't underestimate any team."
How does the captain see her own team developing? "Everyone's always doing something and giving 110% effort on all drills ... we're a very mentally tough team. We know how to come together and push through when we're feeling tired and worn down. It's a clutch characteristic for a team to have."
The Riveters have come so far so fast that "clutch" seems like an understatement. Will all that work be worth it? They think so. "Hopefully a couple years down the line people won't have to have a full time job to play professional hockey. That's what I'm looking forward to," Hanrahan asserted. And Johnston has nothing but admiration for her fellow players. "The mental toughness of everyone in this league is huge, to be able to choose to give it their best at work and at the NWHL. I think it's a great thing for young athletes to see that if you work really hard, you can do anything."