The Riveters' season may have ended back in March, but professional hockey is a year-round game. Come September, Chad Wiseman will be behind the bench and in the front office, while former GM Dani Rylan will focus on running the NWHL. The offseason thus far has brought both challenges and triumphs: a disgruntled investor filed a lawsuit capable of sinking the entire league, but that did not deter Amanda Kessel (a.k.a. #bestkessel), one of the biggest names in the sport, from signing on - with the Riveters.
I asked a few of the returning Riveters - Morgan Fritz-Ward, Madison Packer, Kiira Dosdall, and Ashley Johnston - about their summer plans, as well as what they're looking forward to, next season.
(Note: unfortunately, these exchanges took place before the Kessel signing, about which I imagine they are JUST a bit excited ...)
Unlike NHLers, the women of the NWHL couldn't re-sign until they knew for a fact that the league was going to exist. They also had to reckon with an extremely talented draft class competing for a limited number of spots and cap space. Almost all of them acknowledged the uncertainty of their returns until they actually signed the paperwork.
"As a player you never know what's going to happen," explained Fritz-Ward. "You could get hurt, advance in another career, encounter younger, better athletes, etc." Dosdall agreed: "Of course I had doubts. I know the talent pool is deep, and there is a tremendous amount of competition for each roster spot. Re-signing was a humbling experience and definitely not an entitled one for me."
Even captain Ashley Johnston used the h-word to describe re-signing. "Being able to play at this level is humbling and an amazing opportunity, but there will come a point when I don't fit into the management's game plan," she admitted. "At the end of the day it is a business and the organization wants to win. I'm grateful to be able to put on the jersey for another year and help the team win."
Alternate captain Madison Packer put a more positive spin on the process. "I think I was pretty confident that New York was going to sign me back after last season, and I knew that I wanted to stay with my original club. I had a really good time in New York, the fans were awesome, and I developed a good working relationship with the coaching staff. Chad and I were on the same page as far as coming back for another season when I left town, so it was really a matter of just waiting out the grace period before signing a new contract."
Packer did acknowledge that there would be significant changes, but she's excited about them. "There is going to be a lot of turnover, a lot of new faces in the locker room ... I loved my teammates last year, and we went through a lot together. I will always respect that group and the experiences we shared together of being part of the inaugural season, but I am also excited for the group that is being put together for next season."
All four women were enthusiastic about Wiseman's expanded role. Fritz-Ward declared it would mean "more wins, fans, and a better chemistry within the team." Packer concurred: "The advantage of being a coach and GM is that he gets to pick the team so he knows exactly what the roster is and he has full control over signing players. I think that makes his job easier because he has hand picked what he has to work with and he knows from day one what everyone is capable of and what our roles will be."
Johnston described it as a "great opportunity," and Dosdall piled on. "Chad is someone who the players respect. He knows the game better than anyone and his dual role just means that he will be able to take full ownership over the success of next year's team. I think it's great."
Packer did, however, acknowledge the challenge of wearing two hats at once: "He also will have that dual relationship which can sometimes get difficult because a coach vs. GM dynamic is just a little different. That said, I don't worry about it at all. Chad is a very experienced hockey guy, he was a great coach to learn from last year, and he does a good job of managing appropriate relationships with his players where he can relate to us, but also maintain that required level of professionalism and respect."
She also made a point of refuting those who questioned Wiseman's leadership after an unsuccessful season, declaring, "I think a lot of the unfair criticism that was thrown at Chad last season will be overshadowed when he is able to fully take the reins and run a team that he has put together himself."
(Criticism? What criticism? - Ed.)
Overall, the veterans seemed delighted to return to New York, even though it is arguably the most expensive of the NWHL locations, and their small salaries don't do much to mitigate that. Fritz-Ward shrugged off the financial burden, explaining, "if you want to play you'll go where you have the opportunity to play." Packer concurred: "I think that certainly plays a factor for players who are on a budget, but there are also ways around that. There are housing options and affordable options available, so it isn't something that should make players shy away from New York."
For Dosdall, the benefits outweigh the burdens. "New York City is expensive because it's New York City: one of the greatest cities in the world. Cost of living reflects that. You pay for what you get here: culture, career opportunities, nightlife, convenience."
For Johnston, it's about representing a legendary city. "[New York] is one of the most exciting cities in the US, and is the iconic city for ‘living out your dream and making it big.' Being able to represent the city at a professional level in women's hockey, is our definition of making it big. Keeping those things in mind, the girls all make it work and get to live out their dreams." (She also gave a special shout-out to the New York fans, who are "the best ... hands-down.")
As for summer plans, Dosdall will be working out five days a week and "getting on the ice as much as possible." (It's important to remember that many of the women must pay for ice on their own dime.) Packer will be training at her alma mater (and namesake?) in Madison, Wisconsin while also traveling and spending time with her family. Johnston, who had hip surgery after the season ended, will continue her engineering work and running a hockey camp. Fritz-Ward's summer plans are a sobering reminder that these women are full-time professionals in their "spare time;" she'll be working out every day while holding down two jobs and going back to school.
But all are looking forward to next year. Johnston thinks the league will pick up speed, in more ways than one: "I think the pace might be a bit faster with some of the recent grads coming in." Still, she can't wait to return to the Rivs. "The camaraderie we experienced last year really was unlike anything else. I can't wait to get back to that, it's really an incredible team to be a part of."
It's no surprise that Packer agrees. "New York's record last year was less than spectacular as everyone pointed out all season long, but there were so many moments that were about more than winning and losing last season."
What will be different? For Packer, it's the focus. "Next year, all the ‘firsts' are in the books. Next season will be all about the hockey and I am excited for that. I am confident in the group that Chad is putting together, and the fans should be excited for the team that will hit the ice come September."