Last year, Audra Richards was living, working, and coaching in her home state of Minnesota. The University of Maine alumna caught up with a few former teammates and friends when they traveled with the league to Saint Paul for the 2018 All-Star Game at TRIA Rink, planting a seed in her mind. When the Whitecaps were officially announced as the first expansion team of the young league, Richards began thinking about a return to the ice.
“[I] really started thinking about playing hockey again once they announced that Minnesota was going to have a team. It kind of just got m[e] thinking,” Richards told The Ice Garden on Tuesday night before Riveters practice. “I was kind of sick of playing pickup hockey where no one really tried and I was just being judged for back checking,” she said, laughing.
On Saturday, she will start her professional hockey career 15 minutes from her hometown of Maplewood, Minn., as a member of the visiting team. She is expecting a large group of her family and others on-hand to witness her debut. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more Riveters fans than Whitecaps fans.”
Return to the East Coast
Although Richards was in Minnesota at the time she began to ponder playing professional hockey, the Riveters team added an additional perk, “I played hockey out east at the University of Maine and I almost didn’t move back from the East Coast because I loved it so much. So once Chad [Wiseman] contacted me, I was like, this is my opportunity to make it back to the east coast, see what I need to find out here, or whatever I wanted to move back for.”
Richards left her teaching job in Minnesota to join up with the Riveters. These days, she is working as a coach with the New Jersey Colonials under the supervision of Riveters defender Kiira Dosdall, who became the director of girls hockey in the offseason. Richards coaches the U8 and U10 teams in the Colonials system. She is also finishing up her masters in health education.
At Maine, Richards was a four time member of the Hockey East All-Academic Team, while notching a career 70 points (45 goals, 25 assists) for the Black Bears. She led the team in scoring her sophomore and senior year and remains 5th in all-time scoring for Maine.
Tough Preseason Challenge
She is hoping to make an impact on the Riveters roster. Although she was on the ice after graduating from Maine in 2016 as a coach and in recreational leagues, the jump to the NWHL requires much more conditioning.
“Being a center, you have to work all over the ice,” said Richards.” She got a great deal of conditioning in against Luleå last Saturday due to a short Riveters bench. “It was tough because we only had like two and a half lines and centers were going every other shift.” The Riveters fell 4-2 in the first-ever Champions Cup.
Richards utilized the challenge of the short bench against a fast team to inch closer to game-ready conditioning. “Throughout the game I got better and I starting to feel my groove again. And I hope that just continues to build, especially when I’m in Minnesota playing in front of everyone that knows me.”
Ah yes, about this pro-Riveters crowd in Minnesota: The Richards family and friends have secured 70 tickets for Saturday’s game in Minnesota. “They’re just getting a party bus. It’s not a big deal,” Richards joked.
Her family will arrive in style for Saturday to see the puck drop on the first-ever Minnesota Whitecaps game in the NWHL-era to witness the career milestone being made by #21 red.
The party will continue on Sunday as Richards’ former co-workers, her hockey team from Hastings–who will also arrive by bus–and friends in the area flood TRIA Rink for the second game of the weekend series. Needless to say, Richards’ official rookie debut is kind of a big deal. “Yes, big, very large deal,” the Riveters rookie confirmed with a smile.
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Lexi Slattery, a St. Cloud State alumna and Hugo, Minnesota native, will also be making her pro debut in her home state. Isobel Cup MVP Katie Fitzgerald also hails from St. Cloud State. Her Illinois-based family is known to travel, so well shall see if the Fitzgerald Crew is seen or heard (listen out for Rick Flair-esque cheers). Alternate captain Kiira Dosdall has family coming for the weekend slate as well.
The Richards Family will host the team Friday night to welcome them to the State of Hockey and ensure they are well fueled for the weekend. It will be a chance for a team with a lot of fresh faces to bond. After all, the Metropolitan Riveters have an Isobel Cup to defend!
“I think our team is ready. We’ve got a very strong defensive core which is awesome when it comes to breaking the puck and staying out of the d[efensive] zone. Up top we have some fast forwards: [Kristen] Lewicki, [Amanda] Kessel, [Rebecca] Russo. So we have some speed up front, I think we’ll use that to our advantage and our goaltending is obviously phenomenal.”
Tune in this weekend as the Riveters – and their families – travel to Minnesota to face the Whitecaps in the opening series of the 2018-19 NWHL season.