Ashley Johnston follows a similar routine on game day. She likes to eat a bagel in the morning, get to the rink early so she can meditate and get into a zone while looking out at the ice with her headphones on, and then kick the soccer ball around with her teammates. Her final ritual is a trademark low-five with teammate and fellow Canadian Tatiana Rafter at the close of pregame warm-ups — it’s something that Riveters fans have learned to keep an eye out for.
Today Johnston will go through that same routine. She’ll eat her bagel, she’ll listen to music and prepare herself mentally for the game, and then try to keep the soccer ball up in the air for 100 touches with her teammates. But today’s game is not just any other game. It’s the Isobel Cup Final and this is the first time that Johnston and her team are playing in it.
In the league’s inaugural season the then New York Riveters went 4-12-2 and scored 40 goals in 18 games; they were the worst team in the league. This year, the Riveters finished the regular season in first place with a record of 13-3-0 and 64 goals in 16 games. The team’s recent success would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication that began on the ice in Brooklyn in 2015.
“Every year we’ve gotten better at executing,” Johnston told The Ice Garden. “I think what the first year did — that sometimes gets overlooked — is really set up the culture for what the team was going to be. First year as a team, first year as an organization, we set down the foundational groundwork for what we wanted to be.”
The Riveters take a lot of pride in their team culture and identity. The players who are newer to the team know just how far the team has come. They also know what Johnston and the team’s other veterans established back in 2015-16.
“The biggest thing was ‘team first’,” Johnston outlined. “Everyone comes to practice, everyone shows up and works hard. We all [understand] that everyone worked all day or that things might not be going well, but you leave your business at the door. For the next two or three hours the Riveters get your undivided attention. That was something that the first year really set up. I think that without that it would have been a lot more difficult and taken a lot longer before we could execute as well as we have this year.”
For Johnston, Kiira Dosdall, Madison Packer, and Bray Ketchum — the four players remaining from that first season — the last three years have been quite a journey. All four of them are as essential to the team’s success and identity as they were in year one. Each of them has a letter on the front of their jerseys.
As the longest tenured captain in the NWHL, Johnston doesn’t feel any added pressure to make a rousing speech to the team on the verge of its biggest game. The woman known as “Stretch” knows her team and the energy of the locker room well.
“At this point, everything that has had to be said has been said,” Johnston explained. “It’s really — it’s one game, it will come down to who can execute the best. We just have to get everyone showing up at the right place at the right time because everyone knows what to do from there. Year to year it’s been different, some years I’ve had to say things and other years I haven’t. There are so many leaders on this team that sometimes it’s best to not plan anything and to see what’s going on in the moment.”
The Riveters don’t need to win today to know who they are and what they’re capable of; they know all of that already. They are a hockey team with a deep belief in their systems, their leaders, and their coaching staff. Johnston describes head coach Chad Wiseman as the team’s rock. Today will be his last game as head coach.
“Chad has been an amazing coach, mentor, and friend,” Johnston shared. “He’s helped me through some personal stuff, helped me become a much a better player, and, in my mind, a better person.”
Today, for the last time, Johnston and the Riveters will step onto the ice in Newark and try to execute Wiseman’s game plan. That game plan started as the scribbles of a dry-erase marker on the glass of the Aviator Sports and Events Center in the fall of 2015. And now, after dozens of practices, games, bruises, and ice packs, Johnston and the Riveters are right where they want to be. They’re right where they deserve to be.
Now they just have to execute and play their game.