By now, Madison Packer is a name synonymous with the NWHL.
Over the course of five seasons, she has won an Isobel Cup, led the league in points (and penalty minutes, of course), been to a handful of All-Star Games, was named captain of the Metropolitan Riveters, and married former competitor Anya Packer, who is now the head of the NWHL Player’s Association.
She belongs to a select group of ‘original NWHLers’ now, as there are just eight players left who have played in every season of the league’s existence.
Headed into her sixth season, she is reaching for new goals, and facing new experiences as an expansion team joins the league, the season will be formatted differently due to COVID-19, and the little, minor detail of becoming a mother for the first time.
“I’ve been fortunate to experience a lot of first while in the NWHL, so for me it’ll be exciting as Anya and I become parents to really share that with our little guy and I’m excited to watch hockey games with him and share part of my story with him. That’s what I’m most looking forward to personally.”
Aside from that big change in her personal life, Packer as well as all returning NWHL players will be faced with a new challenge this season as a new expansion team joins the league. The Toronto Six broke the league into the Canadian market when it was announced in April, and they’ve already signed a slew of heavy hitters.
“There’s players on that Toronto roster that you look at and it might be their first time in the NWHL but they had a big impact in college, a lot of them have respective national team experience. It’s good, we want that ‘cause you always want the league to be better,” Packer said.
Of course she is referring to the likes of Kelly Babstock, Lindsay Eastwood, and Shiann Darkangelo who all made massive waves as some of Toronto’s first signings and promise to make it just that much harder for the Riveters to grab a second Isobel Cup championship.
“They’re definitely a good team. Boston is going to be good again. There’s part of you that’s like ‘ugh that’s annoying’ because it’s tough to get players in the New York market. I think our team is going to be pretty good though.”
As for the NWHL itself, Packer remains confident that the league will only continue to get better from here on out.
“Every year the league has gotten a little more professional. We’ve gotten more opportunity. Obviously the longer we’re around the more sponsorship dollars we’re able to bring in so our PA and Dani [Rylan] have been really good about that so I just think that last year, in my opinion was the best year. Most of us made the most money we ever have playing hockey. I think you’re going to continue to see that trend. So that’s exciting.”
On the ice, Packer had her best year yet in the NWHL this past season. She led her team with 34 points and 13 goals, which is almost double her previous career high. While it wasn’t enough to catch up to all-time points leader, Jillian Dempsey, it was enough to land her in the top five point scorers on the season, which is exactly where she likes to fall. “It’s always a goal of mine to be in the top ten in points. If I do that, then my team should be in a place to win some games. I look at it right now and it’s a tall order, but it’s a good problem to have.”
Headed into last season, Packer and fellow original NWHLer Dempsey were tied in all-time points (which Packer claims to not know about until just last year). After the massive one-loss season by the Boston Pride, Dempsey has taken off and now leads Packer by four goals and 13 points. That is certainly keeping some drive alive for Packer to keep coming back strong every year, but she said it best: “I just love playing hockey.”
“It’s always been fun for me and I think as long as it makes sense and I told Anya, I said ‘the minute I become irrelevant on the ice and I don’t have the ability to recognize it, you have to tell me.’ Because I also don’t want to stay around so long that people are like ‘oh it’s so sad, she could have ended her career on such a different note.’ So I think that I’ll play as long as I’m making a difference. I don’t know if that’s three years or that’s ten years but as long as it makes sense for my family and I’m enjoying what I’m doing and I’m making a difference doing it, I’ll be playing.”
And playing is what she does best, even when it’s just street hockey at a rink she found on a walk one day.
When you drag @madison_packer_ on a #38week walk, and she finds a secret street hockey rink... you realize that you’re about to spend a lot of time here. She’s lookin good in her @ConnecticutSun shirt though, #ChangeCantWait pic.twitter.com/1xG3K7Mx4v— Anya Packer (@battaglinoa) August 30, 2020
Despite the challenges that may come with being a parent and pro athlete, as well as adding a new team of competition into the mix, that isn’t all Packer and her league-mates will have to face this season. Originally slated for October, the league has pushed back the start date for season six until January 2021 due to COVID-19, leaving almost a full year from the last time the Riveters played a game.
“I hope, and I think what you’re actually going to see is an elevation in the level of play just because, the talent level is up this year in the league and you’ll continue to see that as players continue to get announced, and then...you’re giving players three months of nothing but practice and in most cases we’re going to be on the ice more than we have been in the past,” Packer said, hopeful that the extra practice and time off will end up being a benefit rather than a setback.
“I can’t speak for everyone else but I know for me, my hips feel the best they’ve felt in five years.”
She also spoke about how difficult but rewarding the shorter formatted season will end up being for players. “It’s good because we don’t like to do it but it’s good for hockey players to take a break from being on the ice, with everything being shut down it’s kinda forced people to do that.”
Instead of 24 games stretched out over five months, the season will be 20 games stretched over just 10 weeks with two-game weekends for every team every week.
“You’re going to have 10 weekends in a row of two games and it’s just all out hockey so I think that when...we were playing two game weekends before and it was kind of a one-off, it was tiring. People were sore, so there’s definitely going to be an adjustment in that first weekend, but more hockey close together will lead to a better product.”
That momentum can be proven via the league’s Twitch partnership that will enter it’s second year of three this season. In the fifth season, the NWHL garnered just over 8 million views on their Twitch content which includes all their games, as well as weekly showings of their original talk show Open Ice. “Honestly I think the biggest change for us as players, outwardly, would be the Twitch partnership. It was huge. You know, we got just about 8 million viewers. That’s not stuff that can be fabricated, that’s stuff that’s like public information and that’s huge,” Packer said, noting it was, in her opinion, the deal that changed things for the NWHL players the most.
“What people maybe don’t see is the revenue share and Anya fought for that to be a part of our contract, that 50/50 spit, and we were getting checks like through May and June that were still revenue dollars coming in and it’s crazy. That’s just money that you weren’t necessarily relying on, that was a big difference maker for us. I made more money last year playing hockey than I ever have and I’ll make more money this upcoming season than I did last year so I think it’s sometimes a thing where people kind of look past, and it’s underrated.”
And how is Anya doing?
“We were talking about it. It seems like everything has kind of come together perfectly as far as, you know, the league announced they were going to postpone the season until January. In that, it gives us time, as a family to adjust to whatever the new normal is going to look like and then we’ve got a sprint of 10 weekends of games in a row and my wife has always been phenomenally supportive of me and figuring out a schedule that works for the both of us so I think managing things, we’re in that together.”
What they might not be in together, however, is who their favorite NWHL team actually is.
“She actually roots for the Whale, except for when I’m playing. Like I think if I was injured, out of the lineup, she might root for the Whale. She just nodded her head ‘yes.’” Packer said of her wife, the former Whale defender.
As for their baby boy who was born Sept. 8, “you might have to follow up with Anya but...I think he’s a Riveters fan. We are going to make him a goalie so we have someone to shoot on.”