Riveters eager to make a run for the Isobel Cup

Ashley Johnston discusses moving forward from salary cuts

“The Riveters are your 2017 Isobel Cup Champions!”

This is the phrase New York and their fans hope to hear come spring. “Every single girl in the locker room truly believes we can raise [the Isobel Cup] at the end of the year,” said captain Ashley Johnston after practice Tuesday night.

However, there are many steps necessary to move from the possible to the actual. “We all understand that it’s a season-long [process],” she said.

As with any journey, there will be potholes in the road. Injuries, overtime losses and botched calls are within the realm of possibility as one seeks a championship. However, drastic pay cuts are more akin to a crater the size of the Grand Canyon, threatening to impede their arrival to their final destination.

Business as usual

The New York Riveters (2-3-1-0) were focused during the first practice since the salary cuts were announced, and rightfully so. Both the Buffalo Beauts (2-4-0-1) and the Boston Pride (6-0-0-0) will travel to the Barnabas Health Hockey House this weekend.

On Saturday, the Riveters will look to take control of the season series against Buffalo. Johnston and company aim to set the tempo early. “We always talk about having a good start. ... We want to set the pace because we’re a fast team.” Additionally, a strong finish will be needed to overcome the Beauts, “Buffalo notoriously never gives up. So, as soon as you think you’re comfortable, they’ll sneak right back in.” Executing a high-level pace is the focus for New York.

On Sunday, the Riveters will need a tenacious defensive effort if they hope to tame the Pride. The reigning Isobel Cup champions roll into the Hockey House undefeated and averaging 35.5 shots on goal per game. “For [Boston] it’s keeping everyone to the outside,” said Johnston. Knowing they will be exerting a lot of energy on defense, Johnston and the Riveters will need to recover quickly to be an option in the offensive zone, “too often when we play Boston we get hemmed into our end for a few minutes. ... [We’re focused on] preventing that from happening, that way we can keep our quick transition, which is a big thing for our team.”

The Riveters have the chance to win four points at home this weekend, but a bit of cushion in the standings is not the only thing at stake.

Saving the business, in light of the unusual

On Monday, a series of tweets from Brant Feldman of American Group Management LLC (representatives to Meghan Duggan of the Boston Pride) cast doubt over the future of the league. According to Feldman, the NWHL has not answered questions since November 19th.

On a podcast with MyWSports, Johnston and teammate Tatiana Rafter discussed an upcoming team meeting with the league, and were under the impression that discussions would take place team-by-team. The NWHL released a statement to The Ice Garden that confirmed Johnston and Rafter’s understanding of the process.

On Tuesday, I asked Johnston if the New York Riveters had spoken with the league. “Yeah, we did, they were great. They answered all of our questions, which was awesome. It’s still just a process of chipping away. Something like this definitely won’t get fixed overnight. ... It’s going to be a while.”

However, there are still looming concerns and doubt as to where these meetings leave the state of the NWHL beyond this weekend. Fans are calling for more transparency and growing impatient, if not untrustworthy, of the league.

Johnston reiterated some of her earlier comments, offering a reminder that the league is a start-up. Her hope is that the massive pothole in the road will be an opportunity for the league to move forward in a way that honors the management and the players.

“Companies that work best [have both sides] working in unison. ... As players it’s a really good opportunity to really see how we want this league to go, as well as see the league’s direction for where they want it to go.”

More than four points

This weekend offers an opportunity for players to engage their fan base. In the aftermath of salary cuts, an exceptional performance on-ice, followed by the usual autograph signings post game may very well be a lifeline. Players around the league are using social media to encourage support for the league through merchandise and ticket sales.

Johnston hopes fans will show support for the players by buying tickets. “There’s nothing better than a filled rink to play in. Our crowd is awesome! They’re loud, they’re energetic. ... I can’t say enough how much it means to all of us; how exciting it is.” However, without knowing the full financial situation of the league, it’s hard to know if sellout crowds and jersey sales will be enough to keep the league afloat.

Any business, startup or otherwise, would understandably receive criticism for arriving at the current situation. Taking heat is as much a part of the job as anything else. If Rylan and the NWHL fail, national outlets who’ve never set foot in an NWHL arena will plaster her photograph underneath condemning headings for a week, maybe two.

However, if the players use their collective voice to get answers and find a way to repair and restructure the relationship with the league, will the same outlets be there to write that story? Perhaps not, but the league will survive.

For that history to be written, the league must find ways to build a true partnership with the players, as well as the fans, the in-arena staff, and even the media. Transparency is not a request the NWHL has the liberty to consider. It is the action that will determine the future of women’s professional hockey.

To be clear, separating players from the league is an impossibility. Without the league, 90 athletes lose the opportunity to play professional hockey. Without players willing to remain in the league, staff lose the opportunity to work in professional sports, including commissioner Dani Rylan.

Factoring in the CWHL and the Minnesota Whitecaps, there are currently 10 teams in all of North America that offer a future for women’s hockey beyond college. If the NWHL cannot survive, nearly half of those opportunities are erased. Despite any public or private differences of opinion between the three organizations, it is doubtful that anyone who supports women’s hockey wants to see opportunities decreased by 40% in the blink of an eye.

With two critical games this weekend, Johnston is eager to focus on maintaining second place in the standings, “I’m really looking forward to it.  It will be two solid days just to focus on the team, the four points this weekend; things like that.” However, once off the ice, she and her teammates will pack into the corridor and greet the future of women’s hockey. Not just the youth teams eager for an autograph, but the women, men boys and girls who cared enough to purchase a ticket.