Madison Packer closes one chapter to open another

Two-time All-Star discusses retirement, her next career moves, and her hopes for the NWHL

The day after the New York Riveters ended their second season, two-time All-Star and alternate captain Madison Packer announced her retirement via social media. Packer penned a wonderful farewell to her playing days, but not to the game altogether. Although she will no longer be playing, Packer will continue to hit the ice as a coach and general manager for New Jersey girls program. The Ice Garden recently caught up with the former Wisconsin Badger to discuss the Riveters, the New Jersey Rockets and more.

The Ice Garden: What made you decide to come back for the second season?

Madison Packer: I think just talking with Chad [Wiseman, Riveters head coach]; and the player personnel looked a lot different. I say that a lot, and I also say ... It’s just a different look, you got a lot of kids coming out of college, you have Amanda Kessel obviously. So we had a better group on paper, statistically. And that’s not taking anything away from my teammates from the first season, it’s just different, a different roster.

So, I was excited for that opportunity, I thought it would be more competitive; getting to play with people like Courtney Burke, who I played with in college, and some of those girls, was an exciting opportunity. I knew that with just a few of those names, we’d be more competitive, and then the more we added to the list, the stronger the team looked.

What were the goals of the 2016-17 season? How did the Riveters meet those goals, overall?

MP: I think we had a pretty good year. Obviously, in the end we weren’t as successful as we wanted to be, but we had a lot of people who’d never played together. We had a just a lot of things — injuries, obviously; Kessel was out a lot longer than we thought she was going to be, and that was a huge blow. Obviously, you look, she’s the best player on that team. So, losing her for as much time as we did all year hurt. But I think overall, even not being as successful as we had hoped in the end, we had a much, much better season. The season was successful, in my opinion, despite the shortcomings towards the end.

What stands out from the past season? Or what defined the team?

MP: I think we were a little bit inconsistent, to be honest. I think if you look at — aside from Buffalo’s win over Boston, the upset in the finals — we were the only team, really, who competed with Boston all year. We went into overtime a couple of times, went into a shootout, there were a lot of one-goal games there, and we really competed with that team ... We believed in the locker room that we were as good as them, despite not having the headline names and stuff like that. We were willing to go out and work and buy into the process.

We just had a good group of kids who wanted to work hard and who had come from successful teams and were used to winning, and they knew what it took. They wanted to win. Every time we went to the rink people wanted to get better and they wanted to be in a position for the team to win a game.

When did you decide this would be your last year playing?

MP: I kinda knew towards the end of the year that I was ready. I had gotten to a point where I felt good about my career and I felt that I had done everything I wanted to do. Things have changed a little bit, I was actually planning to move out back to Madison, Wisc., but I’m obviously back in New Jersey now, and I’m not playing. I’ve actually battled through a pretty tough injury all year. I have a torn labrum in my hip, and it was hard and it was just, you know, there was a lot of other stuff ... it was mentally taxing, and so I got to a point where I was ready to walk away and felt good about everything that I had given the game, and more so what the game had given me, and was ready to move on to a new chapter.

Sounds like you will be coaching, so I want to talk to you about that. But, physically, is that injury something you’re going to have to take care of eventually?

MP: Yeah, I’m gonna have to have surgery, [I’m] figuring that out right now. Yeah, I have to have hip surgery.

Let’s talk about the [New Jersey] Rockets. They announced last month that you will be rejoining the program and will have an expanded role.

MP: I coached the U16 team last year. I coached, I played, and I worked a full-time job, so it was a lot. And, there was a lot of stuff going on just in general. When I decided I was gonna step away, and I was gonna move back to the Midwest — and, you know, I’m engaged, and so that was all kinda up in the air. I thought that was the best thing, but then the Rockets called me offering this position to coach two teams and kinda be in charge of everything on the girls’ side, working in tandem with the woman who is already here, Kathryn Kehoe, who has really built the girls’ program.

Madison Packer Re-Joins Rockets Program

They offered me a full-time job, essentially, I don’t have to coach and then go to an office in the morning. This is my full-time job, and so I took some time and thought about it — and there’s nothing at this point in life that I love doing more than playing hockey, and particularly working with kids … it’s fun, and I go to the rink every day for work and I’m doing something that I love doing. I just felt like it wasn’t going to get any better than that for me. I’m young, and I’ve got a lot of time to figure out whether I want to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life. So, for the time being, coaching hockey seems like a pretty good deal.

What skills make you a good coach?

MP: On paper, you know with my playing resume, I’ve been very blessed and it’s impressive, but I think the thing for me that’s really what … got me to that point was just my passion and love for hockey, [and] a family that has always supported me and my dreams. My dad worked tirelessly when I was a kid to open doors and create avenues [so] I didn’t have to move away from home, and really built hockey in Michigan. My family is passionate about hockey.

My grandpa’s texting and calling me all the time about different games and stuff like that. So, that’s what I want to give back, is just my passion and give other kids a chance … I can never return the favor and give hockey everything that it’s given me in life: From experiences to relationships to friendships; all those other things.

I’m working with kids who now have the same dreams that I had when I was their age. I’ve been in their shoes … I know what it takes to get there. Planting that seed and seeing that hunger and passion for the game is what I want to give back to those kids so that they can hopefully one day be sitting in my seat.

I think that segues nicely into talking about the bigger picture, about USA Hockey and how that relates to girls’ and women’s hockey. Tell me your first reactions to the [national team] strike.

MP: I texted some of those players — I’m friends with [Meghan] Duggan and [Hilary Knight] Knighter and [Brianna] Decker and all those guys — I texted them and I said hey, good for you. You know, there was talk about doing something similar with the NWHL this year, and I actually took extreme exception to [commissioner] Dani Rylan’s response to the national team players, because she 100% supported their position and their right to be paid, but only 50% supported her players this past season. So, I get it, she supports them, you can’t see not supporting them, but I thought that that was kind of in poor taste, and there were a lot of NWHL players kinda [turning] their heads sideways a bit — but I guess that’s a separate issue.

They have been a successful team, and you know they’ve worked day in and day out, and they don’t get paid millions of dollars like the NHL guys do, so in order to put in the effort and do all that you need to do to get to that point, that next level, to be competitive, you know, create that powerhouse for the US, they have to put in the time. And time is money, because those kids have bills to pay and you know, they’re not like the high school kids, that you can stick them in a billet house and expect them to just, you know, chug along — they’re adults who are living out their Olympic dreams and things like that, but they’re also representing a country and an organization that wasn’t supporting them the way that they needed to be supported … I know a little bit about what they were getting, and it certainly wasn’t a fair trade-off, what they were receiving from USA Hockey in comparison to what they were expected to give.

What do you hope to see for women’s hockey moving forward?

MP: I think the reality is, it’s unfortunate, and I’m hesitant to say it, but you look across the board and ... no women’s sports generate the revenue that men’s sports do. They don’t get the TV deals, and they get sponsorships but they don’t get the big sponsorships. The NHL guys get huge TV endorsement deals and a lot of money comes from that.

Sports is a business and the money has to come from somewhere and for people to get paid more, they have to figure out a way to bring in more money. I think that the US girls had a good argument because when they do these games and stuff like that, they sell out the arena. If you look at the Olympics [in 2014], they were the most viewed event of the entire games, more so than the men. And they want more games.

They asked for more games because … they’re like, ‘hey, if you give us a game, we can fill the arena.’ And they just want the opportunity to try and do that. If they do that and it doesn’t work, then they do it and it didn’t work. But, I think that they have a pretty good following, and it’s fun to watch. I watched the US and Canada game. I watched the US–Finland game the other day; it’s good hockey.

What is the pinnacle of women’s hockey, and where do professional leagues fit into that?

MP: I mean, I think right now it is most certainly the Olympics. To say that it can’t be a professional league is not true; I think that the Canadian league (CWHL) and the American league need to, have to, work together in order for professional sports to be viable and be compelling, because there’s a significant dropoff between the top and the bottom of the NWHL. You look at the best players in the league and then you look at … weaker players in the league, there’s a significant dropoff there. You talk about merging the best players in the Canadian league with the best players in the American league and then, as the game develops and as more players come up and through, you add a team here and there. And, you know, every team is as strong as it can possibly be, and then as you get more strong players than there are teams, that’s when you can start adding teams. But to just fill teams with a few strong players and then fill out the rosters ... that doesn’t make for a good product. Nobody wants to watch that, you know.

I would go as far as to argue Boston is fun to watch ... to a certain degree, but on the other side, people like those edge-of-their-seat, gripping games. They don’t wanna be constantly watching five-, six-, seven-nothing hockey. And I was surprised last year how loyal the Riveters fans were because we had a lot of five-, six-, seven-nothing games [laughs].

... So you take those players and you spread it out, or you bring in some of the Canadian [players], you bring in more people of that caliber, what does that do to the league? It makes it more compelling, you know?

We go into the third season without Olympians. So if building excitement through closer games helps get sponsorships and broadcast deals, and that ultimately helps increase salaries, what will next season look like?

MP: I don’t really know … I’m not in the loop on that anymore. There are certainly more than 20 good hockey players in the United States, and there are 20 Olympic spots. So, while the 20 best are on the Olympic team, then there’s probably 10-15 who aren’t on that team that were pretty close to making that team. There’s some pretty good kids coming out of college. So ... there certainly still is good hockey and good talent, but … right now girls have to recognize that it’s not — in the short-term future — it’s not a viable career. So, do you hold on to play a couple more years of hockey and hope you get paid or whatever? Some girls are fine to just move on after college, but that’s a struggle, too, because you’re not getting that financial gain from continuing to play, so it’s tough. And it’s a long season. Soccer is in the summer, their professional league [the NWSL] is in the summer, but hockey is almost an entire year, so that’s a big commitment.

Is there anything else about the moving on from the Riveters, or about your new role, that we didn’t cover?

MP: I guess, my only thing is, I know that I was vocal about the pay issues this year … I have nothing against the league, Dani Rylan, or any of those people. She did a great thing. She took an idea that no one thought would go anywhere and she did something pretty incredible.  She worked hard and I have nothing but respect for her. My frustration has always been, if you’re not going to do it the right way, it’s not going to survive. And the league needs investors, it needs attention, but it also needs to be done the right way … I felt like we were being asked to do a lot as players.

No one who played in the league this year was doing it to get rich, and nobody was doing it for any other reason than, we love hockey. I felt like that got misconstrued and lost. I want nothing but the best for the league, and I hope it survives. I hope all the little kids that I coach now, who think I’m Patrick Kane [laughs], can grow up and find a spot in the league, because they view it on par with the NHL, and that’s a great thing.

But, I think that us taking less money all year sent the same message that the national team members stood against. I wasn’t putting in any less work than a counterpart was expected to put in for the same sport, but I [was expected to be] okay with being paid less — and I never was. I did it because I care about the game, I care about my teammates, and I didn’t want to be a crybaby, basically. So, I went along with what I thought my team wanted to do because I respect my teammates. But, I think that every girl in that league deserved better than what we got this year.

I think I’ll ask another question … where do you think players like Morgan [Fritz-Ward], Molly Engstrom, and Ivana Bilic fall in the history of this league?

MP: I think it’s unfortunate, because I don’t think those people … they didn’t leave because they weren’t getting what they wanted, they left because they weren’t getting what they needed to survive. I lived with Morgan, and so that’s a part of what fueled my fire there, because I knew that she loved hockey and that she didn’t want to bail on her teammates, she didn’t want to have to leave. But, she moved here with that being her only occupation. She was working two other jobs on the side just to pay the bills, and it got to be too much. Then we got pay cut after pay cut, and then we got paid late … I just felt like it was unfair. It was not the way an employee–employer relationship works, and I think that those girls were kinda shushed; they’re retiring, they’re this, they’re that. They’re not retiring, they were forced to leave because they couldn’t pay their bills because [the league] stopped paying them.

I think that it will be … I don’t think that it will have enough significance, because I don’t think that enough attention was really put on it and, it’s tough because … you don’t wanna be seen portraying something in a bad light, because everyone wants the league to do well, myself included. My thing has always been, I certainly want it to do well, and I want it to go somewhere, but it got to the point where it was kind of like, at whose expense? Because the only people who were continuously suffering were the players. I just; I didn’t feel like that was fair.