General manager Kate Whitman Annis is busy passing out receipts from player checks right before a Thursday night practice for the Metropolitan Riveters at Floyd Hall Arena on the campus of Montclair State University. Her two sticks propped against the wall near her hockey bag, forward Nichelle Simon opens her envelope. After glancing at the receipt, she grabs her equipment and drops it off into a locker room that the team cannot permanently call their own.
The Riveters are members of the five-year-old National Women’s Hockey League, the only remaining professional women’s ice hockey league in North America after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded last March. While the league and its five teams have been facing challenges, and despite rumors that have been floating around, Whitman Annis is confident that the league is not going anywhere.
“The idea is that maybe the league wouldn’t be around next year and that is not the case at all,” said Whitman Annis, who was the team’s assistant coach last year. “I’m already looking to buy ice places, we are talking about contracts, and the league is not going away.”
The Riveters are one of the NWHL’s four original franchises and winners of the 2018 Isobel Cup, the league championship. They played their first season as the New York Riveters, with home games at a rink in Brooklyn, before moving to Newark, where they called the Barnabas Health Hockey House, practice facility for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, their new home.
In 2017, the Riveters and Devils announced a three-year partnership that made the Devils the first NHL team to go into business with an NWHL team in order to help grow the sport. The team opened their 2017-18 season at the Prudential Center, defeating Boston 4-1 in front of 2,100 fans. The following season, the Riveters boasted one of the top stars in women’s hockey, U.S. Olympic gold medalist Amanda Kessel.
However, in May 2019, the Devils ended the partnership, forcing the Riveters to find a new home for the 2019-20 season.
Or, as it turned out, two homes. They now play their home games at ProSkate Ice Arena in South Brunswick, traveling to and from Floyd Hall for practice twice a week. Although players travel from different areas to reach the rinks, the drive from ProSkate to Floyd is about an hour.
“Having two different arenas to skate in, it creates more logistics,” Whitman Annis said. “We don’t have a team truck, so [our equipment is] going in my minivan. That’s the team truck.”
Rebecca Morse, who also goes by “Moose,” is in her fourth season with the Riveters. A native of Westfield, she had a successful college career at Providence and this season has become one of the key players on the Metropolitan roster. A defender, she was named to the league’s All-Star Game earlier this season. For her, Floyd Hall is familiar territory — she used to play for the Quarry Cats independent team, which is based in the arena.
“It’s hard for that news [about the partnership ending] to come out and not be a little disappointed. I have pride not only in the state, but Newark too,” Morse said. “But at the same time I was really excited to move to practice here because this is the place I really fell in love with the game.”
According to both Whitman Annis and first-year head coach Ivo Mocek, Floyd Hall has been very accommodating to the team. The arena has a Parabolic Performance & Rehab facility on site with professional trainers available to the players. Floyd also allows the team to store extra equipment in a white storage pod behind their building. In the beginning, the differences between Floyd and ProSkate were an adjustment, but using two different rinks does have professional benefits.
“Having two facilities, most of the NHL teams do it that way,” said Mocek. “It is not convenient, but it is what it is.”
But lacking a permanent locker room, the arena doesn’t yet “feel like we have a home,” said Simon, who is in her first season with the team.
“It can be really tough coming in and out with all our gear and everything,” she said. “In the past, [the Riveters] had that permanent place and that feeling of a home.”
As the season goes on, Simon said, the rink is growing on them, and she added that the staff is great at setting up wherever they travel.
a LEAGUE facing CHALLENGES
Women’s hockey is a growing game, and one in search of a viable business model. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded in March 2019, citing an “unsustainable” economic model.
In the aftermath of that, more than 200 players released a joint statement declaring they would not play in any North American league “until we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves.” They formed a union, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, to negotiate for more livable wages. (Last season, the minimum NWHL salary was $2,500, according to the players’ joint statement.)
Many players on the Riveters’ 2018-19 roster have departed, including the Olympian Kessel, who reportedly made an annual salary of $10,700 in 2018-19.
While the player’s union and the league work on a sustainable business model for both sides, some players have begun to rejoin the league. From her position as general manager, Whitman Annis is positive that the PWHPA and the league share the same goals..
“We want to grow women’s hockey, the players want to grow women’s hockey, and the players want to play,” she said.
With support from the NHL and yearly donations, the women’s league is continuously developing relationships. Morse believes that the future for women’s hockey in North America, is being paved with more lucrative intentions.
“It’s been proven that the model can work with the support from the men’s side, [like] with the WNBA,” she said. “As of now we are independent in a sense. Part of being a woman, you want to do it yourself and not have the help of the men’s side to lift you up.”
One of the challenges of playing in the league is simply being seen. Not many Montclair residents know that a professional women’s hockey team practices at one of their hometown rinks. And with not much advertisement at the rink itself, even the Montclair State men’s and women’s club ice hockey teams do not necessarily realize the Riveters’ presence on campus.
“The college girls’ team and the boys team really don’t even know that there’s a professional team practicing in their rink,” Simon said. “We don’t have any signage up or anything like that, even ProSkate has very minimal permanent signage. There are so many people I have met that that say, ‘Oh my God, you play on a women’s pro team that practices at the rink I play at?’”
Media coverage for the Riveters’ games, and the players themselves, is slowly increasing.
The NWHL is currently in the middle of a three-year deal to stream games on Twitch, which has been helping increase viewership. Last season, the league had four million impressions; it surpassed that number in January, just two months before the end of the regular season.
“4,000 people watch our games,” said Whitman Annis.
Off the ice, Mocek, Simon, and forward Bulbul Kartanbay recently collaborated on a video for SELF, a YouTube channel, in which figure skaters were challenged to keep up with hockey players, along with Mocek and the Riveters trying spirals, spins, and even a waltz jump.
“SELF magazine reached out to the league and they are in New York, so we picked the three people to do it,” said Whitman Annis.
“Did we really pick the three people?” Mocek asked.
“I asked you!” Whitman Annis said with a laugh.
“We got there 5:30 a.m. and left around 2:30 [p.m.] maybe,” Mocek said. “It was a long day.”
The NWHL and the Riveters continue to face obstacles. The optimistic outlook portrayed by both the league and players, aid to the futuristic path of one day opening up an envelope with a check receipt, surpassing the ample amount, allowing professional women’s hockey to properly grow and strive.