The ride out to the Aviator Sports Complex isn’t quite like the ride to see other New York-area pro sports teams. Even the ride out to Nassau Coliseum, in prior seasons, sees a slow trickle of fans arriving with each successive train stop, sporting nameplates across their shoulder blades with names like Tavares or Okposo. The dialogue between strangers swells with a booze-fueled whoop announcing the arrival of new strangers.
The Q35 to Aviator wasn’t full of fans sporting the colors of the NWHL’s New York Riveters before their first preseason game on September 27. I pegged the couple in Rangers t-shirts as potential Riveters fans. Another couple boarded. He was decked out in Arizona Coyotes gear; she let out a convivial whoop as she boarded. The woman in the Rangers shirt whispered to her companion, “I bet they’re going too.”
It’s preseason hockey in a fledgling league, so it’s not entirely surprising that the bus wasn’t packed with the Riveters’ blue and red. But with top level hockey promised, there is a hope that the arrival of the regular season and great hockey will usher in increasing numbers of dedicated fans.
For now, the couple in Rangers gear, the couple in Coyotes gear and I were the passengers on this bus.
Finding Their Way
At Aviator Sports, fans peered around corners searching for the rink, asked security where the restrooms were and were generally apprehensive about where they should sit. They were gaining their footing in an unfamiliar arena, supporting a new team playing in a new league.
The on-ice product that afternoon held a kernel of that same searching. As a team, the women of the Riveters were taking the ice in a game situation for the first time. It’s a new team to them too.
And that’s part of what’s unique in an inaugural season of any league. The players may have played together before in college or at the international level, played against each other, watched each other play, but as a unit, this each team is a completely new. That means new linemates (which may switch often), new coaches, new training habits, new practice routines and a new city. According to the team, 12 of the 18 roster players moved to New York to play for the Riveters, in one way or another, whether that be for another job or to explicitly play hockey.
(Does this challenge put the Boston Pride at an advantage since most of their team is coming over from the Kelly Cup-champion Boston Blades of the CWHL?)
At other training camps, even when a team is rolled over to a significant degree, there’s always a degree of familiarity between the players from last season, a system in place, a coach or general manager who has roots.
In the NWHL, the inaugural season training camp comes with the unique challenge of finding a way to grow together.
The Preseason Begins
The Riveters first preseason match started with the team looking a bit apprehensive. The chemistry wasn’t there yet.
That situation wasn’t aided any by their opponents being the New York Fire Department (FDNY) team, a mens team that had a couple of giants on the blue line. Unsurprisingly, the FDNY doesn’t play with a ton of structure. They cherry-picked, swarmed in the offensive zone like a bantam team and generally looked like they were having fun.
That’s not a knock. They certainly didn’t play like a beer league team with Donny’s brother-in-law Steve deciding to strap on skates for the first time and playing with one hand on the boards. They’ve got a few guys who can play.
But it maybe wasn’t an ideal setting for the Riveters to find their chemistry and structure, as it’s hard to implement a system on a team that’s, well, a little unpredictable.
The FDNY jumped out to a 3-0 lead early in the first on a flurry of shots that emphasized the lack of familiarity within the team.
That familiarity — knowing where a linemate will be, how they accelerate through the neutral zone on a breakout, how a defenseman likes to regroup in their own zone — started to come as the game wore on. By the second period, they were hemming in FDNY in their own zone for long periods of time, working the puck around the perimeter and finding a rhythm.
After the game, coach Chad Wiseman noted these kind of challenges, where the systems and faces are all new. “We’ve implemented a new D-zone system I don’t think any of them have played before,” he said. “Maybe their brains kind of got in the way of where to go, instead of just taking a second, getting back to the house, reading the situation. They definitely got more comfortable as the game went on.”
“I think we felt better as the game progressed,” said goaltender Jenny Scrivens after the game, who played the first half of the exhibition. “We’ve only been on the ice four times together, so we’re still figuring each other out. For a lot of us it’s been a while since we played college hockey or played a game like this.”
That chemistry progressed into their October 4 game against the Minnesota Whitecaps, a team who may be looking for a home in either the CWHL or NWHL.
The Riveters, at least at even strength, looked like they were growing together. Breakout passes were moving tape-to-tape, zone pressure was sustained, they looked like a team that was preparing for the regular season.
Maybe it was playing a team that plays with structure. Maybe it was playing another women’s team where the Riveters could play their hard-nosed game naturally. Maybe it was just the additional practice they’d had between games. But it was clear that the team was beginning to gel.
The struggles of bringing a new team together remained apparent though. Particularly where systems tend to come slower due to the lack of reps: special teams. The Whitecaps grabbed three power play goals to cement a 5-2 win.
The Whitecaps and the Lamoreux twins were able to create chaos on the power play, getting the Riveters running. That chaos led to screens and clean shots from the point hitting the back of the net.
However, on their own power plays, New York looked stronger, running four forwards at times with Taylor Holze playing point. That structure and edge was developing. They looked tough in front of their own net, maybe sloppy at times, but there was a sure-footedness to their game that hadn’t been present in the first game.
That growth was present in the fan base as well. There was a noticeable home ice advantage in crowd support.
Some of that may have been that the game was played at Manhattan’s more accessible Chelsea Piers, but it was more than that as well. The number of people in Riveters gear had quadrupled and the roar when Morgan Fritz-Ward scored the first Riveters goal of the game had likewise grown.
And that’s the plan. Growth. With the launch of a new league there are so many unknowns that seeing growth feels like a step toward the league’s ambitious goals.
We’ve seen it already. From the announcement of the league until now, from preseason game to preseason game, fans and the team have grown together. Fans are being treated to a taste of the high level of play that the NWHL can bring and the team is getting a taste of what a growing fan base can bring in support.
And that growth doesn’t look like it’s about to subside. The Riveters’ season opener in Stamford, Connecticut against the Whale sold out over a week in advance.
Fans are picking up on the building excitement throughout the league, the excitement of the players in a momentous fall for women’s hockey. It’s contagious.
“I was a bit anxious to get started,” Scrivens said after the first preseason game of her professional hockey career. “But I was really just excited about the whole experience of playing professional women’s hockey. That was sort of my outlook on the day. Just sort of trying to take in the moment and treasure it because we’re the first in the world to do this and that’s pretty exciting.”
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.