Every NWHL player has their own relationship with fans. This is something that the league’s athletes do most well. Arguably, better than any other professional league. Signing autographs, posing for photos along the glass, hugging the little ones. The fact that the players are attainable and easy to interact with is one of the reasons why the league as a whole is beloved by their fan base.
One of the most popular hockey players in the league is the New York Riveters‘ forward, Rebecca Russo. Her interaction with fans comes naturally to her. Russo attracts the positive attention and reciprocates, and it is something that is quite genuine.
Russo Is Naturally Special
When a person meets Russo or has the opportunity to converse with her, she is instantly likable. She possesses a magnetism that draws out the best in others. When asked how interacting with others comes to her so naturally, Russo attributed much of it to her upbringing:
“I think that my personality stems from how outgoing, bubbly and personable I am. That stems from when I was a little girl and how I was raised in my family,” she said. “You could say ‘loud person’, but I was always the ‘fun person’. Always the one to get a group going, whether that is my roommates or my team. I just love interacting with people. I am always interacting, taking pictures. Making funny faces at kids through the glass.”
Russo was one of three players selected by fans as a recipient of the NWHL Fans’ Three Stars of the Season Award. The award was voted upon by the league’s fans and recognizes the players deemed as the most favorite among the fans. The other two recipients were Connecticut Whale defender and NWHLPA Director Anya Battaligno and as well one of Russo’s newest teammates, Harrison Browne, who won the award with Buffalo but recently signed with the Riveters.
Russo went on to say, “my personality, I think, is something so special. I don’t think anyone has a personality like mine, and I’m not trying to brag. I always have people telling me, whether it is grownups or friends, ‘you are just so personable!’. That is what makes me so special and different from a lot of people. I am just a very giddy and bubbly person, and I think that speaks volumes of where I came from and who my family is.”
Russo Meeting Her Own Hockey Heroes
Russo, who is now entering her second NWHL season after re-signing with the Rivs back in May, has been around professional athletes most of her life. She has a firsthand knowledge and appreciation of how positive interactions between a pro athlete and young fans can make lasting impressions. Russo’s father Peter was the President of the Mid Fairfield Youth Hockey Association where Russo herself played all of her youth hockey. One professional whom Russo’s father worked with as part of the association’s programs is arguably the greatest leader in hockey history.
“Being from Westport, Connecticut is the home of many, many unbelievable athletes,” Russo shared. “My family friend Mark Messier, always worked youth hockey and summer tournaments with my dad, so I got to grow up around him. I lived close to Julie Chu in Fairfield who skated at a rink I skated at. I was always around athletes, and I think that has pushed me to become a better athlete. But also seeing these little girls at the rink, how they feel. When I used to see Marty St. Louis, you know, you would light up. You kind of freeze. That is something special – to see that I did that once because of an NHL player, and now young female athletes do that now because of an NWHL player like myself. Something super humbling and very special.”
Touching Words From Fans
In the toughest moments of our careers, unexpected words of encouragement from others can lift our spirits. There is a quote from American author and former professor of special education Leo Buscaglia that says, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Russo seems to have a sincere understanding of this concept, both from experience and by offering up these intangible tokens from herself to others.
When asked about the most meaningful words a fan ever spoke to her, Russo shared the following story: “The last game when we lost versus Buffalo (opening round of the 2017 NWHL playoffs), I was really sad, as was my entire team. I remember coming out of locker room, I was the first one out to come sit at the autograph table. A few people came by, and this young girl Ava, she’s been in our locker room before, she looked me in the eye and said ‘Rebecca, you are my new favorite player. You are so amazing, and I cannot wait to buy your jersey’.”
Small Acts of Caring
Right in that moment this youngster provided Russo with that “kind word”, “honest compliment”, and “small act of caring”. Something she will likely never forget. The sentiments themselves being a two-way street, positively affecting both Ava and Russo herself.
Russo continued, “That small little encounter with a young female fan – I cried. I was also sad about the game, but that was so incredible to think that I made someone feel like that. I made someone want to get my jersey. And I made that big of an impact on someone to have them go out of their way to say something like that to me. That was one of my favorite moments. It was at the end, but it was my favorite moment of the season.”
Other Special Moments
Russo would finish third overall in scoring for New York last season. She played in all 18 of the club’s regular season games and tallied three goals and thirteen assists in the process. She also played in the Riveter’s lone playoff game and was one of only two plus players on the team during the opening round loss to Buffalo. At the end of the day though, how much do statistics really matter? Especially when compared to other matters of the heart that Russo potted during the season.
Asked to discuss her most special moments with fans, Russo opened up about two more special little girls, Gabi and Annabelle:
“I always have this special fan, her name is Gabi.” Russo explained. “She and her family have come to most of our home games. Gabi’s brother has some special needs. I speak to their mom through Instagram and I always give them a signed puck or a signed stick. I find them after every game and give them a hug. Gabi is one of my biggest fans. I always tap her hand before every game. That is a special moment for me.”
— Rebecca Russo (@russooo18) July 28, 2017
Russo went on to share, “There is this girl named Annabelle. She is a cute little fan. Her dad and I follow each other on Twitter. I met her during a game and I threw a puck to her. Then her dad came up to me, and was like ‘wow, that means the world to her’. For the rest of the season we always met each along the glass. We do this thing where we stick out our tongues at each other. I just think it’s adorable. She actually caught a funny picture of me sticking my tongue out. Her dad sent it to me.”
Too Many Moments for Russo to Choose From
These are just some of the highlights of Russo’s interactions with fans. She is not hesitant to engage fans on the road either. Whether it is playing with youngsters along the boards, throwing a puck to them or mugging for their cameras. Russo readily places herself within reach of these kiddos.
“I can go on and on about my favorite moments,” she said. “I think every single one of them is my favorite moment. Just because I am a professional athlete, and to have an impact on young female lives, whether they are athletes or not athletes. Just to put a smile on their face means the world to me. If they come to the hockey game not knowing anything about hockey, or if they don’t even play hockey, I don’t even care because they’re something special. They’re pushing me even harder every single game because I want to see them happy. I don’t want to see them frowning when I’m mad or sad about a shift or a game. They put a smile on my face, and they don’t even know that they do that.”
NWHL’s Season Three Brings Further Excitement
Russo was an NWHL All Star selection in her very first season in the league. Her 13 assists were fourth best in the entire league and her sixteen points placed her in the top ten for scoring overall. Right now, her young fans, as well as Riveters and NWHL fans in general, are anxiously awaiting for October to see her sophomore performance. All indications are that Russo is going to increase her numbers exponentially. Well over a month before the season starts, fans have already been waiting a long time to see their favorite players return to the ice. Russo senses their excitement for the return of their teams and the league as a whole.
“The gap between March and October is such a big gap. These fans miss it,” Russo said. “It’s the same thing as the NHL, when you want those games and you miss those interactions. I think the fans should be most excited to have the NWHL in its third season and how wonderful and successful it’s been. Last year at the beginning of the season with the pay cuts, who knew if we were going to be in October of 2017. Season Three? Yes, they should be excited about the games themselves, but they should be most excited about the NWHL how it keeps thriving and it keeps striving in the right direction. Then obviously seeing their teams play again.”
Attention Must Be Paid to the NWHL
Russo is a primary example of why sports fans should pay attention to the National Women’s Hockey League. Creating a comparison of what Russo and the other NWHL players do to positively impact their fans, for the amount of money that they make, and looking at it alongside other professional sports leagues, it just doesn’t seem right. The argument could be made that the NWHL blows other professional leagues out of the water in terms of how well the players interact with young athletes. The players don’t make millions of dollars – they make extremely modest salaries that do not come close to the size of their hearts. Russo and so many NWHLers embrace their communities and fans, in addition to working busy careers outside of hockey to make ends meet.
Russo’s Thoughts on Further Support
Russo stated, “I think what type of industry we live in these days is all about social media. Everyone has an iPhone, everyone has a Twitter, everyone is on their phone every single day. The biggest thing the hockey community can do for the NWHL is just keep spreading the word. What the Riveters’ fan did for our season last year was the GoFundMe page. They donated 20-plus tickets a game. They raised well over $3,000.”
She would go on to say:
“I just think that people need to continue to love and support, and continue to just spread the word about this incredible league that was formed in 2015. If people spread awareness of who we are and what we’re all about, then people will try to come to our games and just try to support us. That’s what we need. We need the support. Sure we need the money; money is money these days. But we just need the support. I think that is the main thing that we need as a league to succeed.
If NWHL salaries and league revenue matched the size of the players’ hearts, the league would most certainly be able to sustain for many decades to come. Rebecca Russo would be one of its highest paid players.
General Manager of the Buffalo Beauts (NWHL). Hockey history writer “The Hockey Writers”. Credentialed media for the NHL Combine and 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships in Buffalo, NY, USA. Born and raised in Buffalo, NY. Lifelong hockey fan for over 40 years. Proponent of the women’s game.