Madison Packer is an essential piece of the Metropolitan Riveters. She’s been an alternate captain for three seasons and the captain for two consecutive years now. Although she is an offensive force on the ice with 42 goals and 43 assists in her professional career and a consistent National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) all-star, there are other topics besides hockey that are important to her. Let’s talk about Packer’s hockey-filled upbringing as well as her emphasis on mental health advocacy.
Growing Up In a Hockey Family
Packer grew up surrounded by ice hockey. Both her older and younger brothers enjoyed sports, ice hockey in particular. She also grew up about 20 minutes from downtown Detroit, so it was no surprise she eventually wanted to try it herself. Spending her childhood in Birmingham, Michigan, she naturally became a fan of her hometown Detroit Red Wings.
“I grew up sandwiched in between two brothers,” Packer said. “That’s kind of how I got into hockey. I just wanted to be like my older brother, and my little brother did everything that we did, so we kind of had two or three wherever we went.”
Packer played for Honey Baked and Little Caesars, as her love for ice hockey developed even more. When she got older, her love for the sport stayed with her, as she eventually attended the University of Wisconsin and joined their powerhouse women’s hockey program.
“I really wanted to go someplace where the hockey would be good and competitive, and we had a chance to win a national championship,” Packer said. “Then I went and visited and I just fell in love with the city of Madison.”
Wisconsin fit her perfectly, as she won that national championship she had always wanted. She also appeared in three Frozen Fours while majoring in journalism. Her parents and younger sister also went to Big Ten schools, so she was in line with the family tradition.
Tying Her Professional Career Into the Importance of Mental Health
As a captain and six-year veteran of the Riveters, she has been dedicated to the NWHL since its start, becoming one of the top players over the years. She credits her success to her supportive teammates and experience in the league, saying there are a bunch of fellow Riveters that are also strong leaders.
Aside from spending time out on the lake doing water sports, watching movies or doing virtual game night with her family and friends, another thing Packer and her wife Anya, the newly appointed Riveters general manager, dedicate themselves to is mental health awareness.The topic is something that has always had a big impact on Packer’s life, one that she and Anya continue to spread the message about.
“It’s something that we’re super passionate about, and we recognize that there’s a platform and there’s a demand for education on it,” Packer said.
Packer has had a privileged life, going to private school and playing hockey every day. She was supported not just physically in her time as an elite athlete but mentally. She has been involved in everything she can surrounding advocating for mental health, as the tragedies that can result from poor mental health found her at a young age.
At just 17, Packer’s world forever changed when a friend she played hockey with died by suicide.
“That was my first experience with what that was,” Packer said. “So my parents helped a lot in my coping and understanding of it, and I went to work with a non-profit in Pontiac, Michigan called Common Ground. I organized a charity walk and we raised 2,500 dollars, which to me as a 17-year-old seemed like a huge deal.”
Along with Common Ground, Packer also got involved with Project Semicolon as an ambassador for several years before realizing that she wanted to get involved more directly.
“I started looking at how I could get involved in smaller and more local organizations because that’s really where the demand is, and that’s the people that really reach out to communities and make a difference,” Packer said.
More recently, Packer has been sharing her experience with the Riveters, raising awareness on her own platforms as well as getting the team involved. Members of the team, including Packer, wear hats during warmups for the Kyle Pavone Foundation. Pavone was a musician and friend of Packer’s, and his parents created the foundation to provide counseling and rehab for people in the music industry.
Packer links mental health and addiction very closely, as she spends her free time raising awareness about both. She explained that overdose is the leading cause of death in America for people under 50, and she feels the two topics go hand in hand.
She has continued to use her position with the Riveters to advocate for mental health, as she believes it is not addressed in sports as much as it should be. Mental health is a serious problem that is severely lacking from the public eye. People do not see how it affects so many.
“It was just interesting to me that in sports we never really talk about it,” Packer said. “Or we didn’t at the time because it was kind of like a taboo, to have any kind of mental struggle was to be weak.”
Packer began speaking to people closest to her and found that many were affected by mental health issues. Today, what was once a topic spoken in whispers has been put out in the open. Packer wants to advocate any way she can, whether it is through social media campaigns or donating to the cause as often as possible.
Helping in Any Way She Can
About 35% of all professional athletes struggle with some sort of mental health issue. While awareness around it continues to rise, the stigma surrounding mental health persists. That persistence discourages athletes from talking about their problems. Packer has made it her cause to “End The Stigma.”
“Anything mental health related, any time we can get involved,” Packer said. “It’s just really important to us. It seems like a simple thing but it’s such a huge problem in our country right now.”
Sam is currently Managing Editor, and used to be Sports Editor, of The Montclarion, Montclair State University’s student-run multimedia newspaper. She’ll be earning her Sports Media and Journalism degree from there in Spring 2021. A hockey fan since she was a young girl, she covers the Montclair State men’s team as well as the Metropolitan Riveters and New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers.