As the second NWHL season resulted in a historic All-Star Game, there was also the opportunity for several new faces to shine. Proving that the second season resulted in an abundance of new talent, Rebecca Russo was among such a group. Competing with the New York Riveters, Russo has quickly emerged as a fan favorite.
Appearing in all 16 regular season games, she made key contributions from the very beginning, logging points in her first two NWHL games. Her finest hour may have been the last game of the regular season. Facing a 5-1 deficit against the Connecticut Whale, Russo would gain assists on the last two goals of regulation, forcing overtime in an eventual 6-5 win that clinched second place in the regular season standings, complemented by their first winning season.
Having starred with the Boston University Terriers, Russo is truly one of the feel-good stories of the 2016-17 NWHL season. A hardcore sports fan who has been employed by both the MLB Network and the NHL Network, the product of Westport, Connecticut is a lunch pail worker whose team-first approach and relentless effort has identified with many devoted followers. An undrafted free agent, Russo proved her mettle, earning herself a place to play in the budding league after a strong showing at a free agent camp in New Jersey. Coincidentally, it is also the same region where the Riveters are based.
Statistically, Russo had an impressive rookie campaign, making her mark on the league’s leader board. Of note, she ranked third in the league in assists with 12, trailing teammate Amanda Kessel and fellow rookie, Alex Carpenter of the Boston Pride, who paced all skaters with 15. As a side note, Riveters teammate Janine Weber would rank fourth with a solid 10 assists.
Considering that Weber finished her second season with the Riveters as the leading scorer, amassing 19 points, the presence of Russo was not only a complement to her solid skills. Russo would provide offensive punch for the Riveters, ranking second in team scoring with 15 points on the strength of a dozen assists.
Rewarded for her work ethic and tireless play by gaining the opportunity to compete in the second NWHL All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, she shared a unique experience with linemate Madison Packer, one of the Riveters veteran leaders. Of note, they were among the top four vote-getters that gained the opportunity to compete in the Game via an online fan vote. Such recognition brought a tremendous sense of validation, complemented by the admiration of the fans who took the time to graciously show their considerate support,
“I was very honored that the fans thought of me that much to vote me into the 2017 NWHL All Star Game. It was a privilege to play with so many great players, Olympians in an event like this. More importantly, we are trying to establish something very special here with professional women’s hockey and I think we achieved that this past weekend in Pittsburgh.”
Playing alongside Courtney Burke, who spent last season with the Buffalo Beauts, along with fellow rookie Amanda Kessel, who served as team captain (both are also Russo’s roommates), Russo’s fellow Riveters All-Stars skated for Team Steadman, named in honor of Buffalo Beauts captain Kelley Steadman. Calling them rivals for the first time this season, this group included goaltender Katie Fitzgerald, Kaleigh Fratkin, who was a teammate of Russo at Boston University, Riveters team captain Ashley Johnston and Madison Packer.
Such an experience brought with it elements both surreal yet emotional. Of note, Russo scored twice in the regular season game where Fitzgerald recorded her first career shutout, which was also the first shutout in franchise history. In that game, Fratkin would courageously block a shot with her hand, fearlessly displaying her All-Star resolve while protecting the momentous shutout. To now call them rivals presented a very different scenario.
“We have worked very hard and we have been very focused throughout the season so it was great to experience an event like this with my friends and teammates. It was a competition, so when I lace the skates up for any game, I play to win yet I really enjoyed the competition in Pittsburgh especially playing with or against my teammates.”
As Team Kessel emerged victorious in the aftermath of All-Star Weekend, Russo contributed in two significant ways. During the All-Star Skills Competition, the winning team in each event would grab a point. With Kelley Steadman winning the shooting accuracy and Blake Bolden captured the win in the hardest shot competition, Russo kept Team Kessel competitive, soaring across the ice to the amazement of the awed fans at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Pittsburgh, finishing first in the fastest skater competition with a dazzling time of 12.7 seconds.
Following Kessel’s first goal in the All-Star Game itself, the first professional women’s ice hockey game in the state of Pennsylvania, Megan Bozek and Russo would score afterwards, cushioning the lead. Adding to the euphoria of the goal was the fact that Russo started the game on a line with Hilary Knight, considered by some to be the world’s finest women’s hockey player. By game’s end, Kessel would not only score the first hat trick in All-Star history, she would also garner MVP honors in an 11-10 win, resulting in a proud weekend for Riveters nation.
Despite the sense of competition on this day, Russo always remembered that the game was built on the fundamentals of amusement and appreciation. That sense of appreciation is one that is reciprocated by both fans and players alike. While the fans have a new generation of female sports to look up to, it is an amazing feeling for the players to know that their heroics may provide inspiration for the next ones.
“It was very exciting to score a goal, but to be honest with you; it was really special to play with the best players in the world while also representing the New York Riveters. I enjoyed playing for the fans who follow the game and enjoy watching me and other wonderful players that play in this league.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credit: Troy Parla, NWHL