As the third season of the NWHL launched in dramatic fashion, a tremendous momentum sparked such an exciting time. With a historic sporting agreement involving the New Jersey Devils, the new-look Metro Riveters became the first NWHL team engaged in such a partnership.
Ensuring that the future of American professional women’s ice hockey shall be secure, this landmark moment was commemorated in an unprecedented manner. With the Prudential Center, home of the Devils, serving as the backdrop for the first NWHL match contested on NHL ice, the Riveters hosted the Boston Pride.
Of note, it allowed numerous members of the Pride to make history thrice. With a roster that features inaugural competitors such as Blake Bolden, Jillian Dempsey, Marissa Gedman and Brittany Ott, among others, they were part of the Women’s Winter Classic, the first professional women’s game contested outdoors. Having also captured the inaugural Isobel Cup, which was contested in New Jersey, the chance for the Pride to extend their significant legacy in the NWHL’s nascent history was accentuated by the match at Prudential Center.
Part of a doubleheader which also saw the Devils host the Arizona Coyotes later in the day, the Riveters proudly took to the ice first, absorbing a major league experience worthy of their tremendous talents. With Riveters captain Ashley Johnston joined by Jillian Dempsey, the newly christened captain of the Pride, at center ice for the ceremonial face-off, anticipation built quickly as to which player would be the first to score in an NHL arena.
Such a milestone would belong to Harrison Browne, who came out of retirement to don the Riveters colors, resuming a compelling career with a tremendous momentum. Earlier in the week, Browne was joined by Alexa Gruschow and Jenny Ryan, who visited John H. Finley School PS 129 in Harlem, New York. In addition to sharing their stories about life as professional hockey players, along with graciously signing autographs, the players admirable provided tickets to the game to more than 120 joyous students.
Scoring against Ott, the inaugural winner of the league’s Goaltender of the Year Award, Browne’s goal was rare in the fact that it was both short-handed and unassisted. Ott was not the only notable goaltender taking to NHL ice on this day. A unique and exciting goaltending matchup saw the Riveters feature Katie Fitzgerald guarding the team’s crease.
The 2017 recipient of the Goaltender of the Year Award, Fitzgerald was a key contributor in the Riveters enjoying their first winning season in franchise history. Ready to build on a solid rookie campaign with a push towards even greater heights, the home opener at the Prudential Center has certainly set an inspiring tone. Heading into the game, Fitzgerald reflected gratefully on the chance to be part of such an uplifting moment in league history, while providing the NWHL fans with an unparalleled experience,
“There was a lot of hype surrounding the double header with the Devils, being that it was the first of its kind in history. We were all so excited and lucky to have the opportunity to be out there. The fans and atmosphere were incredible, to have that many people show up for our season opener I think will be a huge motivator for the rest of the season, knowing the kind of support we have.
It was great to see a lot of familiar faces as well as plenty of newcomers who enjoyed their experience, so to be able to be a part of a historic moment with not only my teammates, but the women’s hockey community as a whole, is something that I’ll be savoring for a long time.”
With Fitzgerald frustrating the opposing Pride offense, it was the Riveters who added to their lead. Following Browne’s goal, Miye D’Oench, who was originally a Pride draft pick, would provide the enthusiastic Riveters faithful with a sizzling performance. Of note, Kelsey Koelzer, a former Ivy League rival of D’Oench, gained her first regular season point with the club, while Alexa Gruschow, a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, both earned the assists. Undoubtedly, the chance to score on NHL ice was one that is destined to stand as a career highlight for an ecstatic D’Oench,
“It was definitely an adrenaline rush to score a goal in the big arena. The crowd was loud, engaging, and supportive, and you could feel the excitement and energy in the atmosphere; it was a memorable moment. The crowd was wild, our bench was wild, it was amazing.”
Having played with the Riveters since their relocation to New Jersey, D’Oench has delivered on all accounts. From a fundamentally sound game to solid playmaking abilities, D’Oench is not only developing into a franchise player, she has also taken on the role of a Player Representative with the NWHLPA, testament to her dedication to the team. In discussing the sensational support of the Devils and its positive impact for the future of the NWHL, an admirable optimism rises to the surface, eager for a future in which contests of such an empowering magnitude become the standard rather than the exception,
“It is an amazing step for the league to have an official partnership between the Riveters and the Devils, and it is really exciting to watch women’s hockey grow. Saturday’s game was a huge milestone. I hope someday, stepping onto a stage like that is "just another day at the office" for players in this league, but for now, it really was something special.”
Gruschow extended the Riveters lead to a 3-0 margin as she scored the only goal of the second stanza. With assists from D’Oench and Browne, all three would gain a multi-point performance on this goal. Pleased with the turnout, one of the highest attendance figures in league annals, the chance to meet the fans after the game added a profound element, as the experience was truly a shared sense of history,
“The fans are amazing people who always bring the enthusiasm. We had more than 2,000 people at the game, and the autograph line was wrapping around the concourse, spanning several sections, it was awesome! It was great to see new fans and old fans and share this exciting experience with them. We are always very appreciative of their support, and we love chatting with them. Being a part of this event has us all fired up about the season!”
Although Meagan Mangene would foil Fitzgerald’s bid for a shutout, scoring at the 11:39 mark of the third, as Heather Schwarz and Haley Skarupa recorded the assists, the highly talented backstop prefers to look at the bigger picture. Grateful for the chance to be able to play on NHL ice and be part of an historic moment, simultaneously contributing to a strong regular season start in a 4-1 final, which saw Rebecca Russo score the game’s final goal, Fitzgerald’s is eternally intertwined with league lore.
Gaining the first-ever regular season victory in an NHL arena, registering a solid 30 saves in the process, Fitzgerald obtained memories that will last for a lifetime. “It was very special. It was huge for our team to get a big first win of the season, but also was a great way to cap off an incredibly memorable day and game.”
For her efforts, D’Oench gained the NWHL Player of the Week Award, accentuating a solid start to the season. “It is an honor to get named Player of the Week. There’s so much talent in the league, so it is humbling to be selected.”
Coincidentally, Gruschow would grab the honor a week later, registering a pair of points, including a short-handed goal as the Riveters defeated the Buffalo Beauts in a netural site game at Rochester, New York. Worth noting, it marks the first time that the Riveters started their season with a 2-0 mark. Simultaneously, another franchise first was reached as the Riveters started their season with shorthanded goals in their first two games. With Gruschow boasting a 67% faceoff win percentage in the first two games, there is no question that the feeling of achievement at Prudential Center was a great source of encouragement, fuelling a great start to what she hopes shall be the greatest season yet,
“This Riveters win was a special one. Our partnership with the Devils allowed us to be put on a big stage in the Prudential Center, and we embraced this opportunity and executed well. Our coach, Chad Wiseman, told us before the game that we were a part of history, and solidifying the win made the moment even more special. Getting a win in the first game of the season against the Boston Pride shows that the Riveters are here to compete and our team is ready for a successful season 3.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Patrick Dodson, Michelle Jay and Troy Parla