Since professional sport first took shape in the late 19th Century, the adoration of its athletes quickly became an obligatory facet. Before the turn of the century, such adoration would extend into a much more profound experience. Items such as miniature picture cards and postcards would be inserted into packages of cigarettes and tins of tobacco (later candies and caramels). What may have been a clever marketing tool, perceived by some sporting cynics as disposable ephemera, became part of a heartfelt connection for sports fans.
This connection evolved over decades, as an enjoyable pastime emerged for fans of all ages, passed on to further generations, as the accumulation, subsequent sorting, and eventual amassing of such items became a prized collection. Today, collections of sports memorabilia and paraphernalia have taken on numerous facets, with a seemingly endless list of merchandise, equal parts fascinating yet overwhelming.
Among such items, game-worn jerseys are the gold standard for hockey enthusiasts. With the onset of professional women’s ice hockey in the United States, collecting the game has certainly run parallel to its growth. From the outset, the NWHL is not only bringing positive change, bringing women’s hockey into the American professional sporting conversation, but also heralding a gradual acceptance for the female game. Of note, its postgame autograph sessions at all NWHL contests (including at the All-Star Game) has not only created a cherished collectible for some, but it has contributed an exceptional fan experience.
The presence of such charismatic competitors as Courtney Burke and Rebecca Russo at the 14th MeiGray Game-Worn Jersey Expo only serves to enhance that experience, while potentially signifying a paradigm shift in the relevance of women’s hockey artifacts as a prized collectible for memorabilia collectors. As a side note the MeiGray online store is now featuring game-worn NWHL jerseys for sale, emphasizing the importance of women’s sports as serious collectibles.
Hosted in New Jersey at the Raritan Valley Community College Conference Center, Burke and Russo, both NWHL All-Stars were joined at the event by the display of the Isobel Cup, quickly becoming synonymous with excellence in professional women’s ice hockey. Philip Pritchard, the keeper of the Stanley Cup, along with Hockey Hall of Famer Adam Oates were also on-hand for the event.
Burke, a member of the inaugural NWHL Draft Class, who also played for Miracle on Ice member Mark Johnson with the Wisconsin Badgers and captured a silver medal at the IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds, she joins Russo in representing the potential for women to become significant role models in professional hockey. With a collection of jerseys on display that could only be outmatched by the Hockey Hall of Fame, Burke was not only a hockey star on this weekend, she was also a fan, in awe at some of the jerseys on display,
“Just walking around and seeing the old timers jerseys like Gordie Howe. Very rarely you every come face to face with those old jerseys so it was cool because most of the jersey’s there if not all are game worn. It’s a big part of hockey history!”
Joining Russo in the chance to interact with fans, posing for photos and gleefully signing autographs, the feeling of fun was reciprocal for Burke. Not only did fans graciously post on social media that these wondrous women are great role models for their daughters, it was also an opportunity to educate fans about the growing impact of professional women’s hockey. Such an experience was one that Burke truly savored, enjoying the chance to take on the role of ambassador,
“It would have to be the fact that they were so excited to meet us and ask questions about the league, it showed that they really support the women’s game.”
Among the remarkable collection of game-worn jerseys from numerous sports on display, the New York Riveters found their jerseys displayed alongside such prominent iconic sports leagues including the NHL, the NBA and the defunct WHA (which featured a Houston Aeros Gordie Howe jersey).
Undoubtedly, the jersey is hockey’s most identifiable artifact, akin to the glove in baseball (former US President George HW Bush had his first baseman’s glove from Yale in a desk drawer at the oval office), the helmet in football and shoes in basketball.
In addition, the jersey holds the power to conjure emotions of glory or anguish. For so many teams, the jersey was the opportunity to establish their creative fingerprint. Not only does it identify a community, the opportunity to feature bold colors reflects a palate that can easily capture the imagination of fans throughout the realm of the game.
During the 2015-16 hockey season, The Hockey News released a special edition of the 100 Greatest Jerseys, and the Riveters were the only women’s ice hockey team whose jersey made the list. Quickly becoming the most iconic logo in the female game, the chance to wear the jersey represents a point of pride for Russo.
Having captured the hearts and minds of fans by winning the Fastest Skater Competition at the NWHL All-Star Skills Competition, her game-worn All-Star jersey was among those available in an online auction following the game. As a side note, Harrison Browne’s game-worn jersey from the All-Star Game was actually given to him as a gift by a classy fan following the announcement of his retirement following the Isobel Cup victory.
With Russo’s All-Star jersey holding a hallowed place in a fan’s collection, it is also testament to her growing popularity, enhanced by a strong social media following. In knowing that NWHL game-worn jerseys were prominently on display at MeiGray, literally shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats of professional men’s hockey, Russo approaches such an unforgettable milestone for the game with tremendous jubilation,
“Honestly, it’s surreal! I got chills just reading that question to myself. To be able to categorize myself with some of the most dedicated and top athletes from the NHL, and other prestigious professional sports, is very special to me.
It’s been an incredible journey for me all these years, playing the game since the age of 3, and to have my jersey in the same room as Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid, it’s such an honor.
I once had a dream of playing in the NHL. I think I achieved that life time goal of being a professional athlete but in this case, in a women’s professional league. I am so grateful to be able to play the game I love most, and pave the way for future generations of young girls.
We, as professional athletes, have a tough job to keep this league going and to get the word out, and that is why I am happy to make as many appearances and talk to as many people as I can. We need to grow this sport. This league, and seeing my jersey on display, has allowed me to make my dreams come true and I’m hoping to help make a difference.”
As one of the most charismatic and popular members of the Riveters, the experience at MeiGray was just an extension of a highly eventful offseason for Russo. Of note, she participated along several other Riveters, including Burke, along with NWHLPA head Anya Battaglino in New York City’s iconic Pride Parade.
Having also donned the Riveters jersey with several other teammates at the Chelsea Piers summertime classic, a charitable fund raiser for Right to Play, which also featured members of the NHL’s New York Islanders, such efforts truly represent a labor of love. Perhaps the hallmark of such events for Russo is the fact that she enjoys getting the opportunity to meet a group of eager fans, definitely proud to call her a role model, while participating in noble causes that bring betterment to the community, part of a social responsibility that encompass an important impact that athletes can have.
“What I enjoy most about these events is the ability to be able to show my face to the community. I love being able to put a smile on a young fans face while also representing the NWHL proudly. It’s an honor to be asked to come to these events and it’s even more humbling to see the impact I have on these fans and the community.
It’s fun taking pictures, signing autographs and, most importantly, talking with groups or individuals and telling them not only my story but our story and how fortunate we are to be given this opportunity. I like to help educate people who have never heard about the NWHL and spark their interest. People are becoming very interested in our sport and who we are as players and people in society so I enjoy being able to be with them at these types of events.”
Although the event at MeiGray was fun and informal, Burke and Russo are certainly aware of their responsibility as role models, both setting a positive example during their cherished time there. Of note, it was the kind of event that provided an ideal ambience for both the NWHL and the Riveters. Such magnetism among these two wondrous women was evidenced by their genuine appreciation for the game and their fans.
As their presence was truly a heartfelt portrait, helping to establish a fond connection for the game and its growing legion of fans, it was not the only element that defined the event. Of note, Russo and Burke gained the opportunity to speak at the event. Introduced by MeiGray President Barry Meisel, it was a tremendous gesture that truly affirmed the rise in relevance for women’s ice hockey. As Russo reflects, it was a proud honor that truly emphasized the opportunity to raise awareness of the impact of these female hockey stars as a gem in the game,
“It was amazing and I had no idea what to expect at this event. When I was introduced, I was first overwhelmed by the room full of hockey jerseys and people. I had the chance to speak alongside my teammate and good friend, Courtney Burke. I thought it was important to express to everyone there our story, who we are, and what we do.
As players, we all seem to have a similar path to the sport of ice hockey but our paths to the NWHL are all a bit different. That’s what makes this league so special, bringing together people from different backgrounds and education all sharing the same common bond – our love for this game.
It was very exciting for me as I scanned the crowd not only did I see friends and family but it was so humbling to see excited fans of all ages. The amount of support we are getting for the NWHL is rapidly increasing so making these appearances and catching people’s eyes and ears is only helping us gain more and more support. I was so happy to be able to share my story at this Expo.”
A poignant duo that makes such a foray highly worthwhile, Burke and Russo definitely left a positive impression on all involved. While the potential for collectibles in women’s ice hockey is limitless, there has never been a hockey card set devoted exclusively to the female game, one which is long overdue; there is no question that such potential deserves the presence of the NWHL.
With the upcoming season involving Burke and Russo both ready to add to their growing legacies with the burning desire to hoist the Isobel Cup, the offseason has certainly provided a series of proud memories that only add an encouraging momentum. The experience is not lost on Burke, who is proud to see that the Riveters and the NWHL were held in the same regard as other sports at the MeiGray Expo, hopefully foreshadowing more positive and empowering moments in a bright future,
“It was an awesome experience. The people that go there love the game of hockey! It’s exciting to see how passionate they are about it. It was also a chance for us to expose some of these fans to the NWHL. A lot of them didn’t even know there was a women’s league so it’s important we got our faces out there infront of more hockey fans!”
Images obtained from Twitter: https://twitter.com/MeiGray and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pg/newyorkriveters/photos/?ref=page_internal
"All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated"
To follow Rebecca Russo on Twitter, please visit: https://twitter.com/russooo18
To follow Courtney Burke on Twitter, please visit: https://twitter.com/courtyy6