FLOYD BENNETT FIELD — Raucous cheers echoed around the packed rink when forward Meghan Fardelmann scored for the New York Riveters.
A woman in a polka-dotted Rosie the Riveter headscarf leapt to her feet, waving a rally towel.
A little girl in a team jersey and beanie, who had watched the players practice before the game with her face pressed up against the glass, was in awe — as if someone had just told her she could have anything she wanted.
The Riveters were playing their final home game of the inaugural season of the first-ever women's professional hockey league against the Buffalo Beauts.
Though new, the league already has a dedicated following: Before the game began, fans lined up all the way out the door of the Aviator Sports Center, huddling in the February chill.
And when goalie Nana Fujimoto, a 27-year-old who also plays on the Japanese national team, blocked the Beauts' final shot in a shootout, winning the game for the Riveters, the roar that filled the rink would have made you think you were watching the New York Rangers win the Stanley Cup in Madison Square Garden.
“They’re pretty amazing, [and] to play in front of that many people… It’s phenomenal,” 23-year-old captain Ashley Johnston, a defenseman, said of their fans.
The women play hard and skate fast. Between their skill and the devotion of their fans, you'd wonder what took so long to create a National Women's Hockey League.
WE CAN DO IT
The league's founder, Dani Rylan, has a litany of reasons why the NWHL can and should succeed.
She notes that women control 70 to 80 percent of household purchases, but less than 1 percent of advertising dollars are spent on women's sports. (Still, she secured a sponsorship from Dunkin Donuts, whose logo is featured on the women's uniforms.)
"Women control 70-80% of household purchases, yet only about .5% of sports sponsorship $ are spent on women's sports." - @DaniRylan— Jenny Scrivens (@JenScrivs) March 23, 2016
And she says the women play “the best hockey that they’ve ever played” because the league gives them the opportunity to continue to develop their skills.
Rylan played college hockey at Northeastern University, and was frustrated by how much potential and talent was wasted with women unable to continue playing after college.
"They say women peak athletically in their late 20s so there’s all this missed opportunity for growth,” she said. “This is an opportunity for them to reach their peak.”
Rylan has also reached out to the National Hockey League for support, pitching potential doubleheaders pairing the local NWHL team with the local NHL team.
For now, the leagues are collaborating on events, like a kids’ clinic the Riveters ran with the New York Islanders, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has made statements in support of the league.
“They’ve been extremely supportive of women’s hockey, all the way from the grassroots level to the pros,” Rylan said. “We’d like to continue our partnership with them.”
The Riveters are led by Johnston, who has been playing hockey since grade school in Ontario and finished college thinking she’d never play again.
She heard about the league a year later, tried out and made the team.
“It’s amazing to play,” she said. “Every time I’m on the ice, I learn something new. Not only about myself, but about the sport, [and] just life in general. It’s a pretty neat relationship to have with a sport.”
Goalie Jenny Scrivens was another player who thought she'd given up hockey for good.
Scrivens, who's married to Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ben Scrivens, gave up hockey her senior year in college when she realized she had devoted so much of her time and energy to the sport that she didn’t know what she would do when she graduated.
She ended up going into communications, and when she heard about the NWHL, she contacted Rylan and offered to help with PR for the league.
“[I said], ‘This is my wheelhouse, and I played hockey so I think it’s a great fit,’” she said. She got the job, and then a few weeks later, Rylan called back and asked if she’d like to play for the Riveters — Rylan was recruiting for the team as its general manager.
Scrivens had been out of the game for six years, but leapt at the chance to play again.
“I didn’t realize how much I’d missed the game and missed being on a team,” she said. “I’d kind of moved on, because I didn’t have a choice, and then when that opportunity was presented to me again, I just jumped at it.”
While the players are paid, the salaries are low. The minimum is $10,000, the maximum is $25,000 and the league average is $15,000, Scrivens said. Each team has a $270,000 salary cap.
That’s part of why the league, which has four teams and a 20-game season, is structured so that it can be a part-time job. The players practice twice a week, late at night, and only play on Sundays to avoid any conflict with a 9-to-5 job.
Many have full-time careers. Johnston, for one, is a manufacturing engineer at a robotic firm in upstate Albany, where she lives. She commutes back and forth for every practice and game — and she said she’s happy to do it.
“Nine to 5, I get to do something that I love. And then I go, 8 to midnight, and do something else that I love,” she said. “Right now, this is a very special time in my life, to be doing something that I love literally every second of the day.”
At one of the team’s final practices of the season, players trudged into the Aviator rink at 7:30 p.m., after having played a brutal game in Buffalo the night before. They were tired — many were coming off a full day of work — but determined, and within minutes, the ice was swarming with women in bulky helmets and pads.
Over the slashing of skates speeding through ice, the smacking of puck after puck could be heard Coach Chad Wiseman — a former NHL player — hollering directions: "Get wide, forwards, get wide!”
It was the second to last practice before the semi-final playoff game against the Boston Pride that ended the Riveters' first season.
“We are really lucky. I can’t speak on behalf of other teams, but every player on our Riveters team says how much they love this team,” Scrivens said. “I think it’s because we’re all sacrificing so much and we’re all coming from so far.”
“We’re a really tight-knit group,” Johnston agreed. “It’s really, to actually be on this team, is really special.”
All of the players will be free agents on May 1, which means they could end up on any of the other three teams — the Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale or the Buffalo Beauts.
They won’t know for sure which team they’re on until the 2016 Draft on Saturday, June 18. The four founding teams already drafted 20 college juniors at different NCAA schools last year, all of whom will be graduating this spring and joining one of the four teams for the league’s second season.
It’s both exciting and a little sad for the Riveters, whose players say they’ve “never seen teams as close as this one.”
The Riveters also contend that their fans are the best in the league.
Despite the remote location of their far-flung home games out at Floyd Bennett Field, fans pack the arena, shirts sell out, and the rink echoes with New York accents cheering on the players by name.
The fans range widely in age and are a mix of men and women, girls and boys.
At the nail-biter against the Beauts, Fujimoto, who commands a drove of Japanese fans at every game, stretched to stop a shot with the toe of her skate.
Shouts of "Nana! Nana!" rose up.
A Japanese woman toting a video camera dashed over to capture the cheers, and one of Fujimoto's devotees, a middle-aged man who totes a teddy bear decked out in her jersey, wiggled the bear's paws in celebration.
Scrivens said many fans even follow the team to away games.
“Oh, they’re the best,” she said. “They came to one of our games in Buffalo! They’re hardcore.”