Friday March 4th, 2016

Early on a Sunday morning, a bus carrying members of the New York Riveters pulled into a rest stop in Massachusetts and their attention was directed to the front of the coach. Ashley Robbins, the team’s trainer, stood to make an announcement.

“OK, we’re stopping here for a food break,” she said. “You each get a $10 per diem.”

The bus exploded into cheers.

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“We made it guys!” Jenny Scrivens yelled.

There was plenty for the team to be excited about, but the goaltender’s exclamation, a jest on the surface, also signified a small yet significant victory: Getting paid to play hockey is something the majority of the bus’s inhabitant didn’t think could happen during their playing careers.

The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is the first league in North America to pay women a salary to play the sport professionally. Prior to its formation, the only major option for women to continue playing after college was the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), which pays in bonuses. Other than that, players had to content themselves with joining a recreational league or trying their luck overseas.

So, while the $10 may not seem like much, the money is symbolic of how far the women’s game and effort has come.

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The NWHL was founded in March 2015 by Dani Rylan, its commissioner who doubles as general manager of the Riveters. In creating the four-team league, Rylan gave high-profile female players like Olympians Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan a chance to focus on hockey without having to juggle training and a full-time job. Franchises currently exist in New York, Boston, Buffalo and Connecticut.

Since the league was announced, it has already found measures of success. In November, it signed a deal to have New England broadcaster NESN air select games. Shortly thereafter, ESPN agreed to stream games on its ESPN3 platform. The NWHL also added a sponsorship deal with Dunkin Donuts in December. But it’s not easy to run a league that doesn’t have a huge financial backing. As the league begins its first postseason, there have been series of high and lows.

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The salary cap for each team this season is $270,000, and the most a player can earn is $25,000. The league minimum is $10,000. The majority of the players do not receive a stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee and must supplement their salaries with non-hockey jobs. For instance, Sam Faber of the Connecticut Whale is the youth hockey director at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, CT. The Riveters’ Beth Hanrahan works in sales at Yelp. Buffalo Beauts forward Meghan Duggan is an assistant coach at Clarkson. New York defender Elena Orlando, a nurse, was called off a shift the night before the Riveters' trip, and then called by her employer the next day, while on she was her way to Boston, to see if she could work. U.S. Olympian Kelli Stack is the only one who is making the league maximum this season, and she came into the league shortly after she had retired to get an accounting job in order to earn a living wage.

By comparison, the NHL minimum yearly salary is $575,000, more than double the total pay for one team in the NWHL. The American Hockey League (AHL), the premier North American minor league, pays a minimum of $42,375.

While many of the NWHL's players during the league’s inaugural season dreamt of a cushy professional hockey life filled with chartered jets and pro-style arenas with all the locker-room trimmings, the reality is much more similar to what many experienced while playing NCAA sports in their college days.

Early in morning of the day they'd made their joyous lunchtime pit stop, the Riveters had assembled at 6 a.m at Aviator Arena in Brooklyn, their home rink, to prepare for their first road trip, a four-to-five hour drive to play the Boston Pride for the second time that season. Though it was chilly outside, the sun kept the players warm as they gathered in the parking lot in front of the building.

The bus, scheduled to arrive 30 minutes after the players, was late. The teams were scheduled to play at 3 p.m. at the Bright-Landry Hockey Center, located on the Harvard campus, and the Riveters wanted to depart early to make sure they would not run into any trouble getting to Boston on time.

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One of the hazards of traveling by bus on the day of the game is the possibility of delay, something the Pride had experienced just a month earlier. On Oct. 18, on its first road venture, confusion over the pick-up location caused the Pride to leave an hour late. Coupled with infamous New York City traffic, their four-and-a-half hour trip turned into a seven-hour journey that ended with the players arriving at Aviator at 7:30 p.m., a half-hour after their scheduled start time with the Riveters.

A sense of anxiety washed over the Riveters as they waited for the bus in the November chill.

“We need a backup plan,” one of the coaches muttered. “This is 2015.”

One phone call to the bus company later, it was discovered the driver was lost and four miles away.

“This is unacceptable," the coach said.

In the meantime, the team used the extra time together to bond in the brisk weather. A group of players and even a few coaches broke out a soccer ball and played a game of "keep it up," an age-old hockey ritual for warming up before a game. This time, the warm-up was to stave off the late fall cold.

The bus finally arrived at 7:06.

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By the time the doors opened for the 3 p.m. contest, a line outside the mid-sized arena had grown despite the steady Boston drizzle. The arena began to fill with fans of all ages. The lower levels were filled with throngs of jersey-clad youth hockey teams and their families.

In order to grow, the league relies a lot on grassroots efforts, word of mouth, and the social and in-person effort of its players.

“We’re very hands on with kids in the area,” Riveters forward Meghan Fardelmann says. “My little guys came last weekend, and the parents and kids can’t wait to come back, and they travel over an hour. I know a lot of the [players with] everything else going on in our lives, are getting out there to the community. These games have been fantastic. That’s the biggest thing, have people keep coming out in the winter months. Girls in the future to come and play at a higher level and get paid.”

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As the Riveters left the ice after warmups, a young girl reached through the stands to high-five her heroes as they made their way back to the dressing room.

“Great job, Ashley!” she called out to captain Ashley Johnston before telling starting goalie Nana Fujimoto, who came over from Japan and now has the highest-selling jersey in the league, “I love you, Nana!

During that game on Nov. 22, there were more than 1,500 people in the 2,850-seat arena. The crowd stayed engaged, aided by four goals in the first period and an active third by Fujimoto, who faced 15 shots to bring her saves total for the afternoon to 45.

After the 3–2 victory by the Riveters, their second over the Pride, New York’s locker room is loud with excitement.

“F------- right, boys!” Johnston yells, later saying, “We have the best team in terms of chemistry and character. No one hates each other. People take responsibility for what they are doing.”

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The true celebration begins on the bus ride back to Brooklyn. Players are greeted by several large pizzas on the front seats. The players grab slices as they walk by, and Fujimoto, the star of the third period, walks on board to cheers.

The group lets out a chorus of, “Thank you Nana!”

“You get a whole pizza!” Scrivens jokes.

As the bus pulls away, the discussion turns to celebratory beers. Coach Chad Wiseman and a few players have come prepared, but most say they hadn’t wanted to jinx the victory by making the presence of their libations known.

“Does this bus have bottle service?” Scrivens asks, jokingly. A bottle of champagne makes its way around the bus, with several team members getting a taste of the celebration. “Everybody deserves a sip.”

Though the drive up to Boston had been quiet because of the early hour, the way home is quite the opposite.

Music plays on a cell phone, and after the bus runs out of celebratory beverages, the team pools money to stop for a few cases of beer to continue the frivolities.

The party is not just to celebrate the victory over the Pride on the Riveters’ first road trip, but also the fact that winning a game in a women’s professional hockey league is even an option.

The celebration may have been pizza and beer, but no doubt it tasted just like caviar and champagne.

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