Recounting her first season in the NWHL, Madison Packer calls it a humbling experience. Fresh out of the NCAA, where she was a standout, an alternate captain and a national champion at University of Wisconsin, Packer’s on-ice expectations were nothing short of success. But that first season with the New York Riveters, now known as the Metropolitan Riveters, didn’t go quite according to plan.
As a team, the Riveters were woeful in the NWHL’s inaugural campaign. They won just four games all season, and it wasn’t as though they dropped the other 14 in some sort of oh-so-close fashion. New York finished with a minus-37 goal differential, the Riveters were blown out in two consecutive games and bounced from the post-season in a heartbeat and Packer couldn’t even hang her hat on personal achievement. She had played well, gaining stream throughout the campaign, but four goals and eight points in 18 games across the regular season and playoffs were hardly up to the standard to which she holds herself.
At times this season, though, that debut campaign has felt like a cakewalk. One year removed from twin titles with the Riveters — a league-best regular season record followed by an Isobel Cup victory — the Metropolitan outfit finds itself tied for last in the NWHL with a league-worst 10 regulation defeats. “It’s tough to adjust to because it’s not something I’m used to…When you look at our roster this season, we shouldn’t be having the season that we’re having,” Packer said. “It’s frustrating from that standpoint, and frustrating for everyone.”
There were reasons for the downturn. The return of Olympians strengthened other clubs, including the league-best Minnesota Whitecaps and contending Buffalo Beauts and Boston Pride. A summer coaching change and the uncertainty that followed saw the Riveters start slow and struggle to find their footing. And though all of that, the displeasure Packer was feeling began starting to crop up in her own play.
While she was still creating, finding chances and pushing herself to produce, the offense simply wasn’t coming. For a player who led the league with 10 goals last season, not to mention posted a playoff-best three points to guide the Riveters to the NWHL crown, it was getting hard to handle. But before she could reach her boiling point, Packer got some much-needed perspective. Relying on her support system, including fiancee and Connecticut Whale forward Anya Battaglino, Packer was able to change her perspective. She took a breather, stopped looking at hockey as a “job or this stressful commitment” and instead as something she was lucky to have in her life. And simple as it may seem, the change in mindset has made all the difference.
“If you look at the second part of the season this year, I’ve been more successful in the second half than I was in the first and our team isn’t any more successful then as opposed to now,” Packer said. “It’s just that I was really frustrated in the beginning of the year and had a lot of conversations and realized it’s not supposed to be frustrating, it’s supposed to be fun. That’s why I do it.”
The uptick has been noticeable, too. While raw numbers aren’t the be-all, end-all, Packer has mustered three goals and six points across her past four games, a significant improvement from the three goals and four points she had in the first nine games of the campaign. As much as she credits her newfound mindset to reversing her own statistical fortunes, Packer heaps praise for finding the scoresheet upon her teammates, too.
“I’m a pretty firm believer in the team makes the star. And I’m not calling myself a star, but I play with phenomenal players every day,” Packer said. “Anyone that plays on a line with Amanda Kessel every night should be having a pretty good year. She gets me the puck. Courtney Burke, Jenny Ryan, Rebecca Russo, these are all people who get me the puck or they put the puck in and I give it to them. So, from a points standpoint, I’m playing alongside a lot of really good players.”
They’re not just really good players, though. They’re all-stars. That includes Packer, who despite participating in two past all-star weekends has accomplished a first this time around. Previously voted into the 2016 All-Star Game in Buffalo and the 2017 All-Star Game via fan vote, Packer earned her place in the 2019 festivities, which take place Feb. 9-10 in Nashville, right out of the gate.
“It’s a testament to what other players in the league think of you,” Packer said. “It’s a fun time to get everyone together and the all-star game is a time to get all of the best players in the league together but also a showcase of those people’s talents…The NWHL really puts on a show, and the events I’ve been a part of in the past have been a blast.”
And maybe the enjoyment Packer finds in Nashville, putting on a show for fans in what isn’t presently an NWHL market, can give her and her fellow Riveters teammates the push they need to finish the season on a high note. “(There’s) not much we can do now except for trying to focus on the things we can control…and hopefully come alive in the playoffs,” she said. “We’ve been frustrated all year…but we’re trying to refocus and reset and finish the season out as best as we can.”