They mill anxiously about the narrow hallway adjacent to the locker room, dim, orange-yellow light illuminating helmets, bent, tape-bound sticks gripped in clenched hands, eyes staring intently at the laces of skates, some swaying almost imperceptibly, muttering to themselves a steady stream of nearly formless invocations under their breath, still others pacing, barking encouraging words and pounding teammates on shoulder pads, tapping shin guards with stick blades. In the stands, seats slowly begin to fill as the newly minted home crowd streams into the rink, making space along the frigid rows of benches, huddling together and blowing clouded air into cupped hands for warmth as they peer out expectantly onto the unblemished sheet of ice, bright and reflective, covered with a fresh sheen of moisture, crystallizing, like the moment, into brittle, sparkling clarity.
In that corridor just off the ice, just out of view, the players crowd, their eyes sharp, their energy coming into focus. Only these nerves, this simmering vitality - it's not just for themselves, not just for the fans, easing into slowly warming seats, not just for the game at hand.
It's also for those who will come after.
The generations, whose potential livelihoods as professional athletes rest with the speed of their skates and the deftness of their sticks. With the power of their checks and in their willingness to do the dirty work in the corners and along the boards, to dig pucks out and clear the crease, to fight for every inch of ice, to fight for second chances in front of the net - because for themselves and for those future athletes, there may be no second chances. This is their opportunity for creating a lasting space, a hand-stitched seam from the thread of their blood, their sweat, their triumphs and losses, in the fabric of the cultural consciousness, not only for themselves, not only for the here and now, but for those untold future generations to come.
These athletes, these hockey players, bursting with barely contained dynamism in the doorway of a rink here in the far-flung reaches of Brooklyn's Dead Horse Bay, a rink eerily similar to all the other rinks they've ever known, known since they were five, six years old, shuffle closer and closer to the ice, drawn ever forward by the pull of the game they love.
These are the New York Riveters.
And they're the first ladies of America's professional women's ice hockey league.
The story of the NWHL, the National Women's Hockey League, starts in every dorm room belonging to a bruised, tired, but invigorated women's college hockey player, in the post-practice daydreams of every peewee girls' squad, in the hopes of every woman faced with the looming reality of a life, maybe not without the sport entirely, but wherein hockey is suddenly pushed deep into the background, fading like static, turned from lifeblood to a hobby, a pastime, fading not because of interests elsewhere, but because to this point the world has made no place for professional female hockey players.
But really, it starts with Dani Rylan.
Rylan, 28, is the matriarch of the NWHL, the spark behind its still-dim but ever-growing light. She's a former college player herself and the daughter of a one-time NHL front office executive. And now, she's the NWHL's very first commissioner and the general manager of the Riveters to boot.
Rylan, a small, businesslike woman, possesses the steely glint of someone who knows very well who she is and what she wants. She's the embodiment of self-assuredness, perpetually focused on the task at hand. On gameday, she's a ball of energy, handling a million and one tasks, but giving each her full attention in turn. When asked, in a general sense, what her focus is now that the league is finally up and moving, now that games are finally being played, Rylan answers without hesitation.
"To just have a successful Year One," Rylan says. "Our biggest thing this year is awareness. We want everyone to know that there's a National Women's Hockey League and that comes with the product on the ice and growing the game off the ice as well."
Rylan, whose father was a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning front office when the team first came into being in the early '90s and who grew up with the now-burgeoning NHL franchise, has taken a practical but business- and media-forward approach to what is, in fact, her second attempt at running a franchise; a short flirtation with bringing the Canadian Women's Hockey League to New York ultimately yielded no results, in large part because of a difference in philosophy. But now that she's created the reins of the NWHL and clutches them firmly in her grasp, Rylan's vision has become clearer.
The NWHL is a bussing league, a regionalized league. As Rylan notes, 33 percent of all U.S. women's hockey registrations come from either New York or New England. Rylan picked the four most viable markets in the region - Buffalo, Boston, Connecticut and the New York metro area - and created teams that she hopes, over time, can ingratiate themselves into their respective communities and develop fan bases that allow the team, and the league, to last. Just like the Lightning did two decades before in a state few associate with the ice and cold.
"Tampa did such a great job of getting hockey into the community and building it from the grassroots level all the way up, and I'm living proof of that," Rylan says. "I started skating when I was five, which was 1992, Tampa's first year. And I think that being around the game from such a young age and watching it develop in Tampa probably equipped me with some tools I'll never be aware of, but I think just in general they've done a really amazing job with getting hockey into the community which we look to do in our different markets as well to get more girls involved in the game."
Getting girls involved, filling the 60,000 seats they have available over a 36-game inaugural season slate, starts with getting players involved, and this is where Rylan has a clear leg up on the competition. The NWHL actually pays its players. The average salary is $15,000 for an 18-game season, the league minimum is $10,000 and the highest-paid player, Kelli Stack of the Connecticut Whale, makes $25,000. The numbers aren't astronomical, but when you're the only show in town offering solid compensation and chance to call yourself a paid professional athlete, it's easy to see why players like Stack and the Riveters' Janine Brown made the jump from the CWHL to the NWHL this season.
But Rylan's vision extends well beyond simply ensuring players are compensated - players also make 15 percent off the sale of their own jerseys, a novel idea if there ever was one. They know the money they're offering isn't substantial enough, especially in a market like Brooklyn, to cover housing and other essentials. So the league works with players, on an individual basis, on securing housing, on securing employment outside the rink.
They also live stream all games on the league's official website, NWHL.co. And while the courting of corporate sponsors remains an ongoing effort, private investors are currently keeping the league as far in the black as possible.
But for Rylan, the excitement of her very own league and team pales in comparison, at this point, to the look of sheer joy she sees on the face of every fan willing to shell out the $20 for a single-game ticket - every fan that's willing to take a chance on the Riveters, the NWHL.
"They were awesome," Rylan says of the fans that came out to the Riveters' first two games - the first a near-capacity outing at Chelsea Piers Connecticut - her eyes widening. "It was everything we were telling people it would be. It was fast, it was physical and it was professional hockey. And if it was someone's first women's hockey game, it definitely won't be their last."
While Rylan is comfortable in her place in the press box, above the on-ice action, for a player like Celeste Brown, the story of her hockey career has, she hopes, only just begun to unfold.
Brown, an equipment manager at Lasker Ice Rink in North Central Park and a youth girls coach by day, is one of the many new faces dotting the Riveters' lineup by night. It's a story nearly every girl in the locker room shares. Work comes between the hours of 9 and 5. The sweat shed on the ice and in the training room, the love of the game, comes for three hours on Friday nights and during Sunday evening games.
"Well it is definitely work, work, work all the time because all of us have jobs too, so that makes it tough," Brown says, wielding a screwdriver and making adjustments to her helmet and visor as we stand in the back hallway of Aviator Sports and Events Center, the Riveters' home. The rink is quiet on a Friday night, youth teams and public skates the only events of note taking place before the NWHL's New York-based squad hits the ice. But Brown's eyes are bright, her excitement palpable as she readies herself for a practice, while elsewhere most ready for a long weekend of sleep or truss up hair and select outfits for a relaxing night on the town. "But I at least try to take a moment and see how it's pretty cool, because we're all making history, but it really doesn't feel like it, so you just try to take it in slowly but surely."
For someone like Brown, the proposition of building something from scratch isn't a new one. Really, for many of the NWHL's players the experience of watching a women's program built up over time is something that's been asked of them since they were still teenagers. Brown, for one, starred collegiately at Rochester Institute of Technology. But what she deems an "amazing" and "fortunate" journey was actually an arduous slog from DIII to DI.
"My first year we were DIII, so it was a little different. But we switched to DI my sophomore year and we were the worst team in all of DI," she says with a wry smile. "And then by the second season of DI we were very successful and then by the third year we were really successful."
Others simply pursued the dream for as long as they could. Weber, a Riveters forward who played last season for the CWHL's Boston Blades, with whom she won the 2015 Clarkson Cup, enrolled at Providence College, ostensibly to continue her graduate studies but also so that she could become a member of the Friars women's ice hockey team. Rylan, who graduated from Metro State in 2010, where she actually spent one season as a part of the men's squad, played two years thereafter for the Northeastern Huskies.
Different stories, same drive, same undying desire to continue on with the sport they love.
"I know what it takes," Brown says, turning her helmet over, angling the screwdriver in again, twisting it firmly. "It takes very hard work. And I come from a team where we may not have the most skill, but we have the biggest heart. And I think you ask any hockey player, you wear your heart on your sleeve and you put everything you have into it, you can get where you want to be."
The Riveters are now, in many ways, the embodiment of the young league of which they are a part, the neophyte commissioner and general manager who oversees their every move. They're a talented team, a young team, finding their way. Through three games, they've yet to come out on the winning side. And yet, hopes remain high - for themselves, for the sport, for the league.
"That's definitely, I think, our main goal," Weber says, "is to be part of something that will be around for a long time. And the girls will be able to play in future years. We also want to be successful as a team and everyone wants to win. I think those are our two main concerns."
Weber, shifting anxiously from foot to foot, clearly ready to be done with the talking and return to her locker room stall and dress for Friday night's practice, stops her fidgeting only when the subject of the crowds at the previous two Riveters games becomes the topic of conversation.
"The crowds are really into the games. At Connecticut it was so loud and there were a lot of girls," she says. "And our game last weekend was, I think, almost sold out and there were brawls and people were getting up out of their seats and people were excited, people were really just into the game. They were booing the other team. They were booing Hillary Knight who is a U.S. Olympian, one of the best players and they didn't care that she was an American Olympian, they just, it's interesting to see that the whole rink was behind us even though we're a really new team."
And much like the league, the Riveters are still searching for an identity. Both Brown and Weber made clear that while they hold unwavering belief in themselves and the girls in the locker room, they know that without a solid team identity, without a core philosophy around which to wrap the remainder of that thread, they, and the league, won't go very far.
Identity is a large part of what goes into this daring, put-it-all-on-the-line attempt at building a pro league from scratch. For Brown and Weber, much like for Rylan and that college hockey player in her dorm room, pushing aside notebooks and sheaves of paper to make space for a weary body on her narrow twin bed, or that little girl, roused by bleary-eyed parents at dawn to pile into the family van and make the trek to an ice rink three towns over in time for the start of a Sunday tournament, it's about identity - the identity of being not only a person, an athlete, a woman, but also of being a hockey player.
"With any sport really, when you've been playing your whole life it becomes a part of your identity, so when it's done it's kind of a shock," says Rylan. "And some women go right into the workforce, some women take a couple years off or they try to go find smaller leagues to play in and really it's the identity. Who are you now? And it's a real shame because women peak athletically when they're 27 years old, and almost every career ends when they're done with college, 21, 22, so there's all that missed opportunity and development for the athletes. I think that one of the biggest things this league provides is the opportunity to keep playing and at a competitive level."
Perhaps a sign of the organization's youth, the Riveters higher-ups are restless, agitated, unsettled in-game. Rylan is up and down, stomping her foot one minute, leaning over the railing to get a better view of the action another. Goaltending coach Jonathan de Castro is constantly on the move, adjusting his tie, shifting from a standing to a seated position, all the while watching prized Japanese netminder Nana Fujimoto - the star of the Japanese national team and far and away the most recognizable name, internationally, on the Riveters - with intent, even when the play tilts the balance of the ice in the opposite direction, focusing not only on pad-level, balance, technique, but attitude, confidence, the way Fujimoto's seeing the ice. Behind the Riveters' bench, head coach Chad Wiseman and associate coach Mark DeSimone pace, grinding their back teeth to a fine powder as they chew through directions, bellowed to the players between calls for line changes.
"I see the girls making strides every day," says Wiseman, the gruff Torontonian and former NHL player who most recently spent his time in a Japanese league as a player, not a coach. "The difference from five or six weeks ago is unbelievable. So really I just hope people stay with it and believe in the team here and the organization and what we're doing, and I think in two or three months from now you're going to see a different team."
Brown and Weber both also spoke of time - of the fact that time is always working against them. Both players referenced it as a function of New York's waning prospects for the season, but there's no denying that it's a factor in the viability of the league as well.
The forge is lit and the iron is hot. The time to strike is now. And these girls are wielding their blacksmith's hammer with all they've got, a hockey world that has drawn in close, cozied up to the sport to the tune of exponential growth for the NHL in recent years thanks to outdoor games and wider marketing efforts on the part of commissioner Gary Bettman and company, seemingly willing to embrace them, but to what extent? Especially when the CWHL, European leagues, Asian leagues, Russian leagues and the NHL abound as options already for the puck-chasing faithful.
Sure, the lights may not be as bright, the spectacle not as grand as the NHL at this point. But it's clear the skate blades are just as sharp, the sticks just as active, the passions running just as high, the sweat shed on the ice and in the training room just as stinging, the product just as worth your hard-earned dollar. Because the truth of the matter is, these girls can play. And while that on-ice product remains a work in progress for a team and league that only came into being some 10 months ago, there's no denying the truth of the dream that has become the NWHL.
There remain kinks to iron out, of course. The Riveters' first home game, against the Boston Pride, started nearly an hour and a half late because the Pride didn't arrive on time. Their third game, second at home, second against Stack and the Whale, didn't draw quite the same crowd as the first two. But despite the technical issues, the NWHL seems ready to chug right along into the middle portion of its inaugural season. And while the crowd may have been a bit sparser, they were just as loud, positioned just as firmly behind the home team.
Because the truth of the dream that is the NWHL, is that these girls, these hockey players - they can skate, they can shoot, they can pass, stick handle and bang the boards with the best of them. And Brown knows it's only a matter of time before the world comes to realize it.
"It's pretty cool that people want to see this succeed and really, it's about the fans," Brown says. "As much as it's about us, it's about the fans this year, because they're going to make or break this league. So, if they're coming out, we know we have a good product."
Because for Brown, as for all the girls in the Riveters locker room and the league's three other locker rooms, the league, the story, holds a greater purpose.
But this story doesn't have an ending. Not yet. Why? Because the Connecticut Whale, the Boston Pride, the Buffalo Beauts, Brown, Weber, Rylan and the Riveters haven't written it.
de Castro, smoothing down his tie and the front of his shirt for the umpteenth time on Sunday night, still watching Fujimoto out of the corner of one eye as the Whale buzz around her crease, laughs a little and, finally peering into the crowd, stands. He stops, starts, fidgets a bit as the play escalates, looks down at his phone again as the puck makes its way out of the Riveters' zone. He's headed to find his daughter. As he spies Rylan and heads off for a chat before making his way to the stands, he leans in, doing his best to be heard over the din of the crowd, and says something I've heard on several occasions through a practice and a game with the Riveters.
"My daughter, she's really why I'm here," de Castro says. "She's the reason I do this."
True, the Riveters pen another passage, turn a new phrase in their story with every practice, every game. And it's a process that will be long and it will be grueling - Rylan, in a feature for the Players Tribune, estimated she's clocking in at about three hours of sleep per night these days. Such is life as the progenitor of a professional sports league it seems - but in the end, Rylan believes, Brown believes, Weber believes, they all believe, that it will be worth it. There will be fruits at the end of their labors, and the story, short though it may be now, will eventually become a long, winding tale of lessons learned and obstacles overcome. And they believe the ultimate battle, the battle for relevancy, for a space to call their own in the collective conscious of a sport-loving continent, the battle Rylan and the Riveters and the NWHL as a whole wage daily, will be won, not just for themselves, but for the generations of women who come after them, for every hopeful college hockey player, taping her stick on the bed of her college dorm room, for every starry-eyed mite, looking up at a poster of Manon Rheaume or Stack or Weber or Brown, and thinking, "someday."