The schedule for the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins didn’t say so, but there was professional hockey in play at Beantown on Sunday. As expected, the home team wore black and yellow. As expected, the away team — from New York — donned red, white, and blue. Each team featured at least three players with international experience. It just so happened that all of the on-ice personnel, including the referees, were women.
Boston, welcome to a new chapter in your hockey legacy.
(Yes, this chapter has no checking and trapezoid, but who needs them when you have nameplates on the bottom of the jerseys?)
The Sunday afternoon National Women’s Hockey League contest between the Boston Pride and New York Riveters at Harvard Bright-Landry Center checked off a variety of firsts. The NWHL, which launched its inaugural season in October, is the first professional women’s hockey league in America to pay its players. Five days before the game, the NWHL and New England Sports Network announced that NESN would televise the Pride’s nine regular season home games — the first broadcast deal struck for the fledgling league. The Sunday match-up marked the Pride’s first ever home game. The final buzzer marked the Riveters’ first ever away win, a 3-2 triumph over a besieging Pride.
Just 1:11 into the game, Brooke Ammerman opened the scoring and gave the Riveters the early 1-0 lead. The Riveters stunned the Pride a minute later when New York forced a defensive zone turnover, giving Madison Parker a breakaway that she took advantage of to put the Riveters up 2-0.
The Pride finally came to life in a power play midway through the first period, when co-captain/US Olympian Hilary Knight jammed the puck past Riveters goalie Nana Fujimoto to make it a 2-1 game. In a nod to its NHL counterpart, the goal horn for the Pride was identical to the horn that blares when the Bruins score in TD Garden. So the celebratory song that follows the horn should be Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400,” right?
“doo doo doooo doo…”
Oh, hey there, “Chelsea Dagger!” When did the Blackhawks move into Cambridge? (Don’t worry. The audio guys restored “Kernkraft 400” when Boston tallied its second of the game.)
But barely 30 seconds later, Meghan Fardelmann took the wind out of most the crowd when she put the Riveters up 3-1. The row of Riveters fans behind me, die-hard fans of New York captain Ashley Johnston, were the only ones partying at that point.
After conceding the third goal, though, Boston took control of the game. The by-product of the no checking rule means the players have more opportunity to show off their speed, stickhandling skills, puck pickpocketing ability, and agility — skating seems to take on an escalated importance without that component of physicality. The Pride had it all on display as they pinned New York back in its own zone through the rest of the period. Boston would not get its reward until about a minute into the second period, when Amanda Pelkey converted another Pride power play to make it 3-2.
With the way Boston played after pulling within a goal of New York, it seemed inevitable that the Pride would tie it.
It never happened.
Boston’s potential tying goal with 4:47 left in the second period was overruled after Jordan Smelker was judged to have kicked the puck into the net. From that point on until the end of the game, regardless of whether play was 5v5 or they were on the power play, Boston outskated and outhustled New York to handcuff the Riveters in their own zone. The wall that was Fujimoto preserved the Riveters’ lead, though, through reflex saves, great positioning, and exceptional agility. Riveters Row behind me went through an unbearable number of emotional roller coasters between the great looks on net that Boston had and the variety of saves Fujimoto achieved to deny the Pride.
With 1:23 and one last “Let’s Go Pride!” led by youth hockey players in attendance, the Pride pulled the goalie for an attacking zone faceoff. As Riveters coach Chad Wiseman shouted to his team the remaining time on the clock, the flurry of pucks still couldn’t get past Fujimoto.
Just last week, the Riveters defeated the Pride 3-2 for New York’s first ever NWHL win on the back of Fujimoto’s 42 saves. On Sunday, Fujimoto stopped 41 shots — New York took only 14 shots — to claim another 3-2 win over Boston.
The game was about so much more than the result, though.
The crowd contained the expected group of men and women wearing jerseys; the pleasant surprise was seeing the majority of men in the jerseys sporting NWHL team sweaters. The crowd also included seven girls youth hockey teams, all of them wearing their jerseys to the game. Five of the seven teams I counted got to step on the rink and high five each player on the Pride during the team introductions. The daughter of Pride coach Bobby Jay, herself a youth hockey player, had the honor of performing the ceremonial puck drop with Knight and Johnston. These girls are learning that the boys aren’t the only ones who have the opportunity to grow up and become a pro.
Also in the stands were boys in Bruins shirts and other hockey apparel in tow with their parents and sisters. These boys are learning that talent and skill transcends gender. They’ll be well-equipped sports fans when they reach adulthood.
The commissioner of the NWHL, Dani Rylan, was also present for the historic game. The former college hockey player-turned-coffee shop owner first conceived the idea after the women’s hockey Gold Medal match in the 2014 Olympics, which makes the birth of the league in 2015 all the more remarkable. As Rylan told Shape in an October interview:
“Watching that caliber of hockey and realizing that there wasn’t an opportunity like this for my friends, it seemed like a no-brainer,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it didn’t exist already.”
Although she is the commissioner and General Manager of the Riveters — surprises like this are why you buy and read a gameday program — Rylan watched the game like a candidate on the campaign trail: she eschewed the press box and roamed the stands while watching the game, chatting up anyone who recognized her and Riveters fans who made the trip up I-95. Before the match, I got to say “Hey, Commissioner” as she entered the arena; she also asked Riveter Row to pose for a picture and told an elderly man wearing a red Riveters cap that she liked his hat.
After the match, the tight-knit sense of community in the world of pro women’s hockey became apparent. Pride fans lined up around the concourse for a post-match autograph session; the tables were about level with the center dot, but the line in the concourse curved past one of the goal lines. Riveters fans spoke to each other and then to the coaches and players who made their way up to the concourse for some postgame mingling. The folks in Riveters Row behind me had their trip made when they snagged a good five minutes with their hero, Ashley Johnston.
Meanwhile, I approached Commissioner/GM Rylan (finally got all of her titles right the second time around after we formally introduced ourselves to each other) to congratulate her on the great product we just watched. Talent and tension make for exciting games and New York surviving the Boston barrage on Sunday checked off both boxes. The only thing that could make the product better is more people gradually catching on and embracing the NWHL as it grows into a sustainable league that hopefully spans the rest of the country and parts of Canada.