Before the Metropolitan Riveters’ first-ever home game their opponents’ bus was late. As fans became antsy and players became increasingly confused, forward Janine Weber entertained both audiences by juggling oranges.
The Boston Pride finally arrived and, with less bonhomie, shellacked the Riveters, 7-1.
It was an inauspicious start, one that made it hard to envision the Riveters as a future championship contender. They went on to finish the National Women’s Hockey League’s inaugural season with a record of 4-12-2.
Two seasons later, guided by the original members Kiira Dosdall, Ashley Johnston, Bray Ketchum and Madison Packer, the Riveters, coached by Chad Wiseman, had the best record in the N.W.H.L. (13-3). On Sunday, they hosted the defending champion Buffalo Beauts in the Isobel Cup final in front of a sold-out crowd at the Barnabas Health Hockey House.
Alexa Gruschow sent a shot past Beauts goaltender Amanda Leveille 5 minutes 33 seconds into the first period and Katie Fitzgerald sealed the shutout, making 28 saves, as the Riveters won, 1-0, capturing their first N.W.H.L. title.
If you would have asked any of the returning players after the first day of practice in Brooklyn if we’d be standing here with a trophy three years later, they probably would have told you you were crazy,” Packer said. “It just shows how far Chad has brought the team, how much the league has grown and developed.”
In many ways the Riveters’ maturation parallels that of the N.W.H.L., which in 2015 became the first professional women’s league in North America to offer salaries.
Late buses are no longer a concern, nor are other mishaps like choppy online broadcasts — Sunday’s game was live-streamed on Twitter, part of a deal the league reached with the social media company last June.
“The first year there were so many unintended hiccups, we just kind of got used to them,” Dosdall said last week. “But you could definitely compare our growth as an organization to that of the league.”
Aside from cosmetic improvements, the four remaining original Riveters noted how the overall operation of the league had progressed. This year, the Riveters and Beauts got financial backing from the N.H.L.’s Devils and Sabres.
Utilizing Barnabas Health Hockey House, the Devils’ practice facility, gives Riveters players amenities, like their own locker room and access to ice time, that weren’t always available when they were based out of Aviator Sports and Events Center at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn during the 2015-16 season.
Johnston, who commutes from the Albany area for Riveters practices and games, joked that driving toward the Rockaways took 10 years off her life (it did, actually eat away at the life span of her car — Johnston’s engine died before this season, forcing her to replace it).
Ketchum was pleased to see conditions in the league pointing upward, particularly after the N.W.H.L. cut salaries in the middle of last season. The improvements have included a more active role by the league’s players’ association and better communication with the league’s commissioner, Dani Rylan.
“There’s a lot more transparency between Dani and her staff and her players,” Ketchum said. “After that pay cut last year, we really wanted to see that. That was the most important thing.”
At one point during the off-season, three of the four original veterans had decided they were going to retire. But as Ketchum, Dosdall and Packer began discussing their competitive void, the band got back together.
“We all talked at different points and kind of came to the same conclusion at the same time that we were going to do it and come back,” Johnston said. “Like a domino effect.”
In addition to the original four players, the Riveters are the only team to have employed the same head coach and athletic trainer — Ashley Robbins — since their first game. All of the Riveters’ core four credited Wiseman with creating a rigid culture that brought them to the apex of the league, even when they may not always have had the most talented roster.
But Wiseman, who often commutes from his home in Canada to New Jersey to coach the team, credited much of the Riveters’ ascent to the four originals, as do their teammates.
“I think we’re definitely lucky,” said Fitzgerald, who was named the final’s most valuable player. “A lot of them considered retiring after last season but I’m glad they didn’t. Our team wouldn’t be what it is.”
The Markham Thunder earned their first Canadian Women’s Hockey League championship, defeating Kunlun Red Star, 2-1, in overtime on Sunday to win the Clarkson Cup final at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto. Laura Stacey, who earned a silver medal with Canada last month at the 2018 Winter Olympics and returned to the Thunder two weeks ago, scored the winner.