How an NJ hockey duo are growing the sport while making it more inclusive

"If we just try to introduce as many people as we can to hockey without making hockey a safe culture, we aren’t really doing anything positive.”

Anya Packer has always been competitive. Her earliest opponent, growing up in New England, was her older brother. “The first time I could pick a number in sports, I picked 16 because my brother wore number 8 and I wanted to be two times better than him,” Anya says. 

While her brother had the advantage in lacrosse and golf, Anya found her niche in hockey, eventually playing at Boston University and then professionally in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF). 

Packer also served as the head of the players’ association in the PHF (then the National Women’s Hockey League). The former Connecticut Whale defender fought for player salary increases and revenue sharing benefits.

Her experience on and off the ice made her a perfect fit to become general manager of the Metropolitan Riveters this past April, the same team that her wife, Madison, has played for since 2015. 

The Riveters, who are based in Newark, are also the only professional sports franchise in the New York Metropolitan Area that has won a championship in the last decade. They won the Isobel Cup in 2018, and are looking to make a return to their winning ways this upcoming season. But the journey to the Isobel Cup starts with making sure the Riveters are treating their athletes well on and off the ice, an emphasis for Anya Packer. 

“Right off the bat, my goal is to increase and improve how we treat our athletes, and improve what they have on the exterior,” says Anya. “So it was important to me to bring on quality photographers, quality social media, quality medical training, quality merch. There were so many parts that I wanted to do to enhance the player experience, and with that, I fought with ownership to raise the salary, and to add more opportunities for these athletes.”

The changes aren’t going unnoticed; says Madison Packer (also the team captain): “Every year, we get paid more money, and we have better resources and arenas. Seven years ago I couldn’t imagine we would have the things we have, and that we would have doubled the salary cap.” 

Madison Packer #14 of the Metropolitan Riveters stands with teammates for the national anthem before the game against the Princeton Tigers on Oct. 16 at Hobey Baker Memorial Rink in Princeton. Copyright 2021 Kate Frese (Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice)

In addition to higher pay, the Riveters also have better resources than they did a few years ago. “We have three practices instead of two, we have access to a skills and power skating coach, we have a training facility, road trips aside from Connecticut and Boston are flights, and we have a whole mental health team,” Madison says. “Mental health is overlooked in sports, and some of our players have tapped into those mental health resources.”

Mental health is something that is near to Madison’s heart, and when she re-signed with the Riveters, she included in her contract that the Riveters had to host a mental health awareness game. 

“I’m super passionate about mental health,” says Madison. “I’ve lost people close to me because they struggled with mental health and didn’t have the resources or didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. It’s tough in sports when you’re supposed to be tough and strong, but you can be tough and strong and still have bad days.”

Female athletes such as Packer, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have been on the forefront for mental health not just for women’s sports, but for sports in general. 

One professional sports league that has carried the mantle for mental health and social justice issues is the WNBA. In recent years, the WNBA has been on the forefront for voting rights, reproductive rights and LGBT rights. The WNBA sets a benchmark for the Riveters, and it’s one that both Packers want to meet, though they know the PHF isn’t there yet.

“Hockey is the farthest behind any league on social justice issues,” says Anya. “We aren’t at the place where the WNBA is, and they are so much farther along with creating real change. In women’s hockey we have to take a step back and educate ourselves. This year I’m excited because we have people coming in to educate our athletes. To start at that place where our athletes are also coaches and they can educate their children on how to create a more diverse environment is amazing. If we just try to introduce as many people as we can to hockey without making hockey a safe culture, we aren’t really doing anything positive.”

Madison Packer #14 of the Metropolitan Riveters warms up before the game against the Princeton Tigers on Oct, 16 at Hobey Baker Memorial Rink in Princeton. Copyright 2021 Kate Frese (Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice)

The league started to make the journey toward greater inclusivity this fall by changing the name of the league from National Women’s Hockey League to the Premier Hockey Federation. This name change is meant to be more welcoming to trans and non-binary hockey players. 

Another aspect to the PHF is that many of the players have full-time jobs aside from playing hockey. Nurses, teachers, hockey shop owners, public relations people, and law school students all play for the Riveters. 

Juggling a full-time job with playing hockey professionally can be difficult for Riveters, and it’s not a challenge that their professional hockey counterparts in Newark, the Devils, face.

“It’s really hard,” says Madison. “I’m very fortunate that my boss is the most incredible human being on the planet. Without him, this doesn’t work for me. He says it all the time, ‘I want you to be able to play hockey because I wish I had the opportunities to pursue sports.’ Slowly as we get to be paid more, we won’t have to work a second job.”

But on the flip side, Madison appreciates the flexibility that the league has to offer for players who work a second job, and are able to continue their careers. 

On the ice, the Riveters still have plenty of work to do. This past January, the Riveters went up to the Lake Placid bubble as favorites to win the Isobel Cup, but they were forced out of the bubble after three team members came down with COVID-19. The bubble experience has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Riveters coaches and players. 

“The bubble was such a crazy swing of emotions,” says Madison. “I said this to my teammates: ‘This is pathetic but I sat down on my bed and cried.’ For a player who has been there from the beginning I never would have expected to walk in and see all these swag bags. We had all these companies donate money and invest because they believed in us, and we were on NBC Sports.”

But things changed quickly with the COVID outbreak. “We were there and our team was doing really well, and then they pulled the plug,”  says Madison. “And then we were stuck in a hotel and that was it. It sucked. Our season was over, and we didn’t have a chance to come back after. It was a crazy swing of emotions that I can’t explain.”

The Riveters start their revenge campaign on Nov. 6. against the Connecticut Whale. While the Isobel Cup is on their minds, they also want to expand their fanbase as well, and get people into women’s hockey. (One thing that’ll help: ESPN+ will stream PHF games this season.) Currently the Riveters practice at American Dream mall in East Rutherford. For Anya Packer, it might expose people to the sport who normally wouldn’t be interested.

One group that Anya is working to get into women’s hockey is the people of the majority-minority community of Newark, where the Riveters will be playing most of their games this year. “I want to get the Riveters to a place where someone from Newark cares about the Riveters,” says Anya. “And that’s not who we communicate with or market to right now, and I want to make sure as we progress, the Riveters become a safer and safer environment for anybody to be a fan. Whether that’s someone in the BIPOC community, somebody in the trans community, or someone in the LGBTQIA community. At the very least, if we create a safe space that’s how we change hockey culture.”

The Riveters will open their season on Nov. 6 against the Connecticut Whale at Mennen Arena in Morristown, NJ. For more information go here.