It happens twice a week, like clockwork, inside The Rink at American Dream.
Every Tuesday and Thursday night, after the skating kids and parents clear the ice, the rink’s staff gets to work. They chip away at the top layers of the ice, then steerthe Zamboni back and forth to leave a smooth, rut-free new top coat. Once that’s done, they put red hockey goals on opposite ends of the rink.
Then, it begins.
One by one, players for the Metropolitan Riveters, the top women’s professional hockey team in New Jersey, step onto the ice. They’re dressed in red, blue, green, white, and black practice jerseys. They glide across the ice, and are soon joined by coaches Ivo Mocek and Kelly Nash.
In just 30 minutes, The Rink at American Dream is transformed from hosting its usual crowd of first-time skaters and skating enthusiasts into the practice venue for a professional hockey team — and anyone walking through the mall can take a seat and watch as the Riveters train.
“As one of the only teams that has open practices for the public constantly, I think it peels back a layer to our fans on what they can learn and expect from women’s hockey,” said Anya Packer, the team’s general manager. “That is really unique in the sports world in general, so I’m proud to say that we operate in that kind of transparent, open-door policy.”
The Riveters have been practicing at the NHL-sized rink inside American Dream in East Rutherford twice a week since October, and will continue to all season.
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The exposure from practicing at American Dream is critical, said Packer. She is no stranger to pushing for equity in women’s hockey. Packer was a defender for three seasons with the Connecticut Whale, before stepping into the role as executive director of the National Women’s Hockey League Players’ Association. This season, the NWHL, which is in its 7th year, has been re-branded as the Premier Hockey Federation.
“I would say 99% of the time, people just don’t know it exists or don’t know what’s happening in the world of women’s hockey,” said Packer. “It’s not that they’re not interested, it’s just that they don’t know. So, what a great way to start to land and expand women’s sports in this whole new community of people, who just don’t know who we are yet.”
The team, which plays its home games at the Barnabas Health Hockey House in Newark, was looking for a new practice rink. “Any hockey person in the world would tell you that’s primary issue number one — just getting rink time,” Packer said.
Packer met with The Rink’s general manager, and they sorted through the venue’s availability. They found a time that fit — Tuesday and Thursday nights from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. — and the partnership was set. During the holiday shopping season, the start time for practices has been pushed back to 9 p.m. or 9:30 p.m.
Getting the Riveters on the ice at American Dream was a “top priority” because of how many first-time skaters are exposed to the ice there every day, Packer said. Even when there aren’t any practices to watch, there is an LED-lit display screen that wraps around the perimeter of The Rink, declaring it “the home of the Metropolitan Riveters.”
American Dream is “constantly exposing new people to the ice and to the rink, so being able to put a professional team on that ice and continue to expose those same people to now the highest level of women’s hockey has been really exciting,” Packer said. “Watching people stop and take pictures, or ask us who’s on the ice, or start to look up our social handles [posted on the display screen] — it’s been really unique to expose a whole new community to women’s hockey.”
Growing hockey, locally
The Rink at American Dream, which is operated by Canadian developer Triple Five, has helped fill a need in North Jersey — it provides an additional venue for area hockey players. The Rink is used by eight youth, travel and high school programs for practices and games, according to American Dream. The venue operators are also working with regional and national brands to roll out a schedule of camps, clinics, tournaments and other hockey-related experiences.
The Rink also hosts a Learn to Play program, which is a partnership between American Dream and the New Jersey Devils. That program was started by the NHL Players’ Association and the NHL to reduce the sport’s barriers to entry, since hockey is considered one of the more expensive youth sports to invest in. The program, which ran for six weeks in the spring, cost about $230 and included a full set of head-to-toe hockey equipment for each registered player. The sport typically can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars per child.
In November, the Riveters introduced the New Jersey Devils Youth Hockey Club and Ironbound Elite as the team’s official junior affiliates, and said they would work with the organization to help grow girls’ hockey in the state. The potential for girls and women’s hockey in New Jersey is already evident through the Riveters’ roster. Two of team’s 20 players are products of the Garden State — Allie Olnowich of Chatham, and Kinnelon’s Kendall Cornine.
“You have players who played in New Jersey that are now coming back to play for the Riveters, like Kendall Cornine, who is lovingly nicknamed ‘Score-Nine,’” Packer said. “She is a product of New Jersey hockey, and to watch her take that full circle and then come back to play in New Jersey is just exactly what we want to see from the growth of the New Jersey sports world.”
And with the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on the horizon, local hockey enthusiasts are expecting a surge in their sport’s popularity — especially with the U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team entering the tournament as the defending champions. In 2018, the U.S. won its second-ever gold medal after defeating Canada, 3-2, in a shootout in Gangneung, South Korea. The dramatic win fell on the anniversary of another historic hockey moment — the Miracle on Ice, when the U.S. men’s hockey team defeated the Soviet Union in the medal round during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
“Our national team is the crown jewel of women’s hockey in America, and when they have success, we have success,” Packer said. “When they have come home with a gold medal, we see an increase in girls who want to be the next Olympian, who want to be the next gold medalist. We get to be that tangible, everyday place where they can continue to see those athletes. And so, we root for our national team stronger than anybody, because a rising tide raises all ships.”
The Riveters (2-4) lost a weekend road seriesagainst the Toronto Six. They return home to Newark on Dec. 18 to face the Boston Pride. During that game, Packer said, the Riveters will be wearing custom jerseys to bring awareness to mental health, an effort spearheaded by the team’s captain, Madison Packer.
Melanie Anzidei is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.