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Out Of Bounds: The National Women's Hockey League

Mar 5, 2017
Originally published on March 5, 2017 9:29 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIBECA SONG, "GET LARGE")

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The New York Riveters did not live up to their name last night. They lost to the Boston Pride 4-3.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Kessel beats her player down the side and she scores. What a shot by Amanda Kessel.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: That will do it. The Boston Pride come from behind and shock the New York Riveters.

KELLY: The Riveters and the Pride are two of the four teams that make up the NWHL. That's the National Women's Hockey League, which is now in its second season. On today's edition of Out of Bounds, we're going to talk with the captain of the New York Riveters. That's 24-year-old Ashley Johnston. She's at our member station WAMC in Albany, N.Y. Hey there.

ASHLEY JOHNSTON: Hey.

KELLY: Great to have you on. I am told you have played hockey since you were 8 years old. Is that right?

JOHNSTON: That is correct.

KELLY: Did you ever dream you would grow up and be able to play it professionally?

JOHNSTON: Definitely not. When I was younger, I always thought that I'd be the first female playing in the NHL. That was my dream, especially, you know, obviously playing with a bunch of guys. And then, once I got older, I realized that that wasn't exactly going to be feasible. So then it became a dream of playing in the Olympics.

KELLY: What's it like to play now, finally, in front of an audience that had to buy tickets?

JOHNSTON: I mean, it's so different. Our fans are absolutely amazing. There's nothing better than playing and then midway through a game hearing a let's go, Riveters chant. It kind of sends chills down your back. We have some - Rivs superfans, are what they call themselves, and they're some of the best people I've ever met and they are die-hard fans.

KELLY: And I should mention, you also have a day job to help pay the bills. You're an industrial engineer. You work at a robotics company. Is that typical? Do most of the players on your team have other jobs?

JOHNSTON: Most of the girls have some sort of work, whether it be part time or full time. And then you kind of have the other half where they're just solely playing hockey.

KELLY: And it's pro hockey, meaning you should be able to earn a living from this, but we should note that the pay is, for lack of a better word, crummy. You make $260 a game, is that right?

JOHNSTON: That is correct.

KELLY: How does that compare to what the guys make?

JOHNSTON: One of the girls was telling me that some of the NHL players, that their signing bonus would cover one team's entire salary.

KELLY: Wow.

JOHNSTON: It's an entirely different world. There's a lot of extra zeros on their paychecks.

KELLY: What's that like, having grown up playing these guys, competing against them to a certain age and then you see them go on to these astronomical NHL salaries and you're making $260 a game?

JOHNSTON: I mean, it's definitely - it's - in some sense, it's a tough pill to swallow. But really, prior to the NWHL, there wasn't even a league for you to compete in. So that was almost harder because you'd see your college friends graduating, going and signing pro contracts, and you're like, oh, there's literally nothing else for me. Like, this is the end of the road.

And I know for me, I felt like my last year of college, I was still getting better. So I was almost worse because I wasn't at my peak yet. So even having the opportunity to play is now a great first step.

KELLY: I have to ask just the basic question of, why is this worth it? I mean, what is it about hockey that makes you get out there for this terrible pay, your - have a long commute to get there? Why get out there on the ice every day?

JOHNSTON: Obviously, over time, that kind of - that dream, that desire has changed. When I was younger, you know, obviously you have the love of the game. And then when I was in high school, it was - an opportunity to go to college was a huge drive and huge reason for my passion. And now I help out with a U12 team.

One of the girls came up to me and she just goes, I want to be just like you when I'm older. And right there is just so much - that adds fuel. That just adds drive because now she's saying - she walks around with her little Riveters T-shirt, wants to be on the Riveters, and that's what she wants to do. She wants to be a professional women's hockey player.

KELLY: That is the captain of the New York Riveters, Ashley Johnston. Ashley, thanks so much for coming by. Good luck with the season.

JOHNSTON: Thank you and thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.