By Peter Schwartz
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The Islanders, Rangers and Devils aren’t the only professional hockey teams in the area getting ready for a new season on ice.
After launching last season as part of the brand new National Women’s Hockey League, the New York Riveters are preparing for their second campaign, which opens Oct. 8 against the Boston Pride in Buffalo. Like any other new business, the NWHL went through some ups and downs during its first year, but there is a lot of optimism as it begins its second season.
“I think we’re all excited right now,” said Riveters head coach Chad Wiseman. “It’s an exciting time for the players, the fans and definitely the league going into the second season.”
The NWHL became the first professional women’s hockey league in North America to pay its players. In their first season, the Riveters finished last in the four-team league with a record of 4-12-2. All four teams went to the playoffs, and the Riveters were swept by Boston two games to none in the semifinals.
“It was obviously a huge learning experience for everybody,” said Wiseman, who has been given the added title of general manager with the Riveters starting this season. “There’s going to be growing pains and adjustments and evolving on the fly. I thought that the first year was a huge success.”
Wiseman was busy this past offseason fine-tuning the Riveters by bringing in several key players, including forwards Tatiana Rafter and U.S. Olympic star Amanda Kessel.
Rafter played last season for the Buffalo Beauts and helped lead the team to the Isobel Cup Finals, where it lost to Boston two games to none. Rafter had two goals and an assist in 17 games for Buffalo in 2015-16 after a spectacular college career in Canada. In three seasons at the University of British Columbia, Rafter tallied 61 goals and 116 points.
“I don’t think her stats particularly speak for her style of play,” Wiseman said. “She’s a big body, and she skates really well. She’s one of those people that you can put on a power play and the penalty kill.”
In her first year with New York, Rafter will center a line with Kessel and Bray Ketchum, the Riveters’ leading scorer last season with 10 goals, four assists and 14 points.
After one season in Buffalo, Rafter is all smiles about her decision to join the Riveters.
“You probably can’t hear my smile over the phone,” Rafter told WFAN.com during a phone conversation this week. “I don’t think I could have made a better choice.”
As for Kessel, this will be her first season in the NWHL after a brilliant four-year collegiate career at Minnesota that concluded with her scoring the game-winning goal in the national championship game last season. She scored 108 goals to go along with 140 assists for a total of 248 points during her time with the Gophers.
Kessel also helped the United States capture the silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the gold medal at the 2013 Women’s World Championship and a silver medal at the 2012 World Championship. She is the sister of Pittsburgh Penguins star Phil Kessel, and it’s easy to see that the siblings are mirror images of each other on the ice.
“She can skate like her brother, and she can shoot the puck like her brother,” Wiseman said. “You definitely can see Phil in her for sure, or maybe when you watch Phil, you’ll see Amanda in Phil.”
Rafter has been able to get to know Kessel during the preseason as they continue to develop some chemistry. So far, so good.
“I see that she’s very quick, and she’s a smart and creative player,” Rafter said. “So I think it will be an interesting combination.”
Local fans will get to see what looks to be an explosive line of Rafter, Kessel and Ketchum as well as the rest of the Riveters for the first time at the home opener at 5 p.m. on Oct. 16 against the Connecticut Whale. This season, the Riveters will be playing their home games at the Barnabas Health Hockey House, the Devils’ practice facility adjacent to the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
For the Riveters, it’s an upgrade over the Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn, their home for their first season.
“I think that’s exciting for everybody and exciting for the girls,” Wiseman said. “Location-wise, I think it makes sense. It’s a lot easier for the people, even from New York, to get to. I think it was tough for people to get to Aviator last year.”
Rafter got a first-hand look at the Riveters’ new home last season when it was the site for the NWHL’s Isobel Cup Finals. The Riveters will have the luxury of playing in an NHL-style environment while enjoying some amenities that they didn’t have last season.
“It’s just nice to be welcomed into the NHL community,” Rafter said. “I think it’s a really positive move. It’s a great atmosphere. Last year, we didn’t have dressing rooms. This year, we do. So just little changes like that really do make a big difference.”
On the ice, the Riveters feel like they have built a solid hockey club for the 2015-16 season. With players such as Rafter, Kessel and Ketchum, as well as defenseman Michele Picard, goalie Sojung Shin and forward Janine Weber, the Riveters are very optimistic about their chances.
“I thought we put together, what we believe on paper, a really solid, competitive team filled with good character players and great attitudes,” said Wiseman.
As for the league, things are status quo for Season 2, with all four founding teams returning. After experiencing its share of highs and lows in its inaugural year, the NWHL appears to be ready to take a step forward in 2016-17, including an upgrade in the roster and facilities for the Riveters.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NYRiveters, @NWHL, and @tatianarafter.