PHOTO CRED: Troy Parla
Chances are that by the time you are reading this Ashley Johnston, captain of the New York Riveters, is probably in her car driving somewhere. If you’re reading this during the day, she’s headed south. If you’re reading this at night or early morning, she’s likely headed north. “I was laughing with the girls, I have 7,000 miles on my car…I got a new car a month ago…7,000 miles on my car, two oil changes and I haven’t even made my first car payment,” Johnston said following a Thursday night practice in Newark, “it’s crazy.”
The 24-year-old lives in upstate New York, works a day job and makes 2-3 trips a week between NY and New Jersey when the Riveters have practice (Tuesdays and Thursdays) or weekend games. Stretch, as her teammates and fans call her, has been with the Rivs since the inaugural season, and this season, the travel has actually been a bit easier following the team’s relocation from Brooklyn. “I traded in my car and it had about 60,000 miles on it,” she said. “That’s a lot, in one year. Obviously, last year was a lot different because I had to go through Manhattan - which is a specialty in itself. This year it’s worked out a lot better.”
At her day job Johnston works for a robotics company that does automated dispensing, and she is responsible for making the robots go together in a shorter time, for less cost and a higher quality. “I work about 30-40 minutes north of Albany, so it takes me about three and a half hours to get here (to Newark); I get to work at 6:30, 7…6:30 A.M. is what I aim for,” she said with a grin. “I leave there at 2:30 P.M and I get here around six, we practice from 7:00-8:15 and then Shelly (Michelle Picard) and I workout afterward until about 9.”
“This year I have a second place in New Jersey and share a space with some of the girls (Tatiana Rafter, Katie Fitzgerald, Milica McMillen -- and Sarah Bryant on the weekends), I’ll usually get there about 10. I do about another hour of work, go to bed around 11, get up at 4:30 A.M. and go back the other way,” Johnston said. Driving that often could become numbing, tiresome and somewhat routine, but Stretch uses the time creatively and her general attitude towards the constant treks is quite refreshing.
“There’s no traffic, and it’s actually really cool because I get to see the sunset and the sunrise every day!” she proclaimed, grinning ear-to-ear. “It’s pretty cool because if you think about life, and how busy it is, there’s not too much time that you have to yourself. Just to think about your day, what’s going on. It’s almost nice to have that three hours by myself at the midway point of my day; to refresh, think about things, and really get a lot of me-time. I think before, that’s something I didn’t really value as much and I think that’s part of the reason why this all works.”
For love of the game of hockey is another reason why this works. A few weeks earlier Johnston stood in front of media members following an NWHL game, fighting back tears as she talked about the players having their salaries cut. A week after that she fought back tears again during a postgame scrum when talking about her close friend (and now former teammate) Morgan Fritz-Ward who was abruptly retiring from the league. It’s that passion which is why she the captain of the Rivs, and a great role model for the league’s other players and fans.
She realizes that the NWHL is in a lot of ways a startup company, and while it would be nice to be compensated for playing the game she loves, whatever money she does make from jersey and shirsey sales is donated to fastbreakfund.org - a non-profit organization designed to enrich the lives of underprivileged children and children with special needs in upstate New York’s capital region. She realizes that the small steps they take today, together as pioneers, will echo forever throughout history from this point forward.
“There’s times when I’ll have to be at work the day after practice earlier which means I have to turn right back around and go to Albany. There are times when it really…sucks. There’s nothing nice about falling asleep at a rest station, taking a 45-minute nap and then going on. Nothing fun about driving at night in a whole bunch of snow. But at the end of the day I think one of the biggest things for me is on game day: seeing all these kids around, dreaming and wanting to be like us,” Johnston explained.
PHOTO CRED: Troy Parla
“I coach a U-12 team and one of the kids came up to me and said: 'I want your life.' Little things like that, it just gives me so much ammunition, so much fuel to just be like — keep going, this is so worth it. Coming in the locker room and seeing people excited, happy - there’s something every single time I go in the locker room, it’s a very happy feeling; like everything is right in the world. You see (Rebecca) Russo talking about something or cracking a joke, all the girls are laughing, smiling - it’s such a nice and rare thing to have 20-25 people in the same room at a time, all wanting to be there and all being happy. That’s something that is so special and makes it so easy to do this crazy commute.”
“If you look at the depth on our roster, it’s incredible. I think a real testament to that has been the amount injuries we’ve had. Anytime you have a lot of depth in your lineup it’s a lot easier to wear teams down,” Johnston said as her squad entered the break following a road shutout over Connecticut. “I think we’re starting to get into a rhythm, a groove where we can really take advantage of that. Every single game is a process. Every single practice is a process; we’re working on that process every single day. Everyone on this team has been dialed in and on the journey, and I think it’s cool to see each month how much better we’ve gotten.”
This season the Rivs are in a better position than last season to make some noise in the NWHL playoffs, and a big part of the reason has been their depth. They sit tied for second place during the holiday break despite the retirement of Fritz-Ward and one of their best players (Amanda Kessel) only appearing in one game due to injury.
League play resumes today, and the next break in the action will come in early February when some of the players will head to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the second NWHL All-Star Game. A group of Riveters fans even started an online campaign to get Johnston voted into the game, which included the creation of a Twitter account: @Stretch4ASG, which is quite mind-blowing as she explains.
“Humbling is the best word to use. It’s definitely really cool,” she admitted somewhat bashfully. “It’s always nice to know that in some way you are making a difference. The All-Star Game, obviously that’d be a huge honor. That’d be a great thing; I would absolutely love to play in it, I’d be the John Scott of the All-Star Game,” she said with a laugh. “Tat and I were joking about that if we made it we would drop the mitts or something halfway through.”
On Friday, Johnston was voted into the All-Star Game by members of the media.
“Back when I was growing up and playing, to think that there would be… and then to think that people would want me there,” she paused and blushed a little again, “…I mean that just blows my mind. The girls and I were talking earlier - every single day that we’re here, this is the best day of the week. This is just such an incredible ride, such an incredible journey and something that I’m going to remember forever. Definitely having this ‘Stretch for the All-Star Game’ — it’s a pretty incredible thing and something I’ll remember forever. It also shows how special the fan following we have is and how incredible they are. This is, just such an amazing ride.”
An amazing ride, whether it’s from north of Albany to Newark or Pittsburgh, Ashley Johnston is having the time of her life and making a difference every day in the NWHL, and that’s why she racks up the miles, puts in the time on the ice, answers all the questions and signs all the autographs. That’s why no matter what state she’s in; if she’s in the new car or not - she’s having fun, inspiring young girls and having an impact on future generations that hopefully will have an easier path to continue their hockey careers.