Ashley Johnston sends a pass during a regular-season game against the Buffalo Beauts. Photo by Troy Parla
We all know the story by now. Ashley Johnston, defenseman and captain of the New York Riveters, traveled for hours from her full-time job as a robotics engineer just outside Albany, N.Y., to make sure she was at all Riveters practices and games throughout the 2016-17 season.
It was a heroic effort that not only cemented the fact that she deserved to continue to wear the ‘C’ for New York, but earned her the Denna Laing Award which goes to the player who most exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to her sport, as chosen by the NWHL Players Association.
It also allowed for various media outlets, like the New York Post and the NHL Network, to take an interest in her story and share it with the world. It brought to light the dedication she has to the Riveters, the NWHL and women's hockey in general.
But the other story of Johnston’s 2016-17 season that seems to have fallen under the radar has been the fact that her on-ice performance improved quite a bit from the year before.
When you consider the Riveters rebuilt their entire defensive core with the additions of four new defenders -- rookies Courtney Burke, Milica McMillen, Michelle Picard and free-agent signing Kaleigh Fratkin and only Johnston and Kiira Dosdall returning from the 2015-16 edition of the Riveters -- it was fair to wonder how the pieces would all fit.
In the end for New York, they all fit pretty well, and Johnston, in particular, seemed to get a boost from all the new talent surrounding her on the blueline and the coaching staff putting her in better positions to succeed. It helped her earn an All-Star Game nod in leading the Riveters to the No. 2 seed in the Isobel Cup Playoffs.
Riveters head coach Chad Wiseman was able to put Johnston in the right spots because he had her play to her strengths. Placed in a pairing with Dosdall and taken off the power play, the Riveters trusted Burke, McMillen, Picard, and Fratkin to handle power-play duties and Johnston was able to be a presence as a “stay-at-home defender.”
With her long reach, due in part to her six-foot frame, veteran instincts and a comfortable feeling playing with someone familiar like Dosdall, Johnston was able to settle into her offensively-reduced, yet vital role and it allowed her to excel.
Johnston was second among defenders on the team in blocked shots with 18 and was third among defenders in plus-minus at +2.
Even more importantly for a team that was built in part on their speed, she was able to move the puck out of her own zone with a lot more success than in the previous season, as seen in her two turnovers committed, second-best among Riveters defenders with 13 or more games played.
Moving into next season, the Riveters are looking to grow as a team and advance to their first Isobel Cup Final. If Johnston can continue to be the rock on the back-end, be the veteran presence that the young second-year defenders and rookie Kelsey Koelzer can look towards for guidance when needed, the Riveters will be in great shape.
Johnston’s off-ice story has been both inspirational and impressive, but don’t forget that she’s a heck of a player on the ice as well.