Courtney Burke (left) and Rebecca Russo (right) signing autographs and entertaining fans at the Meigray Jersey Expo.
NORTH BRANCH, NJ – The Isobel Cup continued its 2017 journey at the 14th annual MeiGray Group Game-Worn Jersey Expo Saturday, the summer event hosted by MeiGray, “The Official Game-Worn Jersey Source of the National Women’s Hockey League.”
More than 250 jersey collectors and hockey fans packed Raritan Valley (NJ) Community College’s Conference Center on a sunny summer afternoon to have photos taken with the goblet named after the daughter of Lord Stanley of Preston, and to meet two NWHL All-Stars whose spirit embody Isobel Gathorne-Hardy.
New York Riveters Rebecca Russo and Courtney Burke were careful never to touch the Isobel Cup, since it was the Buffalo Beauts and not the Riveters who captured the NWHL’s second championship title.
But just as Isobel Gathorne-Hardy helped pioneer the sport in Canada a millennium ago as one of the first women to play the sport in Canada, Russo and Burke energized an Expo interested in learning more about the NWHL and the growth of the sport in the Northeastern United States.
Russo and Burke were charismatic ambassadors who electrified a room that also welcomed one of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players, Adam Oates, and Hockey Hall of Fame curator Phil Pritchard, Keeper of (that other) Cup.
“I think when I first got introduced on Saturday I was totally taken aback with the number of people and the room itself,” Russo said. “I have a blast interacting with the fans. The entire league and the fans know I’m bubbly, outgoing and personable…I just love interacting with people in general, I’ll never say no to a picture or autograph. It’s humbling to think they want my autograph or photo.”
Russo and Burke signed autographs and did meet-and-greets with fans of all ages and genders, having truly heartwarming moments with young female hockey fans who finally have icons on the ice to look up to.
“The energy was awesome,” Burke agreed. “You could tell everyone was super excited to be there. I didn’t know what I was going to be walking into.”
She walked into a museum the likes of which hockey fans rarely see … even in the hallowed Hall of Fame in Toronto, not to mention central New Jersey. There was the Conn Smythe Trophy only a few feet away from a Buffalo Beauts gamer, which stood proudly on display a few feet from the Connor McDavid 2017 Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup Playoffs game-worn jersey Russo gleefully pulled over head for a few seconds.
Russo and Burke discussed their hockey careers and answered questions for the crowd just a few strides from the Isobel Cup they are ready to pursue again in 2017-18.
“I didn’t pay much attention to the trophy at all,” said Russo, the forward who won the NWHL’s fastest skater competition at last season’s All-Star Weekend. “I was closest to it, and I had my first look at it. I’ve never seen it up close. My first reaction was to look at it and see my name isn’t on it yet, but my main focus was on the fans and the people there. When we walked up for the panel I was excited. [MeiGray President] Barry [Meisel] introduced us and I was excited to tell our story…some people have no idea about the league. They were so happy that we were there and sharing our story.”
“It’s really important to show we’re personable people,” Burke added. “We’re no different from anyone else. We work day jobs and just do this for fun and the love of the game.”
Burke and Russo stressed that appearances like the MeiGray Expo and their social media presence, which has been a boon to the league as it grows, are equally important.
“I love showing people what I’m doing outside of the rink and that it’s not hockey-hockey-hockey,” Russo explained. “I think that’s the type of role model I am, showing young, female athletes that I do hang out at the pool, I do activities, I interact with people on social media. I feel 100% like it’s worth it. I love when fans like my stuff and on the bigger side of things, when they like and retweet whatever the league is showing. Social media is a huge boost to get us up to that next level.”
Burke felt seeing the Cup amplified her motivation. “We definitely do have some unfinished business,” said the All-Star defenseman. “We thought we would be in that last game last year and we want to come back better than last year. Definitely seeing the Isobel Cup made it stick out more in my mind that I want to win it.”
“I think the New York Riveters all have the same goal,” she said. “We were the most tight-knit group over the course of the season and I think we all stuck together. “We all have that winning attitude and that’s what I love about the Riveters.”