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Riveters’ Rebecca Russo stepping into spotlight of NWHL

By Paul Jannace, 05/26/17, 10:00AM EDT

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PHOTO CREDIT: Troy Parla

Rookie sensation has opportunity to be next league superstar

Minutes after a season-ending loss, the Barnabas Health Hockey House was empty.

Disappointed New York Riveters fans made their way to the exits quickly after a 4-2 Isobel Cup semifinal defeat to the eventual champion Buffalo Beauts.

But a funny thing happened during this alleged mass exodus — the fans did not empty out of the building. They just stuffed themselves into the lobby of the arena.

The door swings open and the first player comes out, tears in her eyes — understandable, considering her rookie season with the Riveters is suddenly over — and after greeting her family, she walks over to the table to sign autographs and receives a loud ovation.

A sad night for Rebecca Russo and the Riveters got a jolt of happiness because of their appreciative fans.

“I remember that like it was yesterday,” recalled Russo. “It was such an incredible moment.

“We got in the locker room and coach [Chad Wiseman] said a few things, and I was crying because it stung a lot. I took three minutes, I got up, saw my parents and I instantly went to the first chair in the autograph line. I wanted to be there because of what those fans did for us.”

Russo made a great first impression in the NWHL and the Riveters fans let her know about it.

“It wasn’t just about me or just about the Riveters,” said Russo. “We wouldn’t have been on the ice against Buffalo that night without those fans.”

Russo also recalled one of the fans that night imploring the group to give the team a round of applause for a great season and a young fan telling her she was going to buy a Rebecca Russo jersey because she was her favorite player.

“It was so surreal and special,” said Russo. “It chokes me up even talking about it now. I wanted to be with my teammates, but I instantly got up and gave my parents a hug and wanted to go out to that autograph chair.”


PHOTO CREDIT: Troy Parla

Looking ahead to next season

An NWHL All-Star in her first season of professional hockey, Russo has quickly become a star.

The speedy forward was second on the Riveters and fourth in the NWHL with 13 assists last season. Russo also finished 10th in the league with 16 points in 18 games and was second on the Riveters with a +3 rating.

“My approach to every season is to get better in every area, whether it’s my speed, my shot and the mental side of things,” said Russo. “Going into this season, yes, we want to win an Isobel Cup, it’s why we work our whole lives and all season for, but I’d like to keep progressing with my skill and I’d like to match the points (from last season) and surpass that. But I also want to be a better person and better teammate and better role model.”

Russo, who re-signed for a second season with New York, is already one of the NWHL’s top forwards and a crucial piece for the 2017-18 Riveters.

During All-Star weekend, Russo won the Fastest Skater competition in the Skills Showdown, and then scored two goals for the victorious Team Kessel. Russo played on the Riveters with Olympian Amanda Kessel, and at the All-Star Game was on a line with another Olympian, Boston’s Hilary Knight.

“That’s something I’ll probably never forget,” said Russo. “Starting from youth hockey to Boston University to the NWHL, I’ve surrounded myself with great people and great teammates. It only pushes me to become a better hockey player.”

A successful first season helped make the decision to re-sign with the Riveters easy.

“Yes, we lost, and it hurt, it stung, but I honestly was just so excited to play again and sign back with the Riveters,” said Russo. “The Riveters are an incredible organization and the NWHL is an incredible organization. What (commissioner) Dani Rylan has done for us and for younger girls and the younger generation, they can look up to us and this league and see there is life in hockey past college.

“With this league, I can kind of set off into the real world, do my job and play the game I love the most.”

One difference for the NWHL during the 2017-18 season will be the absence of the Olympic players, like Russo’s Riveters teammate and roommate, Kessel, and her All-Star Game line mate, Knight, among others. However, it also presents a unique chance for players like Russo to shine brighter.

“It’s going to hurt the league a little bit, but for me, myself, stepping into a bigger role, I feel I’m totally capable and willing to accept that,” said Russo. “I like to see myself already as a leader and the ‘Face of the Riveters,’ because of my personality, but also because of my work on the ice and also being so engaging with the fans.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity that’s ahead of me.”


PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Hertzel

A star off the ice

Besides being one of the league’s top players, Russo has become one of the most recognizable faces and personalities due to her strong social media presence, which contributed to her being voted the fan’s favorite ahead of the All-Star Game.

“I think the world we live in now, (social media) is both positive and negative,” said Russo. “It’s great because the younger fans or older fans can see what I’m doing and it helps me being a role model and show that there is life outside the rink and it’s not always about hockey.

“It speaks volumes to inspire people to be what they want to be,” added the 23-year-old Riveters All-Star. “I like to do both (Instagram and Twitter), but I have to watch what I tweet because there are 12 year olds who have my Twitter and Instagram accounts, but I think it helps with updating and showing them what I do on a typical day. It shows what I’m up to and what I like. It’s great promotion for the league.”

Russo burst onto the scene with her play as a rookie, but takes her role as an example to the younger generation very seriously, which goes beyond the ice. Being the Face of the Riveters is one thing, but the face of the league? That’s not necessarily a job for one person.

“I think 100 percent it’s a collective team effort,” said Russo. “Everyone has that opportunity to be the face of the league and show their different personalities and what they bring to the table.

“I’m blessed and honored to be the fan’s favorite last season and to always be on their minds,” added Russo. “Being a new league, it gives everyone a chance to strut their stuff and show what they’re made of. It’s amazing what this league has done, not only for women’s hockey, but sports in general. Everyone has their own unique style to show who they are in this league and I think that speaks volumes.”

Russo has found other ways to be a role model, including her time teaching the game to youngsters as a private instructor — including possibly hosting a summer camp with NHL All-Star Cam Atkinson of the Columbus Blue Jackets — as well as doing speaking engagements.

“Whatever I can do to help younger girls and boys achieve their dreams,” said Russo. “I try to help any way I can, whether it be a lesson or an e-mail or a conversation at the rink. If my impact helps them, great, but if not, hopefully it will help them in the long run.”

In addition to being a professional hockey player, Russo also works in the media and productions department at MLB and NHL Network, which has helped in her quest to become a sports broadcaster.

“Getting my foot in the door there was just unbelievable,” said Russo. “I’ve been multi-tasking my entire life, starting from elementary school. These life challenges that have approached me have only made me a stronger and better person.

“That’s the real word. Nothing is given to you on a silver platter.”

Russo spent much of her development as a hockey player looking up to a lot of male hockey players, including Hall of Famer Mark Messier, who led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994 and happens to be a family friend, but now she is the one young kids can look up to, a responsibility she does not take lightly.

“When I’m at the rink and little girls are watching me warm up and play, I’m speechless to think little girls want to be me and wear my jersey,” Russo said. “I was once that young girl looking at that male hockey player. Now that there is the NWHL and they can look up to female hockey players is special and humbling.”