The National Women’s Hockey League is still in its infancy, comprised of just four teams: the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and the Metropolitan Riveters (formerly New York).
Founded in March, 2015, it joined the Canadian Women’s Hockey League as the only two professional organizations for women in North America.
Though not on the same level as the NHL, the women’s league is gaining ground with fans. Some familiar faces from the United States Women’s Hockey Team, such as Amanda Kessel, Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan, signed on to play in the league in its first season.
The players don’t receive millions of dollars like their male counterparts in the NHL — each player makes a minimum of $5,000, which was $10,000 in its inaugural season before a pay cut halfway through the season. Players can earn extra revenue from jersey sales (15 percent per jersey with a player’s name on the back, per The Hockey News) and attendance bonuses (to compensate for the paycheck rollback, according to Excelle Sports). Outside of the league, most players also have other salary jobs.
Alexa Gruschow, a Mechanicsburg graduate, knows the struggle it takes to get where you want to be. She played on her school’s club boys hockey team and was surrounded by just boys for most of her playing career. She did get some girl time, playing on the Washington Pride, a girls travel team.
She also kept herself busy in high school by participating in track and field and cross country. After she graduated, she studied biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and played Division I hockey in the Eastern College Athletic Conference with the Pioneers.
Gruschow is now in her second season with the Metropolitan Riveters, and her journey to the league wasn’t the same as someone who is drafted.
In 2016, Gruschow participated in a Free Agent Camp to show teams what she was made of. In June, right after Gruschow graduated from Rensselaer, she received an email and later a phone call from the Riveters coach. During that phone call she was offered a contract.
She has excelled, much like she has throughout her career.
During her time in high school, Gruschow made it to the finals for the Viola Cup in 2010 — which the team lost to Kennard-Dale — and finished her high school career in 2012 with 48 goals, 60 assists and 108 points. In college, she notched a total of 46 goals, 47 assists and 93 points.
Now, nearing the end of her second season in the NWHL, she’s racked up 11 goals, 18 assists and 29 points, grabbing headlines as one of the most multifaceted forwards in the league.
With the current season ending in March, Gruschow took some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for The Sentinel.
Q: What got you started in hockey?
A: My two older brothers began playing hockey, and I followed in their footsteps. As the younger sibling, I wanted to do everything that they did, especially when it came to sports.
Q: What made you stick with it and start to really perfect your talent?
A: I fell in love with every part of the game; the speed, the skills it involves, the physicality, the team aspect. I couldn’t get enough of it, and I kept wanting to improve every part of my game.
Q: How did you move up through the ranks of the younger hockey scene, from pee-wee to juniors to high school, etc.?
A: I played on boys teams until I was about 13 and then I switched to a girl’s team, but also played sporadically for my high school team. I was always able to excel on the boy’s teams until we got to an older age and they started surpassing me in strength, speed and skill. This is when I switched to girls hockey in order to be on a more level playing field.
Q: What was playing hockey like back in high school with Mechanicsburg?
A: I was the only girl on the team, but I never felt out of place. It felt as if I had a team full of older brothers because they were protective of me on the ice. I actually played on the team with my brother when I was a freshman and he was a senior. It was special to be able to play on his team because we never played on the same travel team due to our age difference.
Q: Anything you can remember that was your favorite part?
A: Having my dad as a coach for a couple of years. He taught me a lot and was always a great support system for me. We have a strong bond when it comes to hockey, so it was memorable being on the same bench together.
Q: Any memorable stories from your time with the high school team?
A: We made it to the CPIHL Tier 2 championship game one year that I was on the team. The game was played against Kennard-Dale in [Hersheypark Arena], so it had that big stadium feel to it. I was nervous for this game, as I had never made it this far with the Mechanicsburg team before. The game was fast, rough, competitive and evenly fought. The score was close, but they slipped away with the win which was tough to swallow. Overall, it was great to be a part of this experience because it brought the team closer together and showed how much potential our team had.
Q: Going into college hockey, what did you want to do with the sport from there? Did the Olympics come up?
A: I was excited to be joining a new team, and I wanted to have a successful college career. Getting an opportunity with the national team was always in the back of my mind, but I was more focused on my college team and performing my best to help us succeed. My college team was the first priority because I would have to find success here before I found it at the next level.
Q: How did you get involved with the NWHL?
A: I kept an eye on what was going on in the NWHL during my senior year at RPI. I knew that I wanted to try to join this league after my college career, and I communicated this to my coaching staff at RPI. They helped me become better informed about the NWHL and spoke to some of the coaches in the league. After my senior season, I reached out to the coaches via email expressing my interest in the league, we exchanged a few emails and I was invited to come to the tryout in Newark, [New Jersey] at the beginning of June.
I had a successful couple days of tryouts and spoke with the head coach of the Riveters at the end of the weekend. Within the next couple of days he called me and offered me a contract with the Riveters and I enthusiastically accepted it immediately.
Q: What kind of job do you have when you aren’t playing in the NWHL?
A: For three months of this season I worked as a Brand Consistency Intern in NYC for a company called Juice Press. This spring I am currently a graduate student at Montclair State University obtaining my Master of Science in Nutrition and Food Science.
Q: What is it like being one of the first players to be a part of the first women’s-only professional hockey league?
A: It is a true honor. We are pioneers for the sport and we are building a better future for the women’s game. I am loving every minute of it and it is exciting and humbling to be making history with this league.
Q: What’s it like being paid to play the sport you love?
A: We would be doing the same thing even if we were not paid, so being paid is a bonus for us. I am grateful that we are able to be paid to play the sport that we have been playing for our entire lives, it is remarkable that women’s hockey has reached this step.
Q: What was your first game in the NWHL like?
A: I was extremely nervous before the game, but I was able to settle into my comfort zone once the game was underway. I was proud to be standing on the ice as a professional athlete.
Q: What’s it like playing with women or against women that are part of Olympic teams?
A: They are dominant athletes with respectable character. I was honored to be on the ice with them because they are top-notch role models for our sport.
Q: Do you still have Olympic aspirations of your own?
A: It would be a dream come true.
Q: What was it like seeing your name on the back of a jersey for the first time?
A: I was overjoyed the first time I saw a Gruschow jersey being worn by a fan. It is an incredible feeling to know that someone wants to wear your name on their back, and I will always be elated every time I see a Gruschow jersey. Pictures are always a must!
Q: What’s it like seeing people buy your jersey?
A: I am always thankful to see my merchandise being bought because it means I have made a positive influence on that person in some way.
Q: How long would you like to play in the league for?
A: Undetermined as of now, but I see myself having a long future in this league as it continues to grow and achieve new milestones.
Q: It’s known the league has had to restructure salaries and is still growing. Do you think about the uncertainty of the league and what this leaves for you long-term?
A: I have faith that the NWHL will continue to be successful eternally. The league has come a long way since its first season and it is finding more and more success through time. I will always be a proud advocate for the NWHL and I will do what’s in my power to ensure that its future stays bright.