Recently the NWHL announced that the number of practice players on each roster will increase from the four that each team had in 2015-16 to six in 2016-17. Perhaps no team discovered the need for quality depth provided by practice players the way that the New York Riveters did. Returning head coach and newly appointed general manager Chad Wiseman recognized just how important practice players were to the team last season in a recent interview with Today’s Slapshot.
They’re huge. I remember our first meeting of the year, I went in there and said, ‘This is our team, this is our roster. We’re not a fifteen man or a seventeen man roster and four practice players. We’re a twenty-one player roster.’ You want everyone to feel part of the team, and I think that was huge. I think our girls, our ‘practice players’ if you want to call them that, did feel part of the team.
A big reason why New York’s practice players felt like a part of the team, and indeed they were, was because of the injuries that tested the depth of the roster before the regular season even began.
The Riveters were without contracted player Erin Barley-Maloney for the entirety of the season and postseason due to an undisclosed injury. Barley-Maloney’s absence opened the door for New York’s practice players, especially forward Taylor Holze and defender Amber Moore, to make an impact on the team and carve out roles for themselves.
Barley-Maloney wasn’t the only Riveter to miss time due to injury. The Riveters couldn’t seem to avoid misfortune with injuries up and down their lineup all year long which gave Moore, Holze, Cherie Stewart and Margot Scharfe opportunities to get into the lineup and make a difference for the Riveters.
“They’re not getting paid*, so you find the people that live in that area. It’s ideal,” Wiseman answered when asked about how important finding practice players will be this offseason. “That might be the biggest challenge. Finding those players that can play at that level, that live in that area. Dani [Ryland] did a really good job of getting the ones we [had] last year,” Wiseman reflected.
Moore played in 13 games with the Riveters during the regular season and traveled with the team to Japan for their exhibition series against Japan’s national women’s hockey team. Although Moore didn’t see a lot of ice time, she did bring strength and size to a Riveters’ blue line that had only five defenders under contract. They also had to wait nearly a month for Sydney Kidd to join the team due to visa issues.
The other Riveters’ practice player that emerged as a regular in the team’s lineup before her injury was Holze. Her emotional return to the roster for New York’s playoff series against the Boston Pride helped to take some of the sting away from the Morgan Fritz-Ward injury. “For somebody like Taylor, before her unfortunate injury obviously, I thought she was playing fantastic and had earned a full-time spot on our roster at that point,” said Wiseman about Holze’s importance to the team last season.
The injuries that left an already flawed Riveters’ team at a disadvantage for so much of the season also created the opportunity for Holze to earn a full-time roster spot as a practice player. Clearly, she earned the trust of Wiseman for her responsible play and the quickness she brought to the team when she was healthy.
The Riveters have begun their offseason signings with alternate captains and All-Star forwards Fritz-Ward and Madison Packer. It is safe to assume that they will save their decisions about which players they will designate as their six practice player spots after they fill their 17-player roster.
As attractive as New York might be to players earning contracts that count against the Riveters’ salary cap, it is also a very expensive city to live in even with the effort to find affordable housing for the team’s players. Finding local talent that can match the high level of play seen in the NWHL will again be a significant challenge for Wiseman this offseason.
The play and presence of Moore and Holze helped to make the value of depth and quality in practice players abundantly clear to Wiseman. With no farm system to turn to, NWHL general managers and coaches need to have the best possible players they can have when injury, obligation and the odyssey of daily life leaves them shorthanded on any given weekend.
As important as skilled players are to any roster, the impact that Moore and Holze made for the Riveters in the team’s first year showed that having versatile and hungry players with the right character available as practice players might be even more important.
Just how many of New York’s practice players will return and how many of the contracted players from last season’s roster might find themselves as practice players for the 2016-17 remains to be seen. But at least one thing is clear. Every NWHL team will need to take which players they designate as practice players seriously.
*=The league was contacted about how practice players are compensated and Jenny Scrivens replied with the following statement: “Practice players are paid on a per-game basis and do not affect the team’s salary cap.”