The New York Riveters are depending on contributions from new faces more than any other NWHL team this season. Rookies and first-year NWHL players have fans buzzing with excitement and buying shirseys. But there is one rookie forward who has managed to fly under the radar thus far.
Alexa Gruschow is quietly bringing stability to a team that had major concerns at the center position in the offseason.
Gruschow played her high school hockey on a boy’s team in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. The team was coached by her father, Matt Gruschow. But nepotism wasn’t the reason she was skating with the boys in a contact league. After she broke her collarbone in a playoff game as a freshman her father didn’t want her back on the club. But her speed, skill and competitiveness were undeniable. And Gruschow has never shied away from the physical part of the game.
“I do like checking, and wish it could be part of women’s hockey,” Gruschow shared in an interview during her sophomore year in high school. “I have to alter my physical play slightly in girls’ games because there’s no checking.”
After turning heads with the Washington Pride in the JWHL, Gruschow wasted no time in impressing Rensselaer head coach John Burke. She emerged as the team’s top center in her freshman year. Gruschow led RPI, which featured Boston Pride forward Jordan Smelker, in both goals and assists as a freshman. She went on to led the team in scoring in her sophomore, junior and senior seasons.
“Two things that stick out about Alexa’s game are her speed and compete level,” Burke said of Gruschow in her freshman year. “She has a tremendous first step and reaches top speed quickly.
“And she has the ultimate competitive attitude. Whether it’s chasing down a loose puck, going to the net with an offensive chance or playing in our defensive zone, she hates to lose in any situation.”
It seems like Gruschow has already earned the trust of her newest head coach. She clearly made a big impression on Chad Wiseman at the NWHL’s free agent camp in Newark during the summer. Wiseman signed her to a $12,000 contract when the Riveters had just three more forward spots to fill on their roster.
Wiseman has not been shy about sending his rookie center out for key faceoffs in both the offensive and defensive zones. And for good reason. Gruschow is proving to be more than capable on the dot against NWHL competition.
Gruschow doesn’t have the offensive upside of fellow rookies Miye D’Oench or Rebecca Russo, but she knows what to do when she has the puck. Her numbers at RPI don’t really jump off the page because she never finished with more than 13 goals in a season, and her best year was her freshman campaign. But the Engineers have never been known for their goal scoring. Gruschow finished her time at RPI as second all-time in goals scored for the program behind former Boston Blade Whitney Naslund.
Gruschow can be a handful in front of and around the net. She has great stick strength and knows how to protect the puck along the boards and in open ice. A lot was asked of Gruschow on an Engineers team with very little offense. She may not have been the most consistent scorer, but there was no questioning her skill and desire to win at RPI.
But it is Gruschow’s play away from the puck that really sets her apart. Her defensive prowess will catch the eye of anyone who is looking out for it. Gruschow makes the kind of clever, subtle plays that take away passing lanes or lead to much-needed line changes.
In many ways, Gruschow’s game is similar to that of former Riveters’ forward Meghan Fardelmann. She’s quick, smart, tough and outstanding away from the puck. Her game isn’t about blind passes and toe drags. It’s about effective, aggressive two-way hockey. Gruschow fearlessly fights for pucks in the corners, she ties up sticks of attackers and she flies up the ice. She’s a perfect fit for Wiseman’s style of hockey.
We don’t talk about defensively skilled forwards as much as we should, particularly in the women’s game. It can be hard to appreciate what players like Gruschow offer when they don’t put up many trading card stats. But the former RPI captain has all the tools to help New York turn their possession game around this season. She might not score many goals, but she will certainly be helping the Riveters win hockey games.