There are three hours until game time, but Gabie Figueroa is already in the locker room. By day, the Princeton grad is helping transform the Bronx's cavernous Kingsbridge Armory into the world's largest indoor ice center as part of her job with the Gilbane Building Company.
But a few nights a week, Figueroa leaves the office and heads to a different rink. There, she swaps her business casual for a jersey and skates and takes up her position as a defenseman for the New York Riveters -- one of four teams in the newly-minted National Women’s Hockey League.
At 23, Figueroa is one of the first women in America to play professional ice hockey -- and actually get paid for it.
Figueroa started playing hockey at age 9, after tagging along with her older brother to a local ice rink. She went on to play for USA Hockey’s Under-18 Team and later at Princeton, where she served as co-captain her senior year. But, even for the most talented athletes, the games usually end after college. Professional opportunities are rare, especially for women, and hockey is particularly expensive; gear alone can cost thousands over the course of a season. Figueroa thought her days as a player were over, until she heard about the NWHL this spring via social media.
The league, which dropped its first puck in a game between the Riveters and the Connecticut Whale on Oct. 11, was founded by 28-year-old Dani Rylan.
Rylan, who is now the league's commissioner, wrote in an article for The Players' Tribune that she took action after hearing too many stories of "the best young female hockey players" facing the end of the road before they "even have a chance to reach their peak in their mid-20s."
"So," Rylan continued, "I had a crazy idea: What if we created a sustainable professional league that actually paid players and gave them access to the best equipment? ... We would have to start small, but wouldn’t people come out to watch the best female hockey players in the world?"
While intrigued, Figueroa still wasn’t sold at first. She already had a full-time job and, at $15,000 a season, the NWHL’s average salary wasn't enough to live on in New York City.
But ultimately the chance to lace up her skates again was too good to pass up, and Figueroa snagged a spot on the team. Now, she practices twice a week with the rest of the Riveters at the Aviator Sports and Events Center in Brooklyn, a former aircraft hanger that houses two NHL-size ice rinks, and plays in games every Sunday.
MTV met up with Figueroa at a recent match against the Boston Pride to learn how she preps for the ice, balancing being a professional athlete with work and what it's like to be making history as one of the first paid female pro hockey players in the country.
"I take the subway from Manhattan to my teammate Bray who lives in Brooklyn Heights. Then we drive to the rink together.
“I tape my stick before every practice and game. It’s just a better feel for the puck. It’s personal preference. Other people do different things [to prepare], but this is what I care about.”
"I'm one of the last players to get dressed because I like to get dressed fast. It's my way of getting focused before I go on the ice. When I get dressed, I make sure I tape my socks tight and rub my face mask with baby shampoo to prevent it from fogging."
"Before games I like to talk to my teammates about personal things not relating to hockey and don't really think about the game much. It keeps me from getting nervous and overthinking. Then once I hit the ice, I'm all focused on hockey."
"We have a really great team dynamic. There are no egos on the team. I've known everyone on the team for two months and it's like we've known each other forever."
Like Figueroa, other players have full or part time jobs in addition to the team, including some coaching positions arranged by the league. The NWHL also helped set up some non-local players with housing.
As a New Jersey native with a Manhattan apartment, the transition was logistically easier for Figueroa than for some of her teammates, whose origins include Canada, Austria and Japan. Still, the double life of a professional athlete has its drawbacks; long, bi-weekly practices that end past 11:00 p.m. are felt the next day in the office – “I’m exhausted all the time,” Figueroa said.
But the grueling schedule is worth it for Figueroa, having known life without the sport. “I still love my job and I was able to see what it’s like not having hockey in my life," she said. "So I don’t take it for granted.”
"Boston's really good. I mean, a bunch of their players are Olympians. But the women’s hockey world is really small. I know all these girls."
Though the stands weren't packed during this particular game, plenty of fans -- men, women and kids alike -- could be seen rocking Riveters jerseys. And when the team scored its first goal, the noise was explosive.
One fan, in a #33 jersey for Riveters' goaltender Nana Fujimoto, said that he and his wife, who was dressed in Boston's black and yellow, had attended every home game so far. "The Riveters are my team," he said, then pointed to his wife. "But she's a Pride fan."
"These women are so talented," he added. "They deserve to get paid more for this."
It's true that the salaries of the NWHL pale in comparison to those of the NHL (where payers get an average of $2.4 million in a season). But Rylan hopes the compensation represents a step toward more meaningful investment in and recognition of female athletes.
"It's not just about the money," Rylan wrote in the Tribune. "It's about respect. It's about being treated as a professional. Maybe the most exciting perk for our players, though, is seeing their name on the back of the jersey."
"It's fun playing against people I have known for a long time because I get to stay in touch with lifelong hockey friends before and after games, but during games I don't think about any players as a friend because I can't afford to go easy on anyone."
This game ended with the Riveters beating the Pride 3-2, but as exciting as the win was what happened after the game: A line of fans -- many of whom were young girls -- lined up to get autographs from the players. The moment underscored the fact that the NWHL is making history not just for themselves, but for young female athletes across the country who finally get to see people who look like them playing the sport they love.
"We've been signing autographs after games. The first day we signed autographs for half an hour."