Inside the NWHL: Madison Packer and the masked physical toll of women's hockey

Madison Packer is one of the NWHL’s most popular and most physical players. The 5-9 Wisconsin alumna and veteran of four national development camps with the U.S. national team is an imposing figure. A scar runs through her right eyebrow. Even in street clothes, Packer looks tough. She looks like a hockey player.

The 26-year-old power forward readily admits she isn’t the fastest player on the ice, but that hasn’t stopped her from playing in two NWHL All-Star games or from being the second-highest scorer in the Riveters’ brief history. Packer finds a way to make things happen every night.

And for her, making things happen often means playing a gritty and sometimes reckless brand of hockey.

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“I definitely play a physical game,” Packer told Sporting News. “I think sometimes I toe the line and go over it, right? I also take a fair amount of penalties, but that’s always been a part of my game. I’m a bigger player and I play with a chip on my shoulder. I try to play within the rules, but I’m a strong kid, so sometimes I go a little overboard.”

Packer is no stranger to the penalty box, but she also excels at drawing penalties because of her style of play. The former Badger is one of the most effective agitators in the league. She’s a north-south forward who goes hard into the corners and hard to the net to make things happen. 

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“One thing that Packer is great at is getting under the other team’s skin,” Riveters captain Ashley Johnston said. “She figures out what works and she does it. A lot of times that’s the physical aspect that people don’t notice unless they’re playing against her.”

In addition to making her opponents miserable, Packer also puts her body on the line every night. She eagerly blocks shots on the penalty kill and frequently parks herself in front of the net in the offensive zone. After some games it’s hard to figure out how she isn’t one giant bruise.

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Unfortunately for the Riveters, the tough-as-nails forward is recovering from a torn labrum that she labored through last season. The injury played a role in her decision to retire at the end of last season. Packer will be out of the Riveters lineup for at least the first five games of her third NWHL season.

On a team with an abundance of small, speedy forwards, her absence is noticeable.

“It takes a toll on your body,” Packer admitted after watching her teammates battle Team Russia from the stands in the preseason. “I’ll be back at the start of December hopefully. It takes that toll and maybe you adjust the way you play to take care of yourself, but I don’t think I’m going to change anything about the way I play because it’s part of what makes me successful.”

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You could say that Packer’s style of play is a snow shower in the face of naysayers who claim that the women’s game is inferior to men’s hockey because there’s no hitting. Make no mistake, women’s hockey is a contact sport filled with net-front battles, chaos in the corners, scrums after the whistle and hitting.

Yes, hitting.

“If you watch a U.S. versus Canada game they hit,” Packer explained. “You can’t open ice body check, but they get into fights and rip people’s helmets off. If you watch a game at that level, and some of the games at our level, there’s very little difference in the men’s game and the women’s game except that you can’t line somebody up at center ice.

“Playing the body and pinching somebody off are part of the game.”

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Body checking is a minor penalty in the NCAA, NWHL, CWHL and under IIHF rules. Still, hits happen in almost every game, especially at the professional level and in international tournaments. The speed in the women’s game frequently surprises new fans.

That speed results in collisions, and sometimes it feels like the definition of what a body check is gets a little blurry.

“You definitely know what the rules are and where the line is drawn,” Packer clarified. “They let us play. In college and in (the NWHL) you can get away with a little bit more, you get to be a little more physical. But you can’t leave your feet, follow through on a check, or extend your arms and shift your weight up — that’s a body check. But you can rub people out.”

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