It has been a big year for former Wisconsin hockey star Madison Packer. One of many surprises.
A member of the National Women’s Hockey League’s Metropolitan Riveters, Packer thought that the 2016–17 season would be her last. A hip injury lingered and required surgery. Her playing career, it appeared, had run its course.
“I had decided not to play,” Packer told B5Q. “I had a hip injury in the 2016–17 season and when I went to the doctor he recommended surgery. It was looking like a long road to come back and I kind of thought I was ready to be done.”
A swift recovery and rehab, however, changed things. Packer rescinded her retirement for 2017–18 and went back to the ice for the New York metro area-based Riveters. Even though she missed the first four games, it would be a season to remember.
Packer led the league in goals scored and finished as a Most Valuable Player finalist. More importantly, the Riveters won their first ever Isobel Cup, defeating Buffalo.
“It was exciting to be a part of it,” Packer said. “If you had told me three years ago that the Riveters were going to win the championship after the way the first season kind of went for us ... It was fun and definitely something special to share with all of the girls that started out in the beginning in Brooklyn.”
New #NWHL: @madison_packer_ helped propel the @Riveters into the championship picture after coming back from surgery. @MarkStaff100 highlights her here: https://t.co/DzfpQ3EZWr pic.twitter.com/zr2YQC8Dpt— Women's Hockey Life (@WHLOfficial) April 6, 2018
As befitting a champion, Packer enjoyed a well-earned “Cup Week” over the Fourth of July. Returning to her native Michigan, she took the Isobel Cup on a tour of the Little Caesar’s Arena and then spent some quality time on the lake.
“It was awesome,” Packer said. “I was flying home for the Fourth of July weekend to be at my family’s lake house in northern Michigan, so I stopped by and got a tour of the Little Caesar’s Arena and I was mind-blown. So I hung out there for a little bit and then I took it up to the cabin. We took it out on the boat and did a pub crawl. It was a blast.”
In the midst of her most successful professional season, Packer’s personal life bloomed as well. Shortly after she returned east from her Cup Week, Packer got engaged to fellow NWHL player Anya Battaglino.
Battaglino, who is also the Director of the NWHL Players Association, maintains a huge social media presence and the fans swooned. All the attention caught the normally reserved Packer by surprise.
‘It’s been crazy,” Packer said, laughing. “It’s been a lot more public than I was prepared for. But that’s just kind of how Anya—she lives that way, she’s very active on social media and vocal in her personal life. She asked if we could do an article laying out everything and I said sure, not thinking it would be this whole huge thing. But it’s been good—it’s been an adjustment, but it’s been good.”
An assistant captain her senior year, Packer amassed 104 points in 146 career games for the Badgers. A member of Wisconsin’s last national title team in 2010-11, she shares the ice in New York with fellow Badgers alumnae Kelly Nash, Jenny Ryan, Ericka Lawler, and Courtney Burke.
The Big Apple Badger connection is strong.
“I stay in touch with [Brianna] Decker, [Kelly] Jaminski; Jenny Ryan and Courtney Burke both play with me in New York, so I’m pretty close with those guys. Courtney is actually going to be in my wedding. There’s a pretty good group of us in New York that I hang out with on a regular basis.”
As for returning to Wisconsin, it doesn’t happen as much as she’d like—at least while she is still playing.
“I made it back to Madison in May for a wedding. Kelly Jaminski and [former Wisconsin football offensive lineman Kyle Costigan] got married in May. It was basically like 400 people—he brought all of the football guys, she brought all of the hockey girls. So that was pretty fun.
“But I don’t get back as often as I’d like to. They’re doing the reunion this October, like a 20-year reunion, but I can’t make that because I have a game. So it’s tough. It’s fun to go back for the football games, but it’s hard in hockey season, so I haven’t been back too much.”
Still, Packer takes what she learned at Wisconsin with her, particularly the lessons learned from coach Mark Johnson.
“I think he’s great. I played for him on the U.S. team for one or two years and at Wisconsin and I never one heard him yell. He doesn’t swear, He’s just a very professional, collected guy, and his teaching style is unique and he knows the game really well.
“He spends time with his players. He keeps things simple and allows you to play the game the right way. Playing for him and then coming to New York and playing for a coach who is a lot more system-oriented was a big adjustment for those of us who played at Wisconsin. (Johnson) focuses on keeping you accountable, allowing you to be a creative player, and I really appreciated that about him. It’s a rare and unique thing with coaches now.”
A fan favorite, Packer is active in social causes. She was an ambassador for You Can Play, an organization that fights homophobia in sports.
“Getting involved in stuff like that is important to me because I think we forget that we’re not on a huge stage, but we’re on a stage large enough where we can impact the lives of a lot of kids. And so putting my face on something like that doesn’t really make a difference to me, but it could make a difference to a kid who is going through something.”
Packer is also involved with Project Semicolon, a mental health and suicide prevention founded in Green Bay.
“I’ve lost some people that are close to me and as athletes it’s actually become more common now. It talks about the importance of taking care of yourself and talking about it, and it’s OK to talk about it, so that’s why I took the step to get involved with them. I saw it as an opportunity to work with an organization that was well established and needed people to get involved with them to help them grow.”
(Note: If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is open 24 hours per day: 1-800-273-8255)
As big as 2017–18 was, 2018–19 may rival it. There’s a cup to defend. A wedding to plan. A game to grow.
“We’ve come a long way and they’re slowly getting there. It’s a building process. Most of us are on-board with it. We understand that we’re the people starting something for the kids that are playing in little leagues now.”