It all kicked off with phone call before the start of the season last year.
The Metropolitan Riveters were a year removed from their 2021 pro women’s ice hockey season inside the COVID pandemic bubble, and athletes’ mental health was top of mind. For Madison Packer, the team’s captain, the issue was deeply personal, after losing loved ones to suicide and substance abuse. In hopes of finding resources for her team, she reached out to her general manager at the time, who also was her wife, Anya.
Packer recalls saying: “This is something that’s getting closer and closer to home. I really think it’s important for us to have resources as athletes — not only to be better athletes, but to be better people.”
Within weeks, the Riveters hosted their first Mental Health Awareness Night at a home match against the Boston Pride. The event symbolized the start of a new partnership between the team and Baker Street Health and Human Performance, a Paramus-based medical group that agreed to provide the team with medical support, behavioral health services, mental skills training, and more.
“It just kind of slowly, week after week, built into this bigger thing,” Packer said. “They’ve given us more access to resources that I don’t think we could have ever imagined. We can go to therapy as many times a week as we want, and we never get a bill. That’s unheard of. It all just came about from [Baker Street] recognizing that there were these athletes that needed help.”
The partnership between Baker Street and the Riveters, who hosted their season home opener at American Dream over the weekend, is groundbreaking. The partnership also highlights a larger issue in professional sports, where resources are often lacking for women’s teams due to low funding or investment. This partnership can be seen as a step toward building health equity in sports, with a particular focus on mental health at a time when those resources are critical.
Baker Street has a track record working with professional sports teams. The group’s client portfolio includes the Brooklyn Nets, New York Red Bulls, New Jersey Devils, New York Liberty and Gotham FC. In recent years, the group has shifted its focus to work more with professional women’s teams to provide equity.
“One of the things that we know as a group that we can provide is health equity,” said Baker Street’s co-founder Joe Galasso. “That’s something that’s very attainable. Our group could provide the same medical care that we provide to the men’s teams to the women’s teams, so we’ve made that our initiative and we’ve started to seek out women’s teams that are interested in partnerships to achieve those goals.”
Though Baker Street has experience working with teams in the NWSL and WNBA, the group’s partnership with The Riveters, a member of the Premier Hockey Federation, is the group’s most expansive. That’s largely because the league is still in its infancy, with many players juggling their professional ice hockey career with another full-time job. For comparison, the NWSL just ended its 10th season, and the WNBA is the longest-running professional women’s league in the country, having finished 25 seasons.
Story continues after photo gallery.
Through the partnership, Baker Health provides a liaison at every practice which remains on standby for the team when needed. The group’s medical staff is also available for them 24/7. The group offers performance psychologists who can provide group workshops or individual sessions. There are physical therapists, athletic trainers, massage therapists. The partnership includes “a lot of triaging” to find whatever medical professional at athlete may need as the season goes on.
“In terms of a fully integrated medical, behavioral and performance system, the Riveters have embraced the entire package,” Galasso said. “And I think that’s why we’re the proudest of what we’re doing with them, because they have given us carte blanche to really apply every aspect of our services to this team, and it’s been so well received.”
For Galasso and Baker Street, forging this relationship with the Riveters is their way of setting an example so other companies will also invest in women’s sports. One of the biggest obstacles keeping women’s leagues from reaching equity in several aspects is either a lack of investment or funding — and medical services, especially for mental health, can be very expensive.
“I can’t help on the pay side. I can’t put butts in seats, I can’t help with ticket sales, but I can make sure that the players are taken care of. I can make sure their families are taken care of and make sure that they feel better,” Galasso said. “And we know that if the players feel better, they’re going to perform better, and there’s going to be a better product on the field. And if there’s a better product on the field, there are going to be more butts in the — so people are going to seats pay more attention.”
For Packer, having mental health resources available for the Riveters ties into a larger goal. In recent years, Packer has become a staunch mental health advocate. In June, she shared her own mental health struggles through a personal essay on the University of Wisconsin athletics’ website. The partnership with Baker Street, in many ways, is a culmination of Packer using her platform as a professional athlete to further that conversation.
“I personally think that every professional sports team in every sport everywhere should have some kind of sports psych on staff, whether you just have a league sports psych where people can refer in,” Packer said. “It’s just something that isn’t always as valued because you can look at someone who is majorly depressed and they might look fine to you, but if their leg is broken, the doctor’s not going to clear them to play.
It’s about “getting everyone around the sports world to recognize and agree that mental illness and mental health is just as important as physical health, and allocating resources and funding into that area,” Packer said.