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Metropolitan Riveters host Mental Health Awareness Night at Prudential Center on March 5

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Madison Packer
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Riveters captain Madison Packer made sure as part of her new contract that the team would hold Mental Health awareness game

Sports icons such as superstar gymnast Simone Biles, tennis champion Naomi Osaka and Olympic Alpine two-time Gold Medalist Mikaela Shiffrin have opened up about mental health. Experts say the more we have conversations about it, the faster we can decrease the stigma.

That’s why the Metropolitan Riveters, the women’s professional hockey team representing New York and New Jersey in the Premier Hockey Federation, will be hosting a Mental Health Awareness Night at Prudential Center at 2pm on March 5.

Riveters GM Anya Packer, Riveters captain and all-star Madison Packer and Dr. Joe Galasso of Baker Street Health & Human Performance join SportsJam with Doug Doyle to talk about the event, the growth of the PHF and the excitement over women's sports.

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Metropolitan Riveters Anya Packer (bottom left), Riveters captain Madison Packer (bottom right) and Dr. Joe Galasso of Baker Street Health & Human Performance on SportsJam with Doug Doyle

The Riveters will be wearing specially designed jerseys with the Riveters logo and “Let’s Talk About Mental Health" on them. Those jerseys will be up for auction with proceeds going to the Herren Project, a project the directly gives money to kids and families struggling with addiction and mental health challenges.

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Metropolitan Riveters
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The logo of the PHF's Metropolitan Riveters

The Riveters have formed a groundbreaking partnership with Baker Street Health & Human Performance, to provide the team’s athletes with an industry-leading suite of medical support, behavioral health services, and mental skills training. The Baker Street team works with numerous pro teams to provide unmatched health services, and is a true champion for women’s sports.

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Dr. Joe Galasso and Metropolitan Riveters captain Madison Packer at this week's practice

Dr. Galasso says he wants his staff to be accessible to the Riveters to discuss any kind of concerns they may have regarding mental health. When he was active in sports, he noticed the need for help at all levels.

"I was a burgeoning athlete, although I didn't grow more than 5'8 or 5'9, I wasn't going to Major League Baseball. I knew it and my career would have shift. And in that, I saw my teammates struggling. We had our own share of struggles, we had suicides at my high school. I was exposed to a lot of similar experiences as well. I took it upon myself to start learning about what was going on and I thought my path was going to take me more towards pediatrics. That's where I thought I wanted to go when I was very young. Through high school and college I actually made the shift to psychology and stuck with it. Then I realized I wanted to stay with athletes . That's where I stayed my entire career. Primarily my practice is mostly with athletes."

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Riveters captain and 2018 Isobel Cup Champion Madison Packer

Madison Packer, a legend in the National Women's Hockey League, now the PHF, is the league's second leading all-time scorer. The former University of Wisconsin star has played in four NWHL All-Star Games and won the Isobel Cup in 2018 with the Metropolitan Riveters. She says as part of her new contract with the Riveters there had to be a mental health awareness game during the season.

"Five years ago we wouldn't be having a game like this in our league. Five years ago nobody was talking about any of these things on their socials. They weren't making commercials about it. They didn't have athletes who had the courage to go out and say things on their own. It was really only once really horrible things started happening. We started reading more about it, seeing more of it that we realized that wow there are a lot of people going through the same thing. I've fortunate to have a lot of good resources but also unfortunate to lose a lot of people that I really love and care about. If I can have a conversation with someone I've never met, or have a game we wear jerseys that people line up to buy because it means something to them, that we talked about it for a weekend, like that's what it's about. We have a lot of people interested in these jerseys were putting together for the mental health game. Kids, adults, anyone to feel connected and feel valued, and feel normal. What their experience is a human experience. So the mental health game is going to be pretty special for me. I'm excited for it."

Madison's wife Anya retired from hockey after three Premier Hockey Federation season with the Connecticut Whalers. She eventually stepped into the role as executive director of the PHF Players' Association.

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Anya Battaglno Packer during her playing days the the Connecticut Whale

As the current General Manager of the Riveters, Anya Packer has flourished. She was named one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Hockey by Sportsnet in 2020. The GM has had a long history of helping others, especially in the mental health community. Anya says her awareness came about when she was just a kid.

"I was growing up with all the different things and stresses that come into being a teenager, being an adolescent, but also dealing with some pretty severe anxiety and depression. It was around my seventh grade year, I was kind of trying to figure out what was what, and I had stint of time that I tried to take my own life. I spent some time in the hospital. It took me away from my team and my sport when I was in high school. And so ever since, as I continued to grow the ranks and throughout sport and my platform started to grow, I wanted to share with people that it's okay, that there's times when you're going to have struggles, you're going to have hardships and that doesn't change who you are as a person. It was a long pathway of growth for me to understand that and about myself.

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Anya Packer brings out the Isobel Cup in 2017.

Anya Packer is glad to see more athletes coming forward and creating awareness about the importance of seeking help.

"You know I always said if there was an athlete or somebody I looked up to at the time just talking about it, I might have felt more comfortable to ask my parents for help or to go seek medical advice, or go to my school counselor, I just did never any of those things because it was so taboo and you were always labeled as something. So when I started to grow in this sport, I realized I had to take that moment and that opportunity to let any child know, or any fan, or any adult know that if you weren't feeling right or you needed a check-in that that was okay. I'd rather have you be here and needing mental health help than unfortunately you lose your life."

Packer stresses that Dr. Galasso has been part of the success team from day one. He has regular meeting with all of the players and team building sessions that includes the Riveters' leadership group.

"He really did come to us with this idea of we're going to take are of your whole athlete. The Riveters are fortunate to cross paths with Baker Street, it's such an amazing group."

Dr. Galasso says he's all in when it comes to helping the Riveters.

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Dr. Joe Galasso

"I hope that my team is adding value to the people who we serve. We're making their lives a little easier and better. We're giving them access and I hope everyone feels comfortable calling us when they need us. Seeing just how easy it is to pick up the phone, that there's no shame, just like you would call the athletic trainer or the strength and conditioning coach or the orthopedist, it's the same."

What isn't the same is how the women's hockey is growing. Madison Packer, not only a trailblazer in women's hockey but also a mom, remembers when she told many times she wouldn't be able to play the game.

"I was almost always the only girl playing a boys sport. I always had people tell me that I couldn't , that I wouldn't, that I was too slow, girls don't play hockey and that was what drove me. It take a lot of drive, commitment and sacrifice to chase a dream, but look around the world and all these people that are accomplishing the things that they put their minds to."

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Riveters players during the national anthem before the Metropolitan Riveters game against the Connecticut Whale at ProSkate Arena in Monmouth Junction, NJ, on January 25, 2020.

You can see the entire SportsJam interview with Madison and Any Packer, and Dr. Joe Galasso here.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 200 awards from organizations like PRNDI, AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.