Already struggling to gain a foothold amongst the crowded sports landscape, the National Women’s Hockey League faced a challenging environment to be able to contest a season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The solution was to follow the lead of the WNBA and NWSL, women’s pro leagues that opted to complete their 2020 seasons encased in a bubble format. To make the setting even more spectacular the NWHL teams will hunker down in the locale of the most famous hockey moment in United States history.
The six-team league will contest its entire season in Lake Placid, on the same ice surface as the famous Miracle On Ice, where the United States upset the world champion Russian squad 4-3 en route to winning the 1980 Winter Olympics gold medal, the most recent gold medal in USA Hockey Olympic history.
“It’s starting to feel real now,” NWHL commissioner Ty Tumminia told Sportsnet. “Stuff is starting to come in, like game pucks, and there’s so many great things that make it seem real. It’s exciting. There’s a lot of anxiety, but we’re definitely ready to get going.
“You really have a short amount of time when you’re trying to do these events. You have to get to know the people you don’t know to work with them closely
“Lake Placid just embraced us, they wanted us there. What the town means to hockey, to Olympians in general, I think to us, it was a no brainer.”
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The NWHL will hit the ice on Jan. 23rd, with all six teams in action. Among the opening-day games will be a meeting of the Minnesota Whitecaps and Boston Pride in a rematch of the 2020 Isobel Cup final.
Another tripleheader will follow on Jan. 24. The teams will play a five-games – one match against every other team. Then they will meet in a regular-season round robin, each team playing two games based on seeding. At the conclusion of those games, the teams will be re-seeded in order of best records after the seven games.
In the Isobel Cup semi-finals, the regular-season champions will face off against the No. 4 seed, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds tangle in a one-and-done format. The winners will play the next day in the Isobel Cup final.
Both the Feb. 4 Isobel Cup semifinals and Feb. 5 Isobel Cup final will be broadcast live by NBC Sports on NBCSN. Complete broadcast details will be announced at a later date.
Logistics Were Daunting
While other pro athletes compete in their sports as their full-time occupation, that’s not the case with the NWHL. All of the players who skate in the league also hold down full-time jobs in the real world. That meant they’d need to be able to get two weeks off work in order to participate in the bubble season.
“I’m a teacher, so I had to talk with my principal, and we have a very understanding principal and he understood 2020 was a hard year, everything was going to be different,” Whitecaps forward Audra Richards told Sportsnet. “Usually I only have to take maybe half Fridays off for hockey, but taking the first week of school off was a tough question. But it’s different than normal and he understood and it’s amazing the league can pull this off.”
NWHL players have been undergoing regular tests for COVID-19 since October. The testing is being done in a partnership with Yale University. All players will be tested within 72 hours of departing for the Lake Placid bubble and will be immediately tested again upon arrival. Should a player test positive, they will be required to sit out until two consecutive negative tests are recorded.
The league plans to drive the tests from Lake Placid to Yale, a 285-mile trip, in order to acquire the test results as quickly as possible.
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“We are so fortunate our entire team can participate,” Connecticut Whale general manager Amy Scheer said. “Our whole team is going and they can’t wait to thrive in a different situation. No one’s been through this before so they’re really eager. It’s amazing their dedication to the sport. It’s unbelievable the league made this happen.”
Welcome The Six
The NWHL added the Toronto Six as an expansion franchise, the first Canadian-based team to participate in the league.
Along with Toronto, Boston, Minnesota and Connecticut, the other teams in the NWHL are the Buffalo Beauts and the Metropolitan Riveters.