NWHL bubble in Lake Placid sets the stage for unique season

Digit Murphy joins Arash Madani as the NWHL decides to expand into Canada, putting a franchise in Toronto.

The NWHL has always used pro women’s sports as its blueprint.

Following the success of the WNBA and NWSL bubbles, they took lessons from over the summer to implement in a bubble of their own, in one of the most historic sites in hockey.

“It’s starting to feel real now,” said NWHL commissioner Ty Tumminia. “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.”

The Lake Placid stage centres the NWHL in a unique way for a six-year-old league, adding layers of history to a new narrative.

To them, that was a mission in creating a bubble environment; with a short season, spanning roughly two weeks, they had to make an impact where they could.

“You really have a short amount of time when you’re trying to do these events,” said Tumminia. “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.”

Perhaps the biggest difficulty is the logistics. Unlike the NHL or other legacy sports leagues, the NWHL’s players don’t play full-time. They all had to find ways to get the two weeks off — or work remotely from Lake Placid — to play this season.

There are few players who turned down the chance to play. Once the league had safety measures in place, including expanding testing from Yale on-site, the teams and league worked to help players be prepared for the half-month 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,” said Minnesota Whitecaps forward Audra Richards. “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.”

The NWHL has asked its players to test since October, especially when unofficial practices began. They’ve been using the Yale testing all along as part of a partnership with the University, and getting more access was integral in making Placid happen.

Players will be tested 72 hours before they leave for Lake Placid and again before entry, then they get tested throughout the tournament before an exit test. Currently, they overnight tests to Yale, according to Tumminia, and have results within 24 hours.

“In Lake Placid we might structure it a little bit differently,” said Tumminia. “Whereas, instead of waiting 24 hours, we’ll have a driver get down to Yale (four-and-a-half hour one-way trip) and test and have results in six to eight hours versus a 20-24 hour turnaround so it’s a different read because it’s driving instead of shipping.”

If a player tests positive, she would have to sit out until providing two negative tests. The players will stay at a hotel nearby and are restricted to movement between where they’re staying, and the rink.

The NWHL’s bubble schedule, released last Thursday, starts with three games on the one rink starting at 1:00, 4:00 and 7:00 ET. In case of a tie, overtime runs five minutes and is followed by a shootout, so there’s little worry about one game carrying into the next time slot. And there are other days with just two games on the schedule.

Roster building began before teams knew there would be a bubble format, and that it would be in Placid at the end of January. That’s left little wiggle room to figure out any changes, but the league has been flexible for players. Nearly all have made the commitment to play, and even those who opt out will be paid salaries in full.

The low pressure has made it easier to prepare for the hockey itself.

“We are so fortunate our entire team can participate,” said Connecticut Whale general manager Amy Scheer. “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.”

The NWSL had an entire team — Orlando — pull out of the bubble before it began, but was the first league to return with its series in Utah, where engagement and exposure expanded tenfold. The WNBA followed suit with arguably the safest and most successful bubble in sports.

The NWHL, hoping to be the next women’s league in line, has used the time away from the rink to grow in other ways, holding an innovative Twitter draft in June and building from there. They announced the Toronto Six expansion in April, and since then announced their bubble and television deal with NBC in the United States.

It’s a lot of growth in a short period of time, especially during a pandemic where leagues have struggled to build.

There may be lots of ethical questions about any sport playing right now, but the NWHL has put its best foot forward and been transparent about regulations and testing, and believe they can springboard forward out of the bubble.

“There’s a shift in consciousness and the overall spirit of what we are putting forth,” said Tumminia. “It’s probably the first time in the league’s history where we have the ability to market on a larger scale platform for us and the athletes.”

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