NWHL suspends season due to COVID, remains hopeful to complete it

NWHL commissioner Tyler Tumminia discusses that despite the league having to shut down for the time being, she still sees this season as a success and that the league as a whole should be proud of what they've accomplished so far.

Suspending a season due to a COVID outbreak across several teams, right before going on national television, is tough to value as a net gain.

The National Women’s Hockey League held a presser on Wednesday evening to address the decision to suspend its season on the eve of what would have been the semifinals. Citing league awareness and online viewership they sounded optimistic and hopeful about raising the Isobel Cup at some point in season six.

Commissioner Ty Tumminia even drew something positive from it.

“I actually see it as a success,” she said. “I was 12 hours away from history. It's really just frustrating and breaks my heart. But overall I really truly believe that this is successful. We saw a lot of hard work and grit, I’m very proud of where we got to this point.”

The entire season in Lake Placid, which was supposed to reach completion on Friday with an Isobel Cup being raised on network television, has been clouded from the get-go in controversy.

The COVID issue didn’t fully arise until the Metropolitan Riveters dropped out last week. Today, Tumminia mentioned 10 players tested positive, a number that hadn’t been public before, and how they had eclipsed an internal threshold.

She remained clear the Connecticut Whale made its own choice to drop out, which they did moments before their scheduled game with Minnesota on Monday.

The term “bubble,” which the league originally branded for its season in Lake Placid, was swiftly dropped in favour of “restricted access zone,” a term that hadn’t previously been publicly used in any release or marketing.

It was another chapter in missed and mixed communication across teams, players and the league that has plagued it throughout the now less-than-two-week season.

"We didn't raise the Cup,” said Tumminia. “I also will say it doesn't mean we're not going to raise the Cup for season six. In this moment today we will not be raising the Cup tomorrow. The fact that we didn't get these athletes on their deserved platform on NBC, that's the most heartbreaking part."

Connecticut received more positive tests later this week, according to league sources, and Boston received six, including head coach Paul Mara and four players, along with a staff member.

Tumminia said the league wouldn’t reveal the names of those who tested positive or numbers of just how many, citing HIPAA laws, and also an internal league decision from when the season began.

According to Tumminia, as of 9:30 p.m. Tuesday night, things took a turn “not trending in the right direction.”

Toronto had been set to face Buffalo and Boston to face Minnesota in the semifinals.

"We felt 100 per cent safe and all we wanted to do was play the game,” Toronto head coach Digit Murphy said on the call. “We would have died if we could play the game. We would have died if we could have played against Minnesota."

The oft-confusing taxi squad, something Minnesota, Buffalo and Connecticut chose to use, wasn’t totally clarified either when Tumminia was asked if that interference with the bubble created a safety hazard.

She said they mirrored it after what other leagues have used.

“These athletes have been practicing with their clubs the entire pre-season,” said NWHLPA president Anya Packer. “Many of them were taxi squad players, they were going through our process and regularly testing throughout the season, so we’re still following these protocols.”

Whether or not the Isobel Cup ever gets played for season six, there was some sort of a breakdown in communication. Now several players and personnel across at least four teams are dealing with the consequences of it, without much clarity from the league of what happened to puncture its bubble -- or access zone -- in the first place.

Players were required to test 72 hours before traveling upstate and then again upon arrival. All had tested negative at the start, or they wouldn’t have been there.

For now, Packer said the league is undergoing ”extensive” contact tracing.

The league is publicly holding out hope there’s some sort of a completion to its season, though Tumminia acknowledged she didn’t know what that might look like.

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