After being forced to cancel its 2020 championship game seven months ago, the National Women’s Hockey League has announced firm plans for a 2021 Isobel Cup that will come packaged in the bubble format sports fans have grown accustomed to.
The six-team league will hold a truncated regular season and playoff in Lake Placid, N.Y., beginning Jan. 23. Each club will play a five-game schedule, comprised of one contest against its handful of rival teams. The top-ranked team at the conclusion of those games will face the fourth-ranked squad, while seeds two and three face off in the other one-game semi-final. On Feb. 5, the two finalists will wage a winner-take-all showdown to determine who will hoist a Cup last held by the Minnesota Whitecaps in 2019.
“Think of it almost like a World Championship [style] event,” said Digit Murphy, president and coach of the Toronto Six.
While there hasn’t been any on-ice action to speak of for some time — save for the teams getting in what practice time they can under the COVID-19 restrictions in their region — there’ve been plenty of developments related to the NWHL in the past half-year.
First off, Murphy’s Six became the lone Canadian team on the circuit when the league announced it was expanding to six clubs in April. Then, in early October, there was a major shift at the top of the NWHL power structure, as Tyler Tumminia left her post as a Toronto team chairwoman and took on the role of interim commissioner, replacing NWHL founder Dani Rylan Kearney.
Rylan Kearney is still working in a different capacity with the league as the NWHL pivots toward a franchise model that would see independent ownership for all six squads on the circuit. Tumminia, meanwhile, went to work figuring out how the league could pull off a season amid a global pandemic. According to Murphy, nobody was better suited to execute such a monster task.
“So much of this was above my paygrade, but I knew we were going to do something,” Murphy said. “The second Tyler got involved on that side, [I knew] it would go quickly. I knew that Tyler was going to get something done, because she’s just a mover and shaker. She knows so many people, she’s got so many connections, she’s got so much credibility. She was the only one who was going to pull off some kind of COVID season because of her influence and power in women’s sport. That’s who I give 100 per cent credit to.
“We were really sad to lose her for the Six, but I was so pumped to get her in the drivers’ seat for this.”
Strict health protocols including, of course, regular COVID-19 tests will be staples of the NWHL bubble. Players were given the option to opt out of the tournament and still collect their full salary. According to a release from the league, 95 per cent of the players have committed to competing in Lake Placid.
“The continued challenges brought by the pandemic resulted in a mandate for our league, players and partners to collaborate on creating a controlled environment protecting the health of everyone involved,” Tumminia said in the NWHL’s statement. “At a time of hyper-growth for girls’ and women’s hockey, we see this season as a celebration of the sport. This will be a historic moment as the hallowed arena that was the site of the ‘Miracle on Ice’ in 1980 hosts its first women’s professional championship. It is a proud moment for the NWHL, the players and all hockey fans.”
Murphy said she and her team are thrilled to finally have solid direction in place. Though there’s a twinge of disappointment they won’t be able to play their inaugural season as the Six in their actual home city, Murphy was keeping the focus on the big positive of the day — the simple fact there will be a NWHL season despite the deep uncertainty that permeates all corners of the sports world.
“Our players are ecstatic that this is happening,” she said.