LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Main Street looks much the way it did on that February day in 1980, when the bars and restaurants and sidewalks overflowed with people intoxicated by the American spirit and the belief that anything was possible.
Squint and not much has changed, say those who were there. The names on the buildings, mostly. The marquee at the old Palace Theater reads, “Lake Placid believes in miracles and masking.” A sign of the times.
Brave the single-digit cold front that blew in this past week, freezing eyelashes together and making a facemask necessary for more than COVID-19 protection. Walk past the fluffy snowbanks surrounding the speedskating track, where tourists take their slow Saturday strides, past the row of international flags, and into the former Field House International Ice Rink, now known as Herb Brooks Arena. Take a trip 41 years into the past. Right over there, Mike Eruzione scored. Right over there, Jack O’Callahan and Mike Ramsey rolled on the ice and raised their arms in triumph.
But the recent remodeling of this old barn that brought new scoreboards and seats a ring of honor with the names from that ’80 men’s team isn’t the only modern upgrade. For the next two weeks, the ice in the neutral zone will be painted purple.
“When you get here, it hits you in your chest, in your core,” NWHL commissioner Tyler Tumminia said, standing on the concourse in view of a center-ice logo of the NWHL’s Isobel Cup. “It finally seems real, and it’s so beautiful the way it came together.”
Her pride is much deeper than a paint job, of course.
In front of her were a row of broadcast cameras at center ice and another at rinkside, covering a league used to single-camera broadcasts. Arena operators were testing red and blue colored lights, to be used during introductions and goal celebrations. Sections of seats were covered by approximately 800 cutouts of fans, who paid in the neighborhood of $50 to support one of the six NWHL teams. Several major league men’s franchises were represented, including 20 Bruins, as well as women’s basketball and soccer.
“The energy’s really high,” Tumminia said. “I’m thrilled with the way the ice looks. The environment feels really energized, even though we have no fans.”
Players were flying from the first puck drop between the Toronto Six and Metropolitan Riveters, the opening game. It is a credit to the players, who have not played games since March, that the action was as crisp as it was on Day 1 of this two-week tournament. It may be different come next week, when the toll of back-to-back and four-in-five games start to make legs heavy.
“We try to compartmentalize it,” said Boston Pride coach Paul Mara, his team the favorite coming off a 23-1-0 season. “We’re concerned with us for the next 13 days, focusing on getting better. We have 27 periods of hockey. We want to improve from period 1 to period 27, and win.”
This has felt like a sprint for Tumminia, the former minor league baseball executive who assumed the commissioner’s chair from founder Dani Rylan Kearney in October. She brought a promoter’s touch from the baseball world, knowing that leagues don’t survive unless they draw both diehard fans and those looking for casual entertainment. She plays her post-pandemic plans for fan engagement close to the vest, but she’s excited about the possibilities.
Tumminia has been working on securing independent ownership for four of the six teams — the Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Minnesota Whitecaps, and the Riveters. Currently, Boston and Toronto are the only independently owned teams. Since its inception in 2015, the league operated under a single-entity model, with shareholders controlling a group of teams. It may not be a coincidence that the Pride, owned by Sherborn venture capitalist Miles Arnone since 2019, are arguably the league’s best team.
“If you look at Warrior Arena, last year especially, we sold out that rink almost every game,” Mara said. “People come and have a great experience. They sit down, have a craft beer and watch some talented women.”
This coming week, fans can watch on Twitch.tv and NBC Sports Network, which will carry the Isobel Cup semifinals and final, the first time a pro women’s hockey league has been televised coast-to-coast. This was birthed in the fall, when Tumminia began shaping what the NWHL’s sixth season would look like in a pandemic, and how to sell it. The long-term goals: enough sponsorship to pay players salaries that allow them to be full-time hockey players, not pro hockey players with day jobs.
“We’ll get there,” she promised, adding that “it’s going to take time.”
Soon after taking over, Tumminia connected with Paul Wylie, the director of sport for the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority. As he showed her the facilities on a socially distant guided tour, her idea of a game or two in this idyllic winter sports setting became a full-on bubble, with teams testing constantly, staying in separate hotels along the frozen lake, isolating from the public.
“This is the place we wanted to be,” Tumminia said. “It would have to happen here, because of the narrative: being the first pro women’s league to compete for a championship cup at this historic setting, at the 1980 rink.” To see how far the women’s game has advanced since then, she said, was the pitch to media companies. NBC opted in. Will major networks sign on for Season 7? To be determined.
“What I’m thrilled about is we were able to pull together these athletes and give them a chance to showcase their hard work, so they don’t have to lay off a year,” said Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist figure skater. “They don’t have to look back and say, ‘That was the year I was in my prime, I wish I had been able to play.’
“For Lake Placid, it’s a huge win. We get a chance to do what we do best, which is host world-class athletes. And be part of a golden moment for women’s hockey.”