LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — The National Women’s Hockey League has learned that when it comes to playing in a pandemic, hope and care do not defeat risk.
The NWHL suspended its already abbreviated 2021 season on Wednesday, dealing a devastating blow on the eve of the highest-profile games in the league’s six-year history.
The decision was made after a rash of positive COVID-19 cases, including head coach Paul Mara and five other members of the Boston Pride, ripped through the league. Two teams, the Metropolitan Riveters and Connecticut Whale, pulled out of the season after positive tests, leaving the Pride among four teams set to compete in Thursday’s semifinals at Herb Brooks Arena.
Those games, and Friday’s Isobel Cup championship, were to be televised on NBC Sports Network, the first time a professional women’s hockey league has been televised on national TV in the US.
“It’s really just frustrating and it breaks my heart,” NWHL interim commissioner Tyler Tumminia said on a conference call. “Overall, I really truly believe that this was successful. … I’m very proud where we got to this point.”
It is the second time the pandemic has cut short an NWHL season. Last March, the Isobel Cup final between the Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps was called off.
Mara, speaking to the Globe via phone, said he felt “great,” and was upset on behalf of the Pride, who he said faithfully followed the league’s COVID-19 safety protocol.
“If I could take on all the symptoms our organization feels myself, I would,” Mara said. “I feel terrible for them. They don’t deserve this.”
Though the league marketed this as a “bubble” season, it was not. Tumminia, using the term “protected environment,” said teams arrived at “designated hotels on designated floors,” and were “restricted in the sense that they went from their rooms to the rink, rink to the room,” she said. “That is the technical term of what this bubble was. That’s how we defined it.”
Players were asked to pass a PCR test for COVID-19 no more than 72 hours before traveling to Lake Placid. They had to pass a rapid test before and after arriving (Jan. 21 and 22; games began Jan. 23). They were tested several times before Monday, when the spike in cases caused the league to shift to daily testing.
Because most players in the league have day jobs, they were not asked to do a strict, two-week quarantine before arriving in Lake Placid. There was always the risk of the bubble bursting.
NWHL Players Association director Anya Packer said they were conducting “an extensive amount of contact tracing,” and trying to determine the origin of the breakout.
“We stuck by a very strict protocol,” Packer said. “There’s human error.”
Tumminia, who would not disclose the number of positive tests, said the league didn’t want to place blame on anyone, but was searching for “accountability” and “clarity … on some best practices moving forward.”
Several players, including those on the Connecticut and Minnesota teams, were permitted to arrive late to Lake Placid. The NWHL said they followed protocol. The local sports governing body, New York Olympic Regional Development Authority, was asked by the Globe if it felt the NWHL safely brought players into the arena it operates. It declined comment and referred inquiries to the NWHL.
Players had individual drink bottles and wore masks before and after coming to the ice, but benches were not wiped down between use. The league spaced out players during warmups and sat them several feet from each other in open areas between periods. They sat in a “waiting area,” taking buses in shifts to and from the hotels. At the hotels, several players said, they were mostly in their rooms.
But last Thursday, the Riveters pulled out of the season after returning “several” positive tests, the league said.
The league shifted the schedule, replacing a round-robin tournament to determine playoff seeding with a best-of-three series between the Pride and the Buffalo Beauts.
On Monday, during the game that would have determined if the Pride or Beauts advanced to the playoffs, another team — the Whale — withdrew from the bubble.
The Globe reported last week that at least one member of the Whale organization tested positive for COVID-19.
That left four teams in contention for the Isobel Cup: Boston, Buffalo, Minnesota, and the Toronto Six.
Teams were set to take the ice for the nationally televised semifinals on Thursday afternoon. And on Wednesday morning, the league had announced a major presenting sponsor for its Isobel Cup presentation and MVP award: Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Dick’s was the second company to sign on as a sponsor during the season, after the NWHL inked its largest deal ever last week, announcing that Discover had signed on as the league’s official credit card.
Both sponsorships signaled a brighter future for the NWHL, which was founded in 2015 and has struggled to find investors. Salaries for players range from $2,500 to $18,900, but the league’s goal is to provide living wages for its athletes.
Before COVID-19 hit the US in full force last March, the Boston Pride had played to a 23-1 record and a spot in the Isobel Cup final against the Whitecaps. The game was ultimately canceled.
So for the Pride, a return to the ice in the Lake Placid bubble was a welcome chance to play for a title they thought they deserved.
Boston struggled through their first few games, playing to a 1-3-0 record. But they caught a second wind in a do-or-die matchup against Buffalo on Sunday night, notching six goals to force a third game for the final spot in the playoffs.
On Monday, the Pride took the ice against the Beauts without knowing that the Whale had forfeited their playoff seeding game with Minnesota and withdrawn from play.
Pride management learned of the decision minutes before puck drop. That message was not relayed to players, who also didn’t have access to their phones in the locker room, team president Hayley Moore said.
The Pride played themselves in anyway, with a 7-1 win over Buffalo.
It would be the last game of the NWHL’s sixth season.