LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Those in the National Women’s Hockey League sometimes refer to its seasons by number, like a television series would, rather than the year in which they were played. As dramatic as it was, interim commissioner Tyler Tumminia doesn’t see NWHL: Season 6 as finished.
“No,” she said. “Absolutely not.”
In her view, this production is merely suspended. Calling it complete would mean another year without rolling credits over footage of an Isobel Cup celebration.
“I know us, the league, our staff, we’ve got competitive athletes here,” Tumminia said Friday in a telephone interview with the Globe. “Two years in a row where you don’t have a defined champion doesn’t sit well with me. It doesn’t sit well with our league.”
How Tumminia, who has been on the job 117 days as of Sunday, can write a happy ending to this saga is anyone’s guess.
The NWHL, trying to play a two-week mini-season in Lake Placid, N.Y., during the COVID-19 pandemic, has successes to count. The product was fast, skillful, and as physical as no-check hockey can be.
The league attracted a slew of new sponsors including Discover, in a deal a league source estimated at $1 million. Half of NWHL sponsorship revenue goes to player salaries, which average $7,500 annually.
In another major move, the league also inked a deal to broadcast its championship semifinals and final on national TV for the first time. Before those NBC Sports Network games, the NWHL saw record numbers for the 15 games it showed on the video streaming app Twitch: 1.62 million views, with a concurrent peak of 32,000-plus, during a Jan. 30 game between the Boston Pride and Buffalo Beauts. The expansion Toronto Six, one of two independently owned franchises along with the Pride, were a hit on national sports talk shows in Canada.
The NWHL was eager for those national TV games, and the promise of a new audience of fans, while the virus began snatching players and teams.
One club was sent home and another pulled out before so many players and staff contracted the virus — at least 20 cases, according to the Globe’s investigation, or approximately 15 percent of those on-site — and the tournament was scrapped on the eve of the playoffs.
Anya Packer, head of the NWHL Players Association, describes the young league as “fun and flexible,” the latter owing to its ability to adjust on the fly.
“I haven’t had time yet to sit and assess,” Tumminia said when asked what lessons she learned. “We were there. We were almost there.
“Going forward, there’s definitely self-evaluation, self-reflection, through leadership and discussion … Those conversations haven’t happened yet. We’re still trying to get home from the rink.”
In a news conference reacting to the cancellation Thursday, Packer promised “extensive” contact tracing. When Tumminia spoke to the Globe on Friday, she was reviewing possible sanctions for the teams and players who violated the league’s COVID-19 protocols.
It is unclear how the virus arrived in NWHL circles. It was not conducting a strictly protected bubble. Infiltration was a risk from the start.
One player on the Metropolitan Riveters — who were removed from the tournament five days in — had the virus while practicing with the team in Monmouth Junction, N.J. Forward Tatiana Shatalova was left off the travel roster for Lake Placid. She told the Globe she has since recovered.
Was it appropriate for the Riveters to travel to Lake Placid, knowing they had been around at least one positive case?
“I think I’m going to come back at this and say when we’re executing a compressed season, it’s already complicated under the best of circumstances,” Tumminia said. “COVID is probably the most challenging situation any of us have had to deal with. We learned a lot through the process.
“I don’t want to comment on some of the things that were broken, but at some point there’s got to be accountability,” added Tumminia, who assumed the interim role in October after a restructuring that reassigned founder and former commissioner Dani Rylan Kearney. “We provide the environment, the process, the protocols. We’re only as good as our teams’ accountability, our players’ accountability. We see what happens when you don’t follow the protocol.”
Over 14 days in Lake Placid, numerous players were spotted walking around the village in small groups, though they were always masked, and not seen in restaurants and bars. Food was provided at hotels.
At Herb Brooks Arena, mask use and social distancing was mostly practiced, though a few members of the outside TV production staff did not wear them regularly.
Players, team staff, and league officials watched games spaced out in the red plastic seats. Underneath the grandstands, a common hallway surrounding the rink was single file in some sections, filled with tables, carts, and equipment racks. The six teams had their own designated dressing rooms. A common area of spaced-apart chairs was used by several teams to sit between periods, and to wait together for postgame rides back to the hotels.
Though high-touch surfaces such as training tables were sanitized between use, the benches were not. Players had their own drink bottles at the rink, but the league-owned teams — the Beauts, Minnesota Whitecaps, Riveters, and Connecticut Whale — shared two trainers. Boston and Toronto brought their own.
All six teams are believed to have COVID-19 cases. The Riveters, who had 10 cases as of Thursday, were staying at the same Courtyard Marriott as the Whale (who had “multiple” cases, coach Colton Orr said Thursday) and Six. The Pride — who had six positives, according to coach Paul Mara — Beauts, and Whitecaps stayed at the High Peaks Resort.
When the Whale had enough positives that they had to pull six players off the ice and add four from their reserves, the league allowed them to play a Jan. 31 game against Toronto. Connecticut opted out of the season the following day, citing a rising number of infections. Tumminia explained the decision to leave it in the team’s hands as “not dissimilar to the NHL, if a team wanted to pull out … or any other sports league.”
On Friday, instead of watching players skating the Isobel Cup around an empty arena, with NBC Sports broadcasters painting the picture of a league on the rise, dozens of players were quarantining in Lake Placid.
On Thursday, instead of dropping the puck on intriguing Boston-Minnesota and Toronto-Buffalo semifinals, referees were collecting their gear and heading out.
While packing up the truck, one cameraman told a visitor his group’s contract had a cancellation clause. A referee said her all-female crew was paid by the day. Everyone seemed bummed, even Aaron the Zamboni driver.
He had become a star in the NWHL community on Twitch, which hosts oft-lively fan chats along with its live content. Instead of commercials, the Twitch broadcast simply showed the Zamboni doing laps around the rink, set to up-tempo music. The rink manager played into it by dimming the lights and putting a spotlight on the machine. Fans hailed the humble manager as “The Gloss Boss” and along with coworker Harv, a member of the “Gleam Team.”
“It’s been a blast,” Aaron said. “We’ll keep on driving in circles for you guys.”
That was the NWHL in Lake Placid: a little shine. It could have been so much more.