As the National Women’s Hockey League’s mini-season ground to a halt because of COVID-19 Feb. 3, league commissioner Tyler Tumminia knew there had to be a way to finish what they started.
She recalls the moment at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y., helping staff pack up the remnants of what was to be the league’s debut on the national stage after a week and a half of record-high streaming numbers and the announcement of several big-name sponsors.
“From the moment we shut down — and I’m glad we did shut down — the wheels were turning,” Tumminia said. “They were turning for everyone, between myself, the athletes, our board of governors. I think I spent the next day after we shut it down trying to help clean out that rink, and the wheels are already in motion.”
After a month of planning, the NWHL has a plan to conclude its suspended 2021 mini-season. The league will hold a championship weekend March 26-27 with semifinals and final at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton.
“What really matters the most is giving these athletes a chance to make history and really to finish what they started,” Tumminia said. “This gives them the opportunity to compete and lift that [Isobel] Cup, and hopefully demonstrate to others that the NWHL is strong and well-positioned for growth.”
On March 26, the Boston Pride will face the top-seeded Toronto Six at 5 p.m., while the 7 p.m. nightcap will feature a battle between the No. 2 seed Minnesota Whitecaps and the third-seeded Connecticut Whale. Those two games, plus the next night’s 7 p.m. championship, will be televised on NBC Sports Network, as originally planned.
The NWHL paused its two-week “mini-season” on the eve of the semifinals after 20 cases of COVID emerged among the players, coaches, and staff. One team — the Metropolitan Riveters — was removed from play by the league while another, the Whale, voluntarily withdrew.
The NWHL had established protocols for its time in Lake Placid that were reviewed by New York State health officials.
“Our protocols necessarily weren’t the issue, but we made some changes as we evaluated internally on how the enforcement was handled,” Tumminia said.
Tumminia points to the decision to limit the championship activities at Warrior to a single weekend in an effort to limit chances for spread. Unlike Lake Placid, Tumminia said, the teams will be housed in separate hotels. Despite Massachusetts’s recent easing of restrictions at spectator venues, the NWHL will not allow fans at either day’s games. More regulations on health and safety will be announced as the weekend draws closer.
Several one-weekend competitions in Olympic sports have successfully avoided COVID spread over the past two months, and the testing regimens used by those sports are similar to those that will be implemented by the NWHL. Health screenings and PCR and rapid testing will be required in the weeks leading up to the championship weekend, and there will be an improved on-site testing system once players arrive in Boston.
Fewer regular testing protocols and less in-depth participant tracking is believed to be where the NWHL ran into issues in Lake Placid. The Riveters were exposed to COVID from one of their players in practices shortly before leaving for the mini-season, and while that player stayed home, the teammates who had been in close contact did not. Replacement players were brought in for teams with depleted rosters, but those players had not necessarily been governed by the same health protocols.
Despite the Lake Placid missteps, those involved also recognize this is a critical spot for the six-year-old league. The originally scheduled championship games were set to be the first professional women’s hockey league games aired on US television. However, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association has aired two games nationally over the last two weeks.
Since the PWHPA is a players association that has practice hubs for high-level players, the NWHL will still get that “first televised league” claim. However, this has only intensified the ongoing battle between the NWHL and the PWHPA (home to many of the league’s former players), making a successful conclusion to the 2021 season paramount for the NWHL.
Tumminia hopes to keep the NWHL in good stead with hockey fans and sponsors, such as Discover, whose partnership has been a boost to player salaries. The league found itself canceling its championship game last March as the pandemic started. Future growth could be slowed if it doesn’t crown a champion for the second consecutive year.
“It means a lot for us to finish this, but it also means a lot for the history of women’s hockey,” Tumminia said. “We have to get this cup raised. We have to have little boys and little girls watch the game on a national network.
“Sometimes things don’t go the way we planned. But you have to show some resiliency, and I’m proud of the athletes being just as hungry as we are to finish this.”