The National Women’s Hockey League became the latest pro sports league to alter its schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic, announcing Wednesday that a compressed 2020-21 season and playoffs will be played from Jan. 23 to Feb. 5 in a bubble at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The decision means the Minnesota Whitecaps won’t get to play this season at Tria Rink in St. Paul, where they drew sellout crowds before the onset of COVID-19.
All six NWHL teams — the Whitecaps, Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and expansion Toronto Six — will each play five games (one against each team in the league) in Lake Placid, followed by a playoff round that will determine the four teams advancing to the semifinals. The single-game semifinals will feature the first-place team against the fourth-place team, and the second-place team meeting the third-place team. Semifinal winners will advance to the Isobel Cup Final on Feb. 5.
“It’s a nice venue for us,” said Jack Brodt, Whitecaps general manager and co-head coach. “… The biggest thing is we’re going to have an opportunity to play some games. The girls will be fired up for that.”
The games will be played without fans in attendance, but the league felt it was important to hold a season, even a short one.
“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,” NWHL interim Commissioner Tyler Tumminia said in a statement. “At a time of hypergrowth 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.”
The NWHL originally planned to play a 20-game schedule starting in mid-November before pushing the starting date to January.
In Lake Placid, players will undergo regular COVID-19 testing provided by Yale Pathology Labs.
Players who signed contracts for the NWHL season will be paid in full, the league said in a news release. Players had the choice of opting out of the tournament and still receiving their full salaries. As of Wednesday, more than 95% of the players have committed to play.
Brodt said he has commitments from most of his team to compete in Lake Placid. “There are four or five players who just couldn’t do it because of work. We’ve got somewhere close to 19 or 20 players that are on board,” Brodt said, adding that co-head coach Ronda Engelhardt and assistant coach Laura Slominski won’t be able to accompany him because of family or work commitments.
The 2019-20 NWHL season ended four days after the Whitecaps defeated the Riveters 1-0 in overtime in the semifinals. Defending champion Minnesota and Boston were to meet for the Isobel Cup, but the game was postponed and eventually canceled.