Women's bubble hockey: NWHL season will be a 2-week sprint
Tyler Tumminia has lost plenty of sleep trying to get the National Women's Hockey League back on the ice.
The interim commissioner has one night left to toss and turn before it becomes a reality. The NWHL goes full bubble hockey Saturday when its two-week sprint of a season begins in a quarantined environment in Lake Placid, New York.
Each of the six teams plays five games in eight days followed by the playoffs, with the semifinals and final airing on national television in the U.S. It’s a chance to showcase the sport and hand out the Isobel Cup after the NWHL couldn’t complete last season because of the pandemic.
“This is a huge event to choreograph,” Tumminia said. “This is the first time we’re learning how to work in a contained environment, restricted environment like this with new rules that have been thrown on us and happily so to be able to protect our athletes. It’s a huge learning curve.”
The league thinks it can make it work with the same kind of COVID-19 testing the NBA used in its Disney World bubble. Players, coaches and staff will essentially be limited to a hotel and Herb Brooks Arena, the site of the 1980 U.S. Olympic “Miracle on Ice” that serves as a historic setting for a unique season.
“Hopefully this thing will not need to happen again — going into a bubble — and we can have regular seasons again,” Metropolitan Riveters coach Ivo Mocek said. “But I believe this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the players."
Those players “have been waiting a really long time for a game day,” Boston's Christina Putigna said, though they've never experienced something like this. The teams that get to the final Feb. 5 could play nine games in 14 days, and Buffalo defender Marie-Jo Pelletier expects “the legs are definitely going to be burning by the end of it.”
Worth it for a chance at a championship.
“The way we’ve thought about this bubble is that it’s going to be a grind and when it comes down to it, it’s all about being able to overcome that physical and mental fatigue and adversity,” Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey said. “It’s really going to be who is going to be the last team standing, who’s going to have the legs, who’s going to have the heart when it comes down to it in the end.”
The end will also be shown on NBC Sports Network, a milestone for the NWHL to get that level of exposure in the U.S. Connecticut's Hanna Beattie said there was “definitely an added incentive” to reach the semifinals because of that spotlight.
“Our players have earned it,” said Boston president Hayley Moore, who was recently named vice president of hockey operations for the American Hockey League. “This is going to be one of the biggest stages they’ve ever been able to play on.”
And that's even without the dozens of U.S. and Canadian national team players who are instead members of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association. Many of women's hockey's most well-known players are on that circuit and should be at the Beijing Olympics in a year, but the NWHL still has star power to put on display.
“Once you see the level of play this season, people will be pleasantly surprised,” Riveters forward Madison Packer said. “The rosters are top to bottom very talented. And regardless of who you’re playing against, you’re competing for a trophy. So it doesn’t matter if I’m playing against Brianna Decker or Jill Dempsey. We’re competing for the same cup and, winning it feels the same, so I’m excited to experience that again.”
Brooke Stacey wanted that opportunity so badly she's back with the Buffalo Beauts after giving birth to a baby boy last summer. Only the later start in a bubble made that possible for the point-a-game forward.
“Once I found out that the bubble was taking place at the end of January, I was like, ‘OK, this gives me a month to really get going, to get back to the gym and start rebuilding my muscle, rebuilding my cardio and all that,” Stacey said. “Coming back so soon after giving birth, it feels pretty great.”
That excitement is shared around the league, even if players won't be able to do much but play hockey and practice in Lake Placid. After 11 months without a game and hours of practice in the meantime, they'll take it.
“Our players are preparing for that,” Connecticut Whale assistant coach Laura Brennan said. “They have their books to read, work to do, yoga in their room or other other activities that they’re planning to do, so they will try to have that experience. It’s just that we’re thinking about the safety of our players and just putting the best product on the ice as possible.”
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