Hockey bubble bursts; NWHL suspends season in Lake Placid

Buffalo Beauts forward Iveta Klimasova (8) and Boston Pride defender Kaleigh Fratkin (13) fight for the puck at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid during a matchup on Saturday, Jan. 30. (News photo — Lou Reuter)

LAKE PLACID — The National Women’s Hockey League suspended the rest of its 2021 season just one day before its playoffs were slated to start at Lake Placid’s Olympic Center.

The league announced its decision on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 3, initially offering scant details but saying the season was suspended due to infections from the coronavirus pandemic.

“The NWHL and the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) have agreed, due to new positive COVID-19 tests and the resulting safety concerns for the players, their respective staff & the community that the remainder of the 2021 NWHL Season in Lake Placid have been suspended,” the league wrote on social media.

The NWHL did not respond to requests for interviews on Tuesday or Wednesday morning, but it announced there would be a press conference at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Though the league did say that more people within its Lake Placid “bubble” had tested positive for COVID-19, it did not specify how many positives were discovered, why that testing took place and how those people may have been exposed, or why the most recent positives prompted this decision when the league had continued with the season after two teams had already withdrawn. The league has offered few specifics about what the rules of the bubble were and what safeguards were in place to protect players, staff and media.

Despite apparent rules that teams stay separate except when on the ice, four of the six teams in the league shared some of the same staff members, including at least one trainer who was seen in different teams’ benches throughout the season and who worked with players from different teams, SB Nation reported Tuesday. At one point, players from outside the bubble were brought in to replace players who were out, some for unspecified reasons. It’s unclear what precautions were taken before those players suited up.

The Metropolitan Riveters pulled out last week after several people within the organization tested positive for COVID-19. It’s unclear whether contact tracing was completed.

The Connecticut Whale forfeited a game on Monday and withdrew from the season. The reason wasn’t given at first, but on Wednesday the Whale released an unspecific statement explaining that its decision was made to ensure “the physical and mental well-being of our team.”

“The Connecticut Whale prioritize our players’ health and safety above all else,” the team’s statement read. “When given the choice of competing vs. ensuring the physical and mental well-being of our team, we chose the latter. While we fell short of our goal to bring the Isobel Cup back to Connecticut, we know we made the best decision for our team. We are so grateful for our passionate fans who showed up strong and proud throughout the bubble to support the Whale.”

The Whale’s early exit opened the door for the Buffalo Beauts to stick around. The Beauts would have been eliminated after losing 2-1 in a best-of-three playoff series against the Boston Pride, but with only four teams remaining, Buffalo reached the semifinal round anyway, with those two games scheduled to be played Thursday with the championship game following the next evening — that was, before the season was cut short.

Hockey highlights

In between the problems the bubble season has endured, there has been some good hockey played during spectator-less matchups on the same ice sheet made famous by the “Miracle on Ice” game when the United States men’s team upset the heavily favored Soviet Union during the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

After losing its opening two games, the Toronto Six — the NWHL’s only new team — had risen to the top prior to the semifinal round. The Six locked down the top-seed after winning four straight games to compile a 4-1-1 record.

Toronto outscored its opponents 21-14 in six games played.

The Minnesota Whitecaps stood in second place prior to the semifinals with a 3-1 mark, the Boston Pride were third at 3-4 and the Buffalo Beauts finished fourth among the teams still in contention after posting a 1-4-1 record.

Mikyla Grant-Mentis, who hails from Brampton, Ontario, was a standout for the Toronto Six, leading the league in goals scored with 5 and tying for the top spot in scoring with 9 points. Two goals netted by Grant-Mentis have been game-winners.

Joining Grant-Mentis on top of the the league leaderboard was Kaleigh Fratkin of the Boston Pride, who recorded 9 assists in 7 games played.

After getting off to a slow start, the Pride caught fire on offense while burying 22 goals. Boston had four players among the top five and six in the top 10 in league scoring before the semifinal round.

Nina Rodgers paced Minnesota in scoring with 2 goals, four assists and 6 points.

NWHL rookie Autumn MacDougall has been a shining star for Buffalo with three goals, and Kristin Lewicki led the Beauts in scoring with 2 goals and 2 assists. Another league rookie for Buffalo, Carly Jackson, has been by far the busiest of the eight goalies who have played in Lake Placid, recording 210 saves. Minnesota’s Amanda Leveille was next in saves with 147, and another first-year NWHL pro, Toronto’s Elaine Chuli, topped the goaltender standings with a 4-1 record entering the semifinal round.

Prior to the team’s departure, Riveters netminder Sonjia Shelly had been nearly unbeatable, giving up just one goal in 78 shots faced.

The NWHL’s decision comes just before the league’s semifinals were slated to be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network. The airing of the playoffs from Lake Placid would have been the first time professional women’s hockey was broadcast live on a major cable network in this country, the New York Times reported.

The league reportedly spent upward of $2 million on this season, according to the Times.