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Coronavirus pops NWHL ‘bubble’

Interim commissioner explains more during press conference

Connecticut Whale skaters Laurel Hill (10) and Mackenize Lancaster hit the ice attempting to control the puck while Pride players Mary Parker (7) and Taylor Wenczkowski move in on the play during the Jan. 27 NWHL game at the Olympic Center. (Rachel Sharples photo)

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 began a shortened season inside what they called a “bubble” on Jan. 23 and were expected to end it with a final game for the Isobel Cup on Feb. 5. Six teams were playing on the 1980 Rink in the Herb Brooks Arena: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, Minnesota Whitecaps and Toronto Six.

The NWHL did not respond to requests for interviews on Tuesday, after a second team withdrew from the season, or Wednesday morning, but it held a press conference at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at which NWHL interim Commissioner Tyler Tumminia called the bubble “a success” because the league was so close to history.

“I was 12 hours away from history,” Tumminia told reporters. “I gotta tell you, it’s just frustrating and it breaks my heart. I truly believe this was successful. We saw a lot of hard work and grit.”

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.

Tumminia declined to share details about how players may have been exposed to the virus, but she stressed that players knew coming into the bubble that there was a risk of exposure and that teams were given the choice of opting out. She added that the league would evaluate what happened.

“Placing the blame right now isn’t our game,” she said.

Tumminia alluded to the season returning at some point, but declined to share details.

Numbers unclear

Although the league did say more people within its Lake Placid “bubble” had tested positive for COVID-19, it did not specify how many positives were discovered.

Tumminia said the league, in consultation with the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, decided not to disclose how many people within the bubble had tested positive.

“I am not allowed to tell you who has COVID,” she said. “The amount of numbers right now is something the league took a stance and said we weren’t going to talk about.”

Tumminia also referenced federal privacy laws, although these don’t restrict organizations from disclosing the number of people who have tested positive. The laws mostly restrict the release of information that could be “identifying,” such as a person’s name.

Tumminia said the decision to suspend the season was made Tuesday night after the results of COVID tests started coming in. Two of the league’s six teams, the Metropolitan Riveters and Connecticut Whale, had already dropped out.

“It was clear from the league standpoint that we were not trending in the right direction,” she said.

The league has previously offered few specifics about what the rules of the bubble were and what safeguards were in place to protect players, staff and reporters.

Tumminia said players were tested before entering the bubble, after leaving their home states and again upon arrival in Lake Placid. She said the league also decided to ramp up testing to a near-daily occurrence even before the initial positives were found.

Tumminia said players and staff “went from the (hotel) room to the rink, rink to the room.”

Despite apparent rules that teams stay separate except when on the ice, four 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.

Some women in NWHL apparel were seen walking around downtown Main Street in Lake Placid the day before games inside the bubble began. A league spokesperson later said players were allowed to walk between their hotels and the rink instead of being driven.

At one point, players from outside the bubble were brought in to replace players who were out. NWHLPA Executive Director Anya Packer told reporters on Wednesday that the players who entered the bubble after the season began had been practicing with the squads before, and there was a quarantine and testing regime in place.

“Disappointed”

Toronto Six head coach Digit Murphy said her players were “pumped” to “potentially come back at some point.”

“We’re at a point where women’s hockey is back on the map again,” she said. “We’re going to soar, and we’re going to hockey stick it up in the future.”

Buffalo Beauts head coach Pete Perram said his team was “unbelievably disappointed” that the season was suspended.

“We wanted to be there; we wanted to play Digit and Toronto,” he said. “It is disappointing. We looked back; we talked about it as a team. This is an experience we’ll never get back again. We’ll have to carry this forward and remember.

“When we consider this as a game … every game there’s going to be mistakes made,” he added. “You turn the puck over in the neutral zone. Every opportunity builds to a better opportunity, a better result. I expect that is going to be the case with our experience here.”

Teams withdraw

The Metropolitan Riveters pulled out last week after several people within the organization tested positive for COVID-19. Asked what the threshold was for the Riveters to have to withdraw, Tumminia said the league set a threshold of 10 members out before a team had to leave.

The Connecticut Whale forfeited a game and withdrew from the season on Monday. 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.

Packer said there’s an “extensive” amount of contact tracing occurring internally.