How the NWHL set its bubble in Lake Placid

NBCSN will air semifinal and championship games live from Lake Placid

Harrison Browne of the Buffalo Beauts hoists the Isobel Cup while celebrating their team’s championship on home ice at the Harborcenter in 2017. Kelley Steadman, second from the left, played her prep hockey in Lake Placid at the Northwood School. (Photo — Wikimedia Commons)

LAKE PLACID — While event planning is never a simple task, it is one that has become especially complicated in 2020, with many added layers to consider in pulling off something large-scale both safely and effectively in the midst of a pandemic. 

In November, the National Women’s Hockey League announced it would host a two-week bubble season at the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid in partnership with the Olympic Regional Development Authority. But the planning for this bubble has been months in the making. 

According to the league, it has been guided by medical advice since April from professionals at NYU Langone Health and infectious disease experts, who have worked alongside NWHL executives, coaches and players with the overarching goal of having some sort of season. Drawing from the examples of other successful professional leagues like the WNBA and NWSL, the league settled on a bubble as the safest option to avoid teams traveling frequently, but the question still remained of where this bubble could be located. 

According to Director of Sport Paul Wylie, the NWHL’s collaboration with ORDA began somewhat informally over the summer. Wylie met the league’s interim commissioner, Tyler Tumminia, when she visited Lake Placid, and he gave her a (socially-distanced) tour of the village’s hockey facilities in the interest of a general venue. Since then, Tumminia, her team at the NWHL, Wylie, and Terry Buczkowski, the general manager of the Olympic Center, continued in conversations about what a season might look like in Lake Placid. 

“There was this idea of, ‘What would it be like to do bubble season?’ and we just kept kicking the ball down the field together,” Wylie said. After their many months of collaboration, he quipped, “I have Tyler’s number on speed dial.”

Aside from the not-so-minor point that Lake Placid is an iconic site for the game of hockey, the NWHL also found Lake Placid a safe location for a bubble because of its relatively small size, its proximity in the Northeast to five of the league’s six teams, and its accessible facilities and resources.

Wylie noted the planning elements requiring the most care are those related to the COVID pandemic. He emphasized that both ORDA and the NWHL are attentive to the ever-changing situation and working diligently with the state, local safety officers, and operations officials to make the competition as secure as possible. 

“(We’re) trying to figure out what’s the flow. How do we get these women in, safely keep them in a bubble, so that the citizens of Lake Placid are safe, and Saranac Lake and the surrounding area,” Wylie said. “It’s been a really interesting challenge. It’s definitely been a graduate course in putting on events in the middle of a pandemic…I feel like we’ve been thoughtful, down to very, very minute details.”

While flexible to fine-tuning details as the season date approaches and guidelines change, currently the NWHL plans to use standard safety protocols, such as masking, social distancing, and continual testing and medical input from NYU and Yale. Additionally, the 1980 rink will be blocked off, many indoor spaces will maintain 50 percent capacity, and athletes will be separated from villagers. ORDA employees on site, such as those running scoreboards and the goalie lights, will have a “separate and distant experience,” and all facilities will undergo extensive cleaning. ORDA continues to work with its safety officer and the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism as plans develop.

As the season approaches, the NWHL will share more specifically what steps it is taking to ensure a safe bubble. Also, the league will continue to announce details like rosters, broadcast plans, and various ways for fans to engage remotely in the month or so leading up to the competition, especially on social media.

The season will be short but packed, with teams arriving either Jan. 21 or 22 and playing many back-to-back games through the Isobel Cup Final on Feb. 5. The NWHL emphasized that this season is to be a celebration of women’s hockey, providing a bigger stage to showcase the talents of the female athletes and to continue their ability to play hockey at a professional level–where in the past opportunities for women have been scarce. Practices continue to gear up as teams anticipate a set schedule, and apparently enthusiasm for the game is as high as ever. 

While all the games will be streamed on Twitch and possibly on other platforms, Wylie noted that the nature of the bubble is somewhat bittersweet for Lake Placid considering that the presence of the competition will be less felt with the absence of spectators.

“There will be a sense of it in town,” he said.

During the upcoming weeks, the NWHL will continue to make announcements for the inclusion of its fans, including more detailed broadcast plans, a comprehensive schedule, and promotions to include remote participation, especially throughout the holiday season. This season certainly looks different than years past, but the league aims to put its best foot forward to showcase its athletes while working with and for its fanbase.

On Tuesday, NBC Sports and the NWHL announced that the 2021 Isobel Cup semifinals and final at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid will air live on NBCSN on Feb. 4-5. It will mark the first time that women’s professional hockey games will be shown live on a major national cable network in the United States.