North America’s long wait for the return of professional women’s hockey is almost over. The NWHL has announced a two-week season will take place in Lake Placid, New York, using the bubble format most North American sports leagues have implemented this year.
From January 23 to February 5, all NWHL teams will play five regular-season games before entering a playoff round to determine the top four seeds that will advance to single-elimination game semifinals.
The bubble was created in partnership with the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), with full details on accommodation, broadcasting, testing regiment, and schedule to come.
COVID-19 testing will be provided by Yale Pathology Labs using saliva tests previously used by the NBA and safety protocols established by Drs. Andrew Feldman and Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas at NWHL partners NYU Langone Health. One of the most essential safety measures is already established; all NWHL players signed to an NWHL contract will receive the salary for the original 20 game season, whether or not they join the bubble. So far, 95% of 126 signed players have committed to the bubble.
Guaranteeing salary regardless of commitment to playing during the pandemic proved essential for league safety in the NWSL where zero positive cases occurred inside the Challenge Cup bubble. The NWHL directly cites both the NWSL and the WNBA as inspirations, and in order for the bubble to be successful, must take their safety protocols as seriously. Before the Challenger Cup, the Orlando Pride withdrew from the competition after six players and staff members tested positive. The WNBA postponed playoffs after inconclusive tests from the Seattle Storm. To run a league during a pandemic, the NWHL needs to plan for the worst, be prepared to stop play at any sign of the bubble being compromised, and prioritize safety even when it may hurt the league’s operations.
The NWHL is the three leagues and has unique hurdles ahead. Unlike the WNBA, which has a partnership and receives funding from the NBA, and the NWSL, which is managed by the United States Soccer Federation, the NWHL does not receive significant help from the NHL or an equivalent entity. Teams like the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps have partnerships with their NHL teams but the roles are limited. Hockey News reporter Ken Campbell stated it would take $2 million to host players, including salary, but the NWHL has help from Boston and Toronto’s private ownership as well as 20 outside investors. The partnership with the ORDA is arguably the biggest tie they have with a hockey organization. Previously, the ORDA hosted a Women’s World Championship (1994), an NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship (2007), and training camps for the U.S. Olympic Women’s Hockey Team.
Another difference between the WNBA/NWSL and the NWHL bubbles is the lack of two week quarantining prior to competing. NWHL contracts, between base salary and money from the 50/50 revenue split, are below $20,000, meaning nearly every player works a full-time job outside of hockey. Taking a month off for playing and quarantining isn’t feasible, but skipping over that safety measure could have serious consequences, especially in a league that can’t provide health insurance.
One advantage the NWHL bubble has is all players under contract for the 2021 season signed in a post-pandemic world, knowing they’d likely be playing at least some of this season in a pandemic. Most players being aware of the risks before they signed, unlike other players who have longer contracts and made league commitments before Coronavirus changed the landscape, is possibly why so few players have chosen to opt-out.
The decision for the NWHL to return comes after mass cancellations and postponement of international women’s hockey competitions, suspended or shortened seasons for the NCAA, and a canceled USport season in Canada. European women’s hockey leagues like Naisten Liiga or the SDHL have continued playing this season due to their countries effectively controlling the coronavirus spread.
For women’s hockey in North America, the NWHL is headed into uncharted charity, but if they follow the lessons of the NWSL and WNBA, they’ll see the same growths as those leagues.