The National Women’s Hockey League is returning to the ice on Saturday for a brief season — a teaser of sorts — a mere 14 days intended to remind fans and potential sponsors of what has been missing for the past 10 months.
The league expects a full season — which last year consisted of 24 games per team — to start in October. But for now the six clubs — one more than the league had when it shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic — will play five games each before a playoff for the title. All of it will take place in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the greatest performance in U.S. hockey history — the 1980 Olympics’ “Miracle on Ice.”
Shiann Darkangelo, a forward for the Toronto Six, said it was important that the N.W.H.L. played games soon to keep the league visible for potential business development, even though it would mean entering a so-called bubble environment.
“I think a lot of players see the bigger picture of what our goal is — trying to grow the sport — and how these things, the bubble, is important for that and sponsorships and such,” she said.
A prolonged absence could have stunted the N.W.H.L.’s long-term plans. The league, which didn’t get to finish last season, has long been neglected by major sponsors and television networks and has received only tepid support from influential governing bodies, though the N.H.L. has made modest contributions to the N.W.H.L.
Another North American women’s league folded in March 2019, and the N.W.H.L. faces competition from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, a loose confederation of some of the world’s top players who train and play exhibition games together. Some of its members spent two weeks this month competing in Florida with college-age men.
Tyler Tumminia, who is in her first year as the interim commissioner of the N.W.H.L., said she hoped the brief season could help attract investors; the league currently has independent owners for only two of its teams, Boston and Toronto, the newest club.
The league received a boost for its mini-season when NBC Sports agreed in December to air its Isobel Cup playoffs on Feb. 4-5 at Herb Brooks Arena, which is operated by the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority.
It will be the first time professional women’s hockey has been shown live on a major cable network in the U.S., NBC Sports said in a news release. The league declined to provide details of its agreement with NBC Sports.
“It’s a huge make or break for the league,” Anya Packer, director of the N.W.H.L. Players’ Association, said of being able to pull off playing the season in a so-called bubble.
The bubble will be modeled after the ones employed by leagues like the N.B.A., the W.N.B.A. and the N.H.L. to finish their 2019-20 seasons.
Tumminia said players would be split between two hotels and remain in their rooms when not at the rink. That includes during meals, which will be provided by a catering service.
Players will not be allowed to walk around Lake Placid in their free time. Hotels are within walking distance of the arena, but shuttle buses will also be made available. A league spokesman said there were possible fines for breaking protocols, but the N.W.H.L. would not disclose the amounts.
Paul Wylie, a 1992 Olympic silver medalist in figure skating who is the director of sport at the development authority, said he had consulted with the N.H.L. about how it ran its bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, last year.
But the scale of the N.W.H.L.’s bubble in Lake Placid — which was approved this month by the state — will be vastly different, as the N.H.L. restarted with 24 teams in the two cities.
“We’re going to be under a microscope for the way we’re handling this,” Wylie said. “It’s a great deal of responsibility, and we’re going to be ready.”
Because players will spend most of their time in isolation, they will have access to mental health apps and other health resources, said Packer, the director of the players’ association.
Even with these protocols and precautions in place, completing the brief season is not guaranteed.
For weeks, New York’s coronavirus-related hospitalization rates have been rising. Counties in the North Country region — which includes Lake Placid — have had average daily case rates of at least 45 per 100,000 people in the past week.
“We have fewer beds in hospitals here,” Wylie said. “The impact is larger if something goes on.”
The N.W.H.L. will be administering nasal and saliva tests with the help of the Yale School of Public Health.
If a player tests positive, that player’s team must be also tested and receive results within 24 hours, a spokeswoman for the development authority said. And if games were played in the 48 hours before a player tested positive, officials and opposing teams must also be tested and have results within 24 hours. (A spokeswoman for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association said there were no positive coronavirus tests during its competition this month in Florida.)
Tumminia added that if people tested positive in the bubble, they would be required to remain in isolation until they received two negative reads of a test. If a player on more than one team tests positive, the league will consider ending operations in the bubble, with league doctors helping to decide whether a team has enough healthy players to compete — for this season, rosters have been expanded from 17 active players to 20.
The N.W.H.L. will rely on the same kind of test used by the N.B.A., and results can be available 12 hours after testing, said Anne Wyllie, an associate research scientist in epidemiology who worked on Yale’s production of the test.
Unlike professional athletes in other sports bubbles, N.W.H.L. players were not able to arrive well in advance of the games to quarantine for an extended period. The N.W.H.L. received an exemption for professional sports athletes outlined in New York State guidelines. The league’s teams —representing Toronto, Buffalo, New Jersey, Connecticut, Boston and Minnesota — were scheduled to arrive on Thursday and Friday.
The lack of a substantial quarantine period concerned Theresa Chapple-McGruder, an epidemiologist in Washington whose recent work has focused on sports during the pandemic. Chapple-McGruder, who is not working with the N.W.H.L., recommended at least 10 days of testing and quarantining before playing in a bubble.
“How much virus will you be OK with?” Chapple-McGruder said. “That needs to be a priority.”
The N.W.H.L.’s bubble protocols were created by doctors at N.Y.U. Langone Health. An N.Y.U. spokeswoman declined to comment on the details of the protocols.
Despite potential health risks, approximately 95 percent of signed players chose to compete in the bubble, Packer said.
Craig Randall, the village’s mayor, called the bubble plan “very detailed” and said the county public health office gave its “blessing” for the event. Linda Beers, the Essex County director of public health, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
On Friday morning, after arriving in Lake Placid the day before, Darkangelo said testing and the enforcement of protocols appeared to be going smoothly.
“I’m here right now because I believe what the ownership and league are doing to keep us safe and put the best product on the ice,” she said.