By Budd Bailey
Well, this is going to be different.
The pandemic has taken care of any hopes that the National Women’s Hockey League had of playing a regular schedule this season. It’s tough to play a schedule as a pro sports league when fans aren’t allowed in the building.
In an effort to keep interest in women’s hockey going, the NWHL has come up with Plan B. It’s something of a tournament, with the six members teams all participating together in a bubble of sorts in Lake Placid.
The event runs from Saturday and goes through February 5. The Beauts will play five “regular season” games between Saturday and January 30. (Footnote: this Sunday’s game starts at 7 p.m. – right up against the Bills’ game.) That’s followed by a two-game round-robin among the six teams, that goes from January 31 to February 3. By the way, the sixth team in the league this season is the brand-new Toronto Six.
The top four teams advance to the semifinals, which will be held on February 4. The winners will play for the Isobel Cup on February 5.
This obviously turns a season that lasts months into a tournament crammed into two weeks. The format obviously keeps the league in the news for a while instead of going dark for an entire season. Still, you can imagine the challenges involved in putting together a tournament like this during a pandemic.
“There are trap doors everywhere,” Beauts coach Pete Perram said about the new challenges that his job now entails. “I thought I’d seen everything, and I’ve been around for a long time. This is a pretty new thing.
“We will be all together. That’s the biggest thing. We have a number of team experiencing the same thing. We can come out the other end saying we’ve gone through this adventure. I am incredibly excited at the opportunity to be there. It’s kind of like Woodstock (as a one-time experience)– except I will have been there this time.”
The first trap door is putting together a roster. It’s a different task that trying to find players for weekends throughout the winter, especially with the added issue of border crossings between the United States and Canada. For example, Beauts team captain Taylor Accursi couldn’t get away from her regular job for this event.
“I am an Ontario Provincial Police Officer and my current duties on the front line prevent me from participating in this season’s bubble,” she said in a team statement. “As the captain of the Beauts, I feel that my absence has let the team down, but at the same time I know that the talent and character of my teammates will more than make up for my absence.”
All of the teams will be in the same boat in that sense, as they might not have an idea of what the opposition will be like. Everyone will be learning on the fly, particularly in the first few games.
Then there’s the matter of the potential of playing nine games in 14 days. That’s quite a switch from the usual league schedule of two games per weekend.
“We’ve been very careful to prepare the players for that,” Perram said. “The medical staff has been diligent to make sure they are prepared. We have protocols in place.
“From a coaching perspective, it’s an interesting situation. The league allowed for additional players. That’s an important impact to how we manage and protect the players. We’ll carry 20 players on game days, which allows for flexibility in our coaching and our ability to prepare for games. We have done a lot of homework. We’re sitting at home doing nothing. We’re pretty familiar with the opposition and what we can expect. Now it’s a chess match.”
While the drawbacks to the schedule are many, there are a couple of benefits. NBCSN will televise both semifinal games and the championship games of the tournament. That sort of exposure is good for the league, and has thrilled the players.
“When they announced it, it was a huge deal,” Whitney Dove of the Beauts said. “Everyone was super-pumped to hear it. It’s a huge step for women’s hockey and for this league to be covered by NBC. We all want to play well when we’re there, because everyone wants to make it to the semifinals so that we can be on TV. Just having that will increase the level of compete.”
Then there’s the matter of the playing site. The 1980 Rink-Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid is sacred ground to American hockey, since that’s where Team USA won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. People like to enter the building today just to see where the “Miracle on Ice” happen. Imagine what it’s like to play there.
“I was part of a national team in Lake Placid,” said Buffalo’s Lisa Chesson, a 2010 Olympian.” I remember the first time I was going there, you get the goosebumps. I imagine that’s going to be a thing – not just for me, but for everyone who experiences if for the first time. It’s definitely a special time.”
Perram added, “The players, as young as they are, still feel it. They have the experience of watching those games , and their parents watched that series (live) and had that experience. The players might be feeling it vicariously a little bit, but the excitement is there. And for me to stand on the same bench as Herb (Brooks), and to be in that role – you can’t replace that. You can’t say that isn’t the coolest thing I’ve ever done, because it is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)