The NWHL announced today that their sixth season, which was to begin this upcoming November, is now planning to start in January 2021 as they prioritize the well-being of all players, staff, fans, and the community in the midst of a global pandemic.
Each of the six teams will play a full season (20 games) with the expectation that the Isobel Cup will be awarded by the end of March. Holding an All-Star Game is still in the cards, but the league is planning on that taking place after the Isobel Cup Playoffs have been completed.
Despite the pushed back starting date, the players are on track to get back to work in September. Optional on-ice practices and off-ice training will be available beginning Sept. 21 and formal practices begin Oct. 19. All NWHL teams will strictly adhere to the protocols established by the infectious disease experts, the NWHL medical team, and community officials in each market.
This past April the NWHL formed a COVID-19 Safety Committee to set forth a plan for a safe and strategic return to play plan. The committee is led by Andrew Feldman, MD, and Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas, MD from NYU Langone Health, which is an official NWHL partner. The committee also includes league executives and representatives of the NWHL Players Association, and they all have been formulating a plan that protects the well-being of all participants and fans.
“We are undoubtedly eager to get back on the ice and can’t wait for the season to start. However we also recognize the challenges everyone faces from the global health crisis, and we want to ensure that not only are we protected, but that our fans, media, coaches, support staff, and arena personnel are protected as well,” said Minnesota Whitecaps player Allie Thunstrom, who is also a member of the aforementioned committee.
“The league has done an awesome job at including us in these discussions. While a slight delay to the start of the season is tough, I feel strongly that everyone’s safety and health will continue to be at the forefront of all decisions. We will continue to practice and train in accordance with state, provincial, and league guidelines. When the time comes, we will be ready to battle for the Isobel Cup in Season 6 and play for the best fans in the world.”
The director of the NWHLPA – Anya Packer – echoed Thunstrom’s statements, saying, “We feel our voices have been heard thus far and we will continue to ensure that the safety and well-being of the players are at the forefront of all discussions and formal protocols.”
“The NWHLPA is well-represented on the league’s committee and has been included in all discussions in regards to player safety and league scheduling, and co-authored the overall return-to-play protocol,” added Packer.
What it Means
This is the right call. For everyone involved. There are so many unknowns today, and sometimes it feels like the news changes by the hour, if not minute. Do they want to play? Of course, they do. Can they play without fans in the building? Obviously, yes. But no one wants that.
The fans are the lifeblood of the sport and without them, why are they playing? Are the players disappointed? Without question. But they also know that if they played again and someone got sick or there was an outbreak it would be bad news for a league still in its infancy. What’s the rush other than the itch to get back on the ice and a return to normalcy? Getting it right is alway the right play. It’s obvious that the NWHL’s partnership with the players is very strong and that every one is on the same page.
The league and its players recognized all of that. With the shift to a January start, you can probably assume that no team will have a bye week in the upcoming season. But the players will have more time to integrate with their teammates, hone their strategies, and find the best possible lineups when the puck is ready to finally drop on Season 6.
Some already believed that the upcoming season would be the most competitive in league history. Not that it wasn’t admirable the dedication that players showed in traveling miles upon miles to show up on game days in past seasons. But this season many, if not all, of the teams, will have players that live in the area and can attend every single practice, unlike in years past.
Now it might be safe to extrapolate the expectations for the upcoming season, because each team will have more time to find their strengths as a group. Each player will be in tip-top shape when we get to January. Each team’s special teams units will be cohesive and hopefully firing on all cylinders once it’s time for the external competition.
Under Safe Guidance
“The Safety Committee has and will continue to prioritize NWHL players, staff, fan, and media safety above all else while adapting to the ever-changing COVID-19 situation,” said Dr. Gonzalez-Lomas, assistant professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Health expert at NYU Langone Health. “We are eager to meet the challenge ahead and do our utmost to safely return the athletes to the sport they love.”
The league’s plans regarding in-season medical protocols, along with announcements regarding ticket availability and arena capacity for fans, will be made prior to the start of the season. Throughout every step, their decisions will be guided by the science and at the direction of doctors.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.