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After cancelling their 2020 championship game and going 11 months without play, the NWHL has battled back to host a two-week, rapid-fire season at the Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York.

It may have felt like solving a Rubik’s Cube missing some of its stickers, but interim league commissioner Tyler Tumminia managed to pull together the logistics necessary to schedule a season and bring six teams together into a COVID-19 compliant bubble environment, all while managing to secure broadcast rights for the semifinals and Isobel Cup championship game, which will air live on NBCSN. This will be the first time a major cable network in the U.S. has aired women’s professional hockey.

Tumminia told the network, “It’s a huge learning curve,” but it’s one she appears to be surmounting quite well.

 

RIVETERS’ WITHDRAWAL IS FIRST MAJOR HURDLE

The league experienced its first major setback on Thursday, January 28th, when the Metropolitan Riveters were forced to withdraw from the tournament in compliance with COVID-19 protocols after a number of players tested positive for the virus.

It’s a disappointing end to the Riveters’ season. Led by captain Madison Packer, the league’s fourth highest scorer a year ago, the team’s one week on the ice was less than they’d hoped for but thrilling nonetheless. Key roster changes, paired with their physical style of play, had them ranked third in the standings following wins over Toronto and Connecticut.

Outside the COVID scare, the league has also been dealing with the fallout from an ongoing internet fued between Barstool CEO Erika Nardini and friends of the league. Nardini has been an outspoken supporter of the NWHL, while fans and journalists inside the space have called for the league to disown the connection, leading the league to issue a statement after Nardini attacked her “haters” in an online video.

BOSTON UNDERWHELMS, TORONTO OVERACHEIVES

Heading into the tournament, analysts predicted The Boston Pride would take home the Cup, having closed out last season with a 23-1-0 record before their chance to unseat the Minnesota Whitecaps in the championship game was cancelled due to the pandemic. The power-packed team has remained largely intact, with depth on every line and unfinished business driving their determination. That said, in sports as in life, there’s no such thing as a sure thing. The Pride currently sit at No. 5 after an unlikely loss to lower ranked Connecticut on Wednesday night.

While the Whitecaps, the reigning champions from the midwest, will predictably put up a good fight (currently 3-0 and the only unbeaten team in the bubble), the verdict is still out on how the league’s newest team, the Toronto Six, will fare.

On Tuesday, January 26, fans saw a preview of what this team can produce when they beat the Pride 2-1, securing the franchise’s first win, with goals from Mikyla Grant-Mentis and Brooke Boquist in the third period helping them pull ahead of Boston. With hockey legend Digit Murphy leading the charge, the team is certainly making a name for themselves, especially after backing up their fist win with another over Buffalo.

CONNECTICUT CONTINUES TO UPEND EXPECTATIONS

The Cinderella story of the tournament is likely to be the Connecticut Whale. A perennial underdog, this season is giving Connecticut the chance to continue developing their core while integrating new players added in the offseason.

The changes are certainly paying off, as the Whale undercut the Pride this week, beating Boston for the first time since 2018. Though the Pride were without their captain, Jillian Dempsey, who had to sit out the game due to an undiagnosed injury sustained in Tuesday’s game, the Whale’s Emma Vlasic proved her prowess as an impact player, assisting in the team’s first three goals before scoring one of her own.

Connecticut faces off against the Minnesota Whitecaps tonight, Thursday, January 28. If the Whale can topple the Whitecaps, the Isobel Cup is firmly in their reach.

At the bottom of the current standings are the Buffalo Beauts, playing with little to lose at this point. Their top two scorers from a season ago, Corinne Buie and Taylor Accursi, are gone, leaving them to rely on less familiar faces. Luckily, that includes rookie Autumn MacDougall, who nearly netted a hat trick against Toronto during Wednesday night’s game.

TORONTO EXPANSION GIVES NWHL MOMENTUM

Lake Placid bears witness not only to the first women’s hockey bubble season, but also the debut of the Toronto Six, the newest NWHL expansion team and the second team to join the league’s growing cadre in its seven year history.

The Toronto Six follows the addition of the Minnesota Whitecaps, who joined the league during the 2018-2019 season, increasing the “Founding Four” franchises to Toronto’s eponymous six. As a bonus, addition of Toronto also creates the opportunity for a regional rivalry, giving the Buffalo Beauts a neighbor to the north to contend with.

Growth is always a good sign, but for the NWHL, moving into Canada, especially into Ontario, where the Toronto Maples Leafs boast a $1.5 billion valuation, is more than merely expanding internationally. It’s an opportunity with huge upside under the right management. Entering the GTA brings exposure to a market with a strong hockey fan base, but also one that has lost three CWHL teams in the past. The potential is there to grab hockey-loving hearts, but the Six will have to deftly avoid the management issues that befell previous leagues and teams.

Unlike previous groups, the NWHL is hoping to leverage a business model based around individual ownership for all six of its teams (Boston and Toronto are currently the only teams that are privately owned).

In April, Toronto franchise president (and current head coach) Digit Murphy told The Ice Garden: “I really like this next generation with the franchise model they’ve brought in,” adding, “when you start having franchise owners, they have a vested interest. It’s easier than the league owning it, because it’s tough having a league own all those teams in all those markets.”

 

NWHL PUTTING ONE SKATE IN FRONT OF THE OTHER

Though professional women’s hockey has quite a few hurdles to clear as athletes and managers work to make it a viable professional sport (as it rightfully should be), the NWHL’s successful expansion in Canada, ongoing whubble experience, and growing mainstream media coverage are all things to applaud and reasons to be hopeful.

The NWHL Isobel Cup Semifinals will air live on NBCSN on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 5:30 p.m. ET and 8 p.m. ET. The network will air the NWHL Isobel Cup Final on Friday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. ET, with live coverage also streaming exclusively on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

You can also catch regular season games on the league’s Twitch channel.

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