The bubble that burst: A look into the NWHL's arduous Lake Placid experience
Between excitement, doubts, league created buzz despite suspension of season
Bubbles have become the new wave — a method synonymous with shortened sports seasons attempting to be held in the safest way possible.
In the case of the National Women's Hockey League, that attempt resulted in its season being suspended one day prior to the playoffs, with two of its six teams pulling out due to positive COVID-19 cases.
From the beginning to the end, players went through a wide range of emotions, seeing the league and its audience grow with them, to then having it come to an abrupt end.
"I guess I'd describe it as a roller coaster," Toronto Six defender Lindsay Eastwood said. "We started out super excited going in there, we didn't win our first two games, but we created a lot of momentum for women's hockey and the NWHL.
Despite generating a buzz for itself and women's hockey as a whole, even scoring a broadcast deal with NBC Sports to televise playoffs games, the NWHL's plan didn't proceed without doubts from players.
"I mean, even before, everyone had doubts about COVID during all the tests they had to do beforehand," Six forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis said. "COVID is a real thing. There's no way you could really stop it no matter what, no matter how strict you made the rules.
"It kind of just hit us hard because our season was so shrunk and constricted and we had to get it done in the two weeks, we couldn't extend it because obviously we didn't have the time and we didn't have the money."
The previous season in 2020 was played up to the Isobel Cup title game, which was postponed and subsequently cancelled due to the pandemic — leaving the league without a champion.
This season, which was initially scheduled to start in mid-November of 2020, was pushed to January with the expectation of playing a full schedule.
Working, playing through restrictions
Staying in High Peaks resort, plenty of restrictions were put in place, leaving little room for players to interact.
"It was pretty much in your room and you come out to get your food; you'd have a buffet," Grant-Mentis said. "So, we'd have to get our food, put it in containers and then go back to your room to eat. You're pretty much in your room or at the rink practising or playing a game. That was the two areas we had, that was all we could do really."
Eastwood echoed Grant-Mentis' sentiments, saying the protocols in place were stringent in order to reduce risks.
"We had strict protocols on wearing masks, how many people you can be around, we didn't even eat together as a team," Eastwood said. "No one was allowed in each other's rooms. ... We haven't been in a room as a full team yet. In between periods, we'd all sit in a hallway in chairs for more airflow."
The first team to pull out of the bubble was the Metropolitan Riveters on Jan. 28, followed by the Connecticut Whale on Feb. 1 — both electing to do so after COVID-19 outbreaks.
Grant-Mentis and the Six were on fire heading into the playoffs, so when play was suspended on Feb. 3, one day prior to the post-season, she says it was an understandable decision.
"I'd rather stay safe and be healthy than play hockey," Grant-Mentis said. "There's more to life than just playing hockey. At that point, when the second team [Whale] dropped out, it was like, 'Okay, this is actually serious.'
"If we had to play in the playoffs, we would've played. ... we'd rather stay safe and play this game six months or seven [months] down the line than have to play it on the Thursday and more people got sick."
While hope remains for a return to play, the potential of another season with no champion to crown isn't out of the question if the league is forced to make that decision again.
"[Suspending the 2021 season] was definitely frustrating," Grant-Mentis said, "but I completely understood why the league had to do what [it] did."