ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Whitecaps are coming back … in New York.
The National Women’s Hockey League announced plans on Wednesday, Nov. 25, to conduct its upcoming season and Isobel Cup Playoffs in a bubble in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The shortened season will run from Jan. 23 to Feb. 5 at Herb Brooks Arena, the site of the 1980 Olympics’ Miracle on Ice. All games will be played without fans in attendance, and all personnel involved will undergo regular COVID-19 testing.
“(We’re) definitely excited to compete,” Whitecaps co-head coach Ronda Engelhardt said. “It’s no one’s ideal situation, but the fact that they get the opportunity to compete where a lot of seasons have just been flat out canceled, I think we’re grateful for.”
Whitecaps forward Allie Thunstrom, who serves as one of the team’s NWHL Players’ Association reps, said there were about six different plans that the league had been discussing. One was to play a more traditional 20-game schedule beginning in January and going through March, but she said talks ultimately shifted a couple of months ago more toward a bubble.
“If the bubble’s the format that works — and right now it’s kind of the only format that might work — then we’re just happy to be able to get out on the ice and play again,” Thunstrom said.
Teams are scheduled to arrive in Lake Placid on Jan. 21 and 22, and the season will begin the next day. Each of the league’s six teams will play five games during the regular season, one game against the other five league members. The top four teams will advance to the Isobel Cup semifinals, with the winners advancing to the championship game on Feb. 5.
The 2020 Isobel Cup Final, which the Whitecaps were supposed to participate in on March 13, originally was postponed the day before the game, then officially canceled in May. At that point, then-commissioner Dani Rylan had expressed hope for a mid-November start to the 2020-21 season. But rising coronavirus cases around the country and new restrictions instead led to a bubble most similar to the one the National Women’s Soccer League implemented this summer.
“The continued challenges brought by the pandemic resulted in a mandate for our league, players and partners to collaborate on creating a controlled environment protecting the health of everyone involved,” NWHL interim commissioner Tyler Tumminia said in a release. “At a time of hyper-growth for girls’ and women’s hockey, we see this season as a celebration of the sport.”
Despite the condensed schedule, all players will be fully compensated for this season, including those who choose to opt out. Per the NWHL’s release, more than 95 percent of players already have committed to heading to New York.
The Whitecaps began practicing together in September; Thunstrom said the team has been practicing at TRIA Rink twice a week while undergoing testing once a week. Engelhardt said they are in currently in brief pause as TRIA is closed down, but they expect to get back on the ice together soon to prepare for their upcoming season.
“We all understand that there’s things outside of our control and outside of everybody’s control that are more significant and more important than sports, which is obviously keeping people healthy,” Thunstrom said. “We certainly don’t want our desire to play hockey to put anybody’s health at risk or anybody’s family members or anything like that, and so while it’s unfortunate on the one hand to not get a full season, it’s still really cool to have the opportunity to continue to play.”