The NWHL is currently scheduled to play their playoff games Thursday and Friday. The Buffalo Beauts are in, but only after two teams backed out with questions surrounding COVID. Victory press and women’s hockey writer Melissa Burgess recaps a turbulent weekend in women’s hockey and previews what’s to come for the Beauts.
All of this year's NWHL games can be viewed online for free on Twitch.
Read Burgess' work here at Victory Press. She has day recaps for the games already played.
Nick Lippa: The NWHL saw two teams leave Lake Placid, the host of their shortened two-week season, even though they still had games to play. What exactly happened?
Melissa Burgess: The NWHL started the season in Lake Placid and a couple of days ago we found out that the Metropolitan Riveters, which are a team based in New Jersey, so the metro area, was withdrawing from the tournament due to multiple positive COVID tests in their organization. Okay, you're down to five teams now.
Over the last few days, things have really picked up-- and gotten very strange. So over the weekend, the Beauts added a player, they added Lisa Chesson. Minnesota added a defender earlier this week. And then on, I want to say it was Sunday night, Connecticut was announced as having added four players, one of which was already in Lake Placid as kind of like an emergency backup goalie. But they actually added her to the roster. So, Monday afternoon comes. Monday evening comes. There's going to be two games on the schedule on Monday night. So basically, what had happened over the weekend was we had some round robin action. And then we had the Beauts play Boston in two games, a best of three with the series at 1-1. So we came into Monday expecting there to be a 5:30 game between Connecticut and Minnesota, followed by 8:30 game between Buffalo and Boston that was win and you're in the playoffs. Lose and you're going home. So all of a sudden, it is five o'clock on Monday and Minnesota is at the rink, dressed and hitting the ice for warm up. Connecticut is nowhere to be found. Eventually, we learned that the game was postponed. And you know, that in and of itself draws up questions like, what happened? And why didn't Minnesota know that the game was postponed or canceled at that point? To have a team come to the rink and be ready to go and be warming up on the ice with no one at the other end. It's just very strange. Eventually, about maybe two hours after the game was supposed to start, the league put out an official public release. And they had also previously sent to the media that the (Connecticut) Whale had decided to withdraw from the tournament. So now that drops things down to four teams. With that, it means that all four teams including Buffalo, make the semi-finals. So really Monday night's game between Buffalo and Boston was essentially meaningless, except for seeding. So there's been a lot going on over the last few days and honestly, at this point, we have more questions than answers.
It wasn't necessarily clear it seems to the players playing that a team had dropped out before they started that game. The Beauts and Pride players went into that game thinking it was win or go home at that point, right?
MB: Correct. So we spoke to both teams after Monday night's game. None of the players from either team were aware that the circumstances had changed. The Boston coaching staff said they found out about 35 minutes prior to puck drop that it was no longer an elimination game. Buffalo's coaching staff initially said they found out mid-game, or possibly mid-first period. But either way, that's a communication issue. If both teams didn't find out at the same time, that's strange. And both teams decided not to tell their players. So all the players were playing through this game expecting it to be an elimination game and didn't find out until they got off the ice after that it really didn't have any bearing. If I was a player in that situation, I would be very frustrated just at the lack of communication. I understand you still want your players to play their best, even if they know that, hey, this game has nothing at stake. But to just completely not tell them until after seems like a big oversight in communication.
Are you hearing any concerns from players about COVID who are still scheduled to play?
MB: So first, I just want to stress and this is another kind of communication issue-- We really don't know why the Connecticut Whale decided to withdraw. It has not been made clear. The league release basically just said that the league accepted the decision of the Whale to withdraw. Whereas when they announced the withdrawal of the Riveters, it said specifically in there ‘due to multiple COVID cases.’ So we don't know if there's COVID within the Whales organization, which definitely is a possibility. They were staying at the same hotel as the Riveters, there's definitely potential for exposure there. We don't know if it was maybe just precautionary. Maybe players decided, hey, this isn't worth the risk anymore. Or we don't know if maybe players were not happy about the team being able to bring in additional players this late in the game. So it's kind of a whole bunch of things. We did see a couple players missing from Connecticut's lineup the other night before the withdrawal happened. So that makes you wonder if it is COVID related or what. But either way, we don't know why they backed out, we don't know what's going on. The players that we spoke to on Monday night and throughout the tournament, they said that they feel confident that the league is doing everything in their power to keep it safe for them, or as safe as possible. But obviously, at this point, you're concerned, right? Because we're not just talking about hockey, but you're talking about and these players who have to go home, they have to go back to their jobs, they have to go back to their families. Some of them have children. So it's a lot more than just if ‘I’ have COVID. But as far as I've heard, no, none of the players have expressed any concerns, but also I don't know how publicly they would be willing to discuss that.
How is the schedule looking now as the NWHL approaches being on NBCSN, getting some exposure for the playoff games?
MB: Obviously the league doesn't have a lot of leniency in terms of their scheduling. Luckily for them, they were already scheduled to have Tuesday and Wednesday as off days. So that kind of helps them with those days. But at this point, honestly, they just want to make it to Thursday's semifinals and Friday's final game. So knock on wood assuming that we get to Thursday evening, the Beauts will play the Toronto Six at 5:30 p.m. And the Minnesota Whitecaps will play the Boston Pride at 8pm. And the winners of those two games will play Friday night. Also on NBCSN.
The NWHL sounds like they are busy away from COVID. They just got a huge sponsorship deal too, right?
MB: Yes, they just announced the largest contract partnership in league history with Discover. So Discover will put their logos around the arena in Lake Placid. That's great to see that influx of money come in. Players get a share-- a 50/50 percent revenue share of all sponsorships like that. So that will undoubtedly boost the amount of money these players are getting at the end of the season. So that's great to see. But you know, also having something like a big partnership like that, having more eyes on the league means that you want things to go smoothly. They have not gone smoothly yet. But hopefully the next few days will and then everybody can get home and whoever wins can celebrate safely.
Viewership looks to be up this year for the NWHL. You have been following the league on Twitch since its first broadcasted games. How is it looking/has it improved?
MB: You know, the numbers have definitely picked up. I think it was Saturday night, the Toronto game had over 30,000 people watching at one point, which is just... that's incredible, right? Like that's more than they would fit in KeyBank Center for a Sabres game. So just to have that many eyes on it is great. They've had millions of views. And it helped the other day that they were on the Twitch homepage. As part of the partnership to help promote the game and putting it on that homepage helps bring it to people who you know, may not necessarily otherwise see it or even know about it, because they don't have to search for it. If right there it pops up as a suggestion for them. And I did see a bunch of people in the chat who said, ‘Wow, I had no idea that this even existed.’
So it's been great to see that engagement and that interest. The Twitch chat is fantastic. People are communicating well and sharing facts and asking questions. And it's very open and non judgmental. The games later this week are of course on NBCSN. But they're also going to be broadcast on Twitch. It's a kind of a separate broadcast. So there's the national broadcasters on NBCSN. And then there's a bunch of broadcasters for Twitch. But that just helps bring up that international exposure.
Buffalo again in the playoffs for the NWHL. It's been kind of a given they would get in previous years, but it definitely wasn't this year at the beginning of the season/tournament. They won a game with an impressive goaltending performance, but the Beauts haven't had much success so far. What are they going to do to try to pull off an upset?
MB: I'll be honest, the whole season has been rough for Buffalo. Carly Jackson has been spectacular in net, but the team overall is still allowing a lot of shots-- 30 plus shots against per night. The last few games against Boston, it's been six plus goals per game allowed. You just can't do that. This is a one game playoff, you've got to be strong from the get go. So I think Buffalo needs to play sharp from the first puck drop. And I think scoring that first goal is, especially against a strong Toronto team that had the best record, they're the top seed going into the playoffs, it's their first year in the league, they are having so much success already. I think just getting up early and getting that first goal is going to be big for buffalo. Because once you fall behind against this Toronto team, you're going to have a hard time climbing your way back. So I think just limiting the amount of shots and getting that first goal is key.
You can follow Burgess on Twitter @_MelissaBurgess for NWHL updates.