‘Restricted access environment’ doesn't stop COVID from shutting down NWHL season

Feb 4, 2021

COVID is impacting professional hockey across the country this week. That includes the NWHL, who suspended their season in an announcement Wednesday afternoon after multiple teams were revealed to have contracted COVID. NWHL commissioner Tyler Tumminia said the shortened 2-week season at Lake Placid was not a bubble, but a ‘restricted access environment.’  Victory press and women’s hockey writer Melissa Burgess addresses what happened and what's next for the NWHL.

  You can follow Burgess on Twitter @_MelissaBurgess for NWHL updates.

Read Burgess' work here at Victory Press. She has day recaps for the games already played. 

Nick Lippa: The NWHL ended this season early due to COVID. This comes after two of the six teams the past week backed out of the shortened season. What did the league have to say Wednesday afternoon?

Melissa Burgess: So we do have some more answers. Now, obviously, a lot more questions as well. We know that the league had a threshold for when they would kind of pull the plug on a team. The Riveters who were the first team to leave, they had 10 positive cases. So obviously, that just from a sports standpoint, that's not sustainable. Obviously, you're missing a good almost half of your team. So they had no choice really at that point. The second team to withdraw from the season, the Connecticut Whale, actually released a statement earlier on Wednesday which basically said that they chose to go home because they didn't want to put their players out there at risk, which is obviously a good idea. We now also believe that the Boston Pride have had six positive tests, including head coach Paul Mara. We do not know if other teams have had COVID. And the league said that they will not be releasing that information/HIPAA laws, etc. But overall, it's heartbreaking, for the teams who were still trying for the league. But overall, we probably shouldn't have been playing hockey in the first place.

 

There seems to be confusion about whether there was a bubble or not. In the original press release, the NWHL at one point did reference it as a bubble. What technically would you call what the NWHL enforced?

 

MB: So what I've always called it was just a single site environment. Because I didn't ever think it was really fair to call it a bubble. Commissioner Tumminia in the press conference on Wednesday, called it a restricted access environment, which I also think is still a little funny. She said that they were restricted in that they came to designated hotels. She said that they went from their room, right to the rink and the rink right to their room. But we know that that was not true, because we've literally got photos of these players (on social media) outside in Lake Placid and kind of a shared, like a hotel lobby, doing work remotely on their laptops. And yes, people had masks on. But that's still not a restricted environment. So what I've always just called it as a single site environment. And you know, it was never a bubble.

Most professional women's hockey players don't have the luxury to make the NWHL a full time job. So with that in mind, how does that play into planning around COVID challenges?

 

MB: Yeah, I think that definitely made it harder on the league. Because you couldn't really quarantine for two weeks before they came like that. Because that's just not a realistic option for people when they have days off like that. People have limited vacation time. They had to take time off to go to play. So because there wasn't that mandatory two weeks working period, which, if that is not realistic for people who have other jobs, there's always going to be that risk that someone brought COVID. Even if they didn't know it. And obviously, players and staff had to have testing done 72 hours before they came to Lake Placid. They were tested again upon arrival. But you know, all the tests in the world aren't going to tell you, ‘Hey, you have COVID, but you're just not testing positive yet. Or you're just not seeing it yet.’ Because you could be fine today and tomorrow. And then all of a sudden, everything just blows up, which is kind of what we thought so, I think realistically, there wasn't a good way to operate professional women's hockey with the way that women's hockey is right now since players cannot make it their full time job.

You have a league that is poised to grow on the cusp of national recognition, as far as broadcasting is concerned. And there's two other women's leagues in particular, the NWSL as well as the WNBA that seemed to navigate COVID successfully. Looking at that, how do you balance trying to grow a league? Is the answer, sometimes you just kind of bite the bullet and wait until it's reasonable given the pandemic?

MB: Now, unfortunately, I think hindsight exists, but it wouldn't be ideal to say, we can't have a funeral right now, because it's just not safe. But wouldn't it? You know, honestly, I think I've said it in a press conference before-- Wouldn't it be better and better to say, we can't do this safely? So we're not going to do it rather than now having to say, ‘Hey, we tried to do this. And now we have to scrap it.’ And we have a bunch of people who have COVID. And it all just looks really bad.

As far as accountability goes, were different teams holding their players to different safety standards throughout the season?

MB: I don't want to say yes. Because I don't know for sure. But it seems like maybe the league put out some standards, but they really weren't in force very well. I mean, in the end, these are all adults. You know, you can tell them you have to stay in your hotel room, but you really can't force them, you can't lock the door. And even before players came to Lake Placid, it was a recommendation that they try to stay away from getting together with people outside of their whole household. But we saw at least one player posted a photo of herself doing a podcast with some other folks with no mask on a date before playing. And then that player eventually was removed from the game, which we now are pretty sure that was COVID related. So it's like where does that accountability stand? They said they're going to do a lot of contract tracing, They're going to do a lot of, I think what they said is the kink in the armor. But the fact is there could have been multiple cases where people were bringing it in, and then one person brings it in, and then things just happen. They did stress accountability that they-- don't want to put, they said something along the lines of like, now is not the time for blame. But down the line, that level of accountability will be important. And you know, they may never find out exactly how this started. Because that's just the nature of COVID and the nature of the situation that their players came into. But I do think that there could have been better safety standards and everyone could have applied them better. But you see it even in normal everyday life, you can do everything right, or think you're doing everything right. But if one other person does something wrong, you could get COVID. 

Is this a situation where you feel the players deserve better?

MB: I do. I mean, it's easy to say like the players, everyone knew what they were getting into, right? Everybody knew that there was this risk, they had the option to opt out and still get their full pay and everything. But it's a team environment, it's a team sport, people want to be part of the team. They don't want to opt out. They don't want to say, ‘Hey, I don't want to do this,’ they want to get back on here. So excited to play hockey. So it's hard to have people willingly say, ‘Okay, I'm going to do this, because I'm worried about my health.’

So I do think the players deserved better. But I also think that just in general, this whole thing happened, right? There was no realistic way that this was going to be pulled off safely where everyone was going to be safe. The players knew that there was a risk and even the press conference today, one of the team presidents and team head coaches said, we knew there were risks, we just wanted to play. But the players deserve better. They also have lives outside of hockey, they have jobs to worry about. They have all these other things to worry about. And now they've been put at risk. And it was not a necessary risk. We didn't need to have this. The same is true of any sport, really. We don't need to be doing this right now. In the middle of a pandemic.

And so moving forward, what's the future for women's hockey in 2021? There's still hockey to play for the PWHPA, right?

MB: Yeah, so as you mentioned, the PWHPA actually just announced their first 2021 event, which is going to be held in conjunction with New York at Madison Square Garden in late February. And it's exciting. It's great. It's awesome. It's fantastic to see women's hockey get that exposure. But it's the same question that I had for the NWHL. What are you going to do to protect these players? How are you going to ensure that there isn't this super spreader event? Like what Lake Placid is kind of turning out to be, right? The PWHPA had an event in Florida recently and we haven't seen any positive cases come from that. But obviously, there's also a lower number of players in general. 

There's so many questions going forward in regards to the postponement of the NWHL season. The season is officially suspended. And given, that they only have the two semifinal games, and then the final game. And of course, all of that was supposed to be televised. They would like to get that national exposure as well. But I don't know realistically how you would even think about trying to pick back up anytime soon, Just with how things are going, With how things have gone, with how health is in this country and with the vaccinations and everything. So I don't know how you can kind of pick that back up. But I will say, even when last March they had to postpone the final date. They literally said it was postponed. And then eventually, of course it was just straight out cancelled. So I really think that's what's going to happen here eventually.They said they don't have any answers about that right now. But in my opinion, the best thing to do is focus on the player's health and safety.