In a year that’s proved fairly uncertain and full of spirals amid everyday life, the latest hit was to women’s hockey as professional sports look to make their returns. With that being said, after seeking opinion from public health experts, the league announced on Wednesday morning a change to their timeline due to COVID-19.
While citing the health and wellbeing of team personnel, players, fans and the community, the NWHL has now shifted their efforts to a full season schedule beginning in January. For the first time this coming season which will see the debut of the Toronto Six, the idea was to have 24 games played until direction was altered to mid-November.
Now, players face a longer wait as training camps were planning to get going in September. Given the latest curveball at hand, the league says its goal is to have the All-Star Game hosted, but not until after the Isobel Cup has been raised. Speaking of which, the cup was not awarded in May as the season finale in Boston was cancelled.
Speaking greater lengths of the championship, the current plan is for the Isobel Cup to be played in full with an end of March deadline. Given this drastic schedule change, the press release states that the league’s six teams will continue their focus on enhanced opportunities. This includes player development which will go on as planned despite a later puck drop.
For some, this has already started with the Toronto Six starting season prep early. Attendees on the ice at this time include Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Natalie Marcuzzi, Taylor Woods and Breanne Wilson-Bennett. Putting that note aside, these camps will include optional on-ice practices and off-ice training starting Sept. 21st. While this plan opens doors to all players, it will be followed by full team practices which will get going on October 19th.
Keeping in mind health and safety measures, the league said on Wednesday teams will strictly adhere to the protocols established by infectious disease experts. Not only that, but they will work closely with the NWHL’s medical team as well as officials who are based in each city.
Because of the number of cases that had hit different regions much harder than others, the league announced just three months back that they had suddenly formed a COVID-19 safety committee. This was the first step of an ongoing effort to strategically plan a safe return to the ice. While the committee was made up of executives which includes the involvement of the NWHL Players’ Association, the team is being led upfront by infectious disease experts and those in sports medicine.
To make a return to play possible, from NYU Langone Health are doctors Andrew Feldman, MD, and Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas, MD. NYU Langone Health is not only an official partner of the league, but they are one of the top teaching medical centers in America. Through the committee’s formation, their leading objective has been and continues to be creating a plan that’s beneficial to all parties. This of course being the case by ensuring the health of all fans and attendees.
In a statement from Dr. Gonzalez-Lomas, a Sports Health expert at NYU Langone Health, he said, “The Safety Committee has and will continue to prioritize NWHL player, staff, fan, and media safety above all else while adapting to the ever-changing COVID-19 situation. We are eager to meet the challenge ahead and do our utmost to safely return the athletes to the sport they love.”
On the other end of this is Anya Packer, executive director of the NWHLPA. Speaking on the opposite end with regards to their involvement in the process and decision making, she said, “The NWHLPA is well-represented on the league’s COVID-19 committee. The PA has been included in all discussions in regards to player safety and league scheduling, and co-authored the overall return-to-play protocol. We feel our voices have been heard thus far and we will continue to ensure that the safety and well-being of the players is at the forefront of all discussions and formal protocols.”
Along with her was Allie Thunstrom, 32-year-old forward with the Minnesota Whitecaps. As a committee member, no less, an active player, she said of these talks and the road blocks that led to them, “We are undoubtedly eager to get back on the ice and can’t wait for the season to start. However, we also recognize the challenges everyone faces by the global health crisis, and we want to ensure that not only are we protected but our fans, media, coaches, support staff, and arena personnel are protected as well. The league has done an awesome job at including us in these discussions. While a slight delay to the start of the season is tough, I feel strongly that everyone’s safety and health will continue to be at the forefront of all decisions. We will continue to practice and train in accordance with state, provincial, and league guidelines. When the time comes, we will be ready to battle for the Isobel Cup in Season 6 and to play for the best fans in the world.”
While the pandemic has presented its obstacles in having to take time to evaluate the circumstances, the league has worked months ahead to ensure for a seamless and safe return to the ice. With that being said, the NWHL mentioned that the next plan to come is with regards to safe protocols for in-season action. Additionally, the league also cites that announcements on arena capacity and ticket sales are set to be made at the start of next season. Every decision made has been in accordance with medical professionals and they plan to continue talks into the new year, this allowing season six to safely start at their discretion.