NWHL’s Toronto Six To Play Inaugural Season In United States

With the spread of the novel coronavirus continuing to halt professional sports play in Canada, the NWHL became the latest sports league to be faced with challenges due to boarder and safety concerns.

Given the January timeline for return to play as announced back in July, the NWHL remained insistent on the game-plan, and as a result, now see a change come season six. With that in mind, the NWHL announced that the league’s six teams will play the upcoming season in Lake Placid, New York. The Puck Authority had been told from a source that the league had been looking at 10-12 games in a bubble. Instead, they’ll play five games against each other followed by a playoff round to determine who advances to the semifinals.

All teams will arrive separately for a shortened season starting Jan. 21st and 22nd. As per the press release, the single-game Semifinals will feature the top-seeded team against the fourth-place team, with the teams, ranked second and third facing each other. The winners of the Semifinals will then advance to the Isobel Cup Final on Friday, February 5th.

Kasumi Kobo/NWHL

The news isn’t much of a surprise seeing that the boarders to enter Canada have been closed, which forced Major League Baseball to send the Blue Jays to Buffalo to play all their home games. As the country aims to keep travellers barred, perhaps this was only expected with the worry being that this wouldn’t be lifted in time for the Six to hit the ice in the new year.

With the team to play the season in Lake Placid, commissioner Tyler Tumminia said of the bubble led project, “The NWHL is excited to provide hockey fans a fast-paced schedule of thrilling games on the road to the Isobel Cup. 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. At a time of hyper-growth for girls’ and women’s hockey, we see this season as a celebration of the sport. This will be a historic moment as the hallowed arena that was the site of the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 hosts its first women’s professional championship. It is a proud moment for the NWHL, the players, and all hockey fans.”

The event is presented in partnership with the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA). Playing out of 1980 Rink-Herb Brooks Arena, the entire season is set to be played out with regular COVID-19 testing provided by Yale Pathology Labs. As such, all players and staff will adhere to strict protocols established by NYU Langone Health. The medical team is led by Drs. Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas and Andrew Feldman. As well, these protocols will be modified based on the most current research and evidence.

Kasumi Kobo/NWHL

In a statement from Paul Wylie, Director of Sport at ORDA, he said, “ORDA and the NWHL are hopeful that our plan for the tournament will be able to move forward. ORDA has been involved in the development of Women’s Hockey for many years, including hosting the World Championships, countless international tournaments, and camps, as well as a training base for the U.S. Olympic Women’s Hockey Team.”

As per the official press release, all players signed to contracts this season will be compensated in full, despite the condensed game schedule. Given the unique situation, players were given the opportunity to opt-out of the tournament and still receive their complete salaries. To date, more than 95 percent of the players have committed to the competition, giving each team a full roster for the two-week event. 

Leading up to the announcement, all teams hit the ice for workouts between August and September to start preparing for season six. While starting in cohort fashion, mandatory full team practices began October 19th following local and national health guidelines.

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This protected environment comes following the success of the work that transpired over the summer by the WNBA and NWSL. Both held their seasons in bubbles, pulling off safe events, limiting COVID-19 transmission. As per the release, the two leagues both saw massive television viewership ratings, as well as streaming, apparel sales and fan engagement.

With final details still to be established, the upcoming season, as per the press release, remains subject to the final agreement by and among the NWHL, the Olympic Regional Development Authority of New York, and the State of New York to finalize the return plan. This is to ensure consistency with the New York State Forward Guidance for Professional Sports and Training Competitions.  

With that in mind, the State of New York has provided the Olympic Regional Development Authority of New York with approval to operate at the historic facility that is Herb Brooks Arena, consistent with New York State Forward Guidance.

Kasumi Kobo/NWHL

Awaiting the completion of final details, the official schedule, information for broadcasts and other necessities will be made available coming weeks leading up to the event.

If you take a look back to October, The Puck Authority had learned that options were being looked at, as to ensure Toronto starts play this season. As per a source, one scenario included pushing puck drop as far as March with 15 games on the schedule.

While that wouldn’t change the reality of a handful of games being played in a short timeframe, this, in conversation with Canlan, was among the suggestions, allowing Toronto to debut there. At this time, the team, in co-horted fashion, is holding weekly workouts as preparations continue.

Kasumi Kobo/NWHL

Given Canlan’s COVID-19 protocols, the source added that due to Toronto’s high case count, the team would let in 200 spectators per game. As the Olympic sheet holds 1,200 seats, all social distancing measures would be enforced and respected. While meetings on this matter didn’t escalate, it led the team to exploring alternative proposals.

However, in doing so, The Puck Authority learned that cities off the table included Buffalo and Hartford. While geographically, these would have made sense, as to be within distance of other teams in the league, the NWHL opted for a six-team bubble, while alternative options were proposed, but shot down. Among those inquired about was Providence, Rhode Island.

Given these conditions for the season, The Puck Authority was told the team will play at Canlan Ice Sports on a two-year contract from 2021-2023. Following that, the Toronto Six are optimistic of making the transition to the Mattamy Athletic Centre. In doing so, the team would split ice time with the Ryerson Rams in the OUA.

Kasumi Kobo/NWHL

While this might foresee a pair of issues, they would have to negotiate with both Ryerson and U SPORTS. In the event that the Six make the playoffs, this might present them an obstacle as Ryerson occupies the ice surface for exam season.

As The Puck Authority was told from a source after Toronto and Canlan came to terms on a deal, “one detail that attracted team management promise to have a custom dressing room implemented for the hockey club.” While details remained unclear, the source said, “we’re getting something pretty special for the girls.”

Should the Mattamy Athletic Centre become the team’s home for their third season and beyond, it’s unclear how logistics would fair and how needed amenities would be provided, if any.

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