Behind The Bubble: How NWHL Will Pull Off Shortened Season In Lake Placid

The bubble begins in January

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December 22, 2020

Lake Placid and hockey make for a perfect combination, wouldn?t you agree?

So it?s certainly the perfect place for the National Women’s Hockey League to hold its 2020-21 season. Games will be played from Jan. 23 through Feb. 5 at Rink-Herbs Brook Arena, you know, the site of the 1980 ?Miracle on Ice? when the United States defeated the Soviet Union during the Winter Olympic Games.

The NWHL?s season originally was supposed to start in October, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to that. And with the success the WNBA, NWSL, NHL and NBA had in completing their seasons in a bubble, it was clear it was a safe way to carry out games.

Now, the league will head to Lake Placid on Jan. 21 and 22 to begin its shortened season. And while it certainly will be unlike any other the women have played before, the intensity still will be there, especially for the Boston Pride, who were unable to compete for the Isobel Cup in March due to the coronavirus.

For a while, it looked grim for the world of sports. The virus was running rampant through the United States, sports leagues were on pause and it was unclear if they?d be able to continue. While the NWHL, unfortunately, didn?t have the same fate as the WNBA, NWSL, NHL and NBA, the Lake Placid bubble will be an incredible experience for the teams.

It wasn?t a decision that was made overnight, however. The NWHL originally was preparing to play more of a traditional season, but just push it back. These talks were being held in April just after the NWHL Draft. But as you know by now, 2020 loves to throw wrenches into plans, and soon the league was looking at other options.

“We were gonna play 20 games in 10 weeks, basically,” Pride general manager Karilyn Pilch told NESN.com. “They called it a ?sprint to the Cup.? So that was our original plan. At that point I think everyone was thinking things would be better.”

No one could have guessed we?d still be in the middle of a pandemic nine months later. So as cases began to rise, the NWHL knew it had to do something different that would keep everyone safe.

Pilch said discussions about a bubble began about a month before the NWHL?s official announcement. The biggest thing, though, was making sure they?d have enough women who would be able to participate.

“As things started to progress, I would say out of the summer, obviously more negatively with the virus and watching some other teams and things getting shut down and the NFL changing their schedule every week, it just ended up being a situation where we were all like, ‘OK, is this the actual reality?,?” Pilch said. “So, really only about a month or so before the announcement were we like, ?OK, let?s see how many players we can get.? Because they?re the lifeblood of our organization. We?re nothing without them. So we need to make sure these players are able to take time off of their full-time jobs.”

You see, NWHL players do more than just play hockey. They have full-time jobs that they?d need to be away from to play in the bubble.

“At first you?re like, ?How would we take all of these amazing women who have these other jobs and full-time responsibilities ? they?re nurses, they?re teachers, they do a million other things. OK, how is this going to happen?’ And then, I think it?s a little bit of the sign of the times where their employers were like, ?we get it,?” Pilch said.

Mallory Souliotis not only is an incredible hockey player, she?s also a biomedical engineer and has been studying how to combat the coronavirus. Jillian Dempsey is a teacher, and we all know how much work has gone into making this unprecedented school year as smooth as possible for students and staff.

Of course, making sure everyone is safe for the upcoming season is the top priority, which is how the NWHL bubble came to be.

“I think the safety of it all was obviously the No. 1 priority and concern and that is ultimately why we ended up in Lake Placid in the bubble,” Pilch said. “So we needed to make sure we were going to a safe place, a place that had the resources that had the ability to house all our teams.”

As general manager, Pilch is used to planning road trips with her team. But a 17-day one never has been on the agenda.

“I?ve planned a million road trips in my career, I could do it in my sleep,? Pilch said. ?I?ve never planned a 17-day road trip. That?s a little bit different. I think it?s just one of those things where everything else right now, you?re learning and you?re adapting. And this is just one of those situations.”

With full-time jobs and other responsibilities, Pilch knows her players need to ?take care of business? away from the rink. But the Pride have been taking protocols seriously in order to keep not only themselves safe, but those around them safe as well.

“Because of the way things have gone so far in terms of our COVID protocols and everyone being on board with that, people wearing masks, people being smart away from the rink — obviously people have to take care of business when they?re away from us, as well. I think our team has just completely bought into that,” Pilch said. “They know how important it is to stay healthy and how much it could impact their teammates and their decisions. ? I think everyone has put so much effort into making this a success, I don?t want to say I haven?t worried about it because of course it?s something I worry about every day, but I?m so impressed with my players. It?s just a huge peace of mind that I know how responsible they?re being.”

It will be a season unlike any other, to say the least. And without having played a hockey game in nearly a year, Pilch believes that will be the biggest challenge.

“I think the biggest thing is we?re going to be going 10 months without a hockey game. And we had talked about some scrimmages, does that make sense? Ultimately that goes back to the safety of the virus and opening yourselves up to some other people here. But I think that will be the biggest challenge. ? It?s 16 days, nine games it?s gonna be a sprint and I think the hockey piece will be a challenge.”

For the Pride especially, this season holds a little more weight. The team will be playing with a chip on their shoulder after they were the NWHL?s best team preparing for the Isobel Cup against the Minnesota Whitecaps.

COVID-19 forced the NWHL to cancel its championship game. So it?s probably fair to assume once the Pride take the ice in just a few short weeks, they?ll be looking to pick up where they left off.

Thumbnail photo via Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports Images
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