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NWHL won't return until January, but COVID may still present danger to a season


Will the NWHL be playing hockey in 2021? That's the current plan. Victory Press and women’s hockey reporter Melissa Burgess spoke with WBFO’s Nick Lippa about the what the league is doing now as the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S continues.

Nick Lippa: The NWHL recently released their season six timeline, free agents are finding their way to new teams, an expansion in Toronto has been added to the league-- what's the general update on the NWHL?

MB: So right now, you're right, like you said the NWHL recently released their season six timeline. Previously they had said that they weren't expecting to start the season until November, which a couple months ago certainly made sense given how things were then. The update now is that the season will not begin until January 2021. And I think that makes a lot of sense to push it out further given the fact that the pandemic is still going on, given the fact that the borders still closed, and there's still obviously a lot of uncertainty ahead. So as of August 1, there's 99 players signed in the league that have been announced for next season. And as you said, a new team in Toronto, which is exciting. Adding a new team accross the border like that is great. But obviously, given the circumstances, it also makes things more complicated because how do teams cross the border? With this season that they're announcing to start in January, they've reduced the schedule just a little bit. Teams are expected to play 20 games. This past season, they played 24. So it's just a slight reduction, but obviously it's a lot more compressed of a timeline. Because they also still expect to complete the Isobel cup playoffs by the end of March. So you're talking about a 20 games season, plus playoffs in a three month span. So basically, it probably means every weekend teams are playing two games. With six teams in the league now, I would expect that means that you're playing the other teams four times total. I would say two times away and two times home. 

MB: And then the league also will aim to hold it's all star game, but they're going to kind of push that back until after playoffs are completed, which is definitely the smart move because obviously you want to finish the season first, especially given everything that's going on. And there have been a bunch of new player signings. Most of the players signed for the new Toronto team are going to be newcomers to the league, which is exciting. But you've also had some other players who have previously played in the league like Shiann Darkangelo, who played for the Beauts. Kelly Babstock, who also played for the Beauts at one point, both of those players are now going to Toronto. But I think it's going to be exciting. We all know buffalo Toronto hockey is competitive. It's energetic, it's a rivalry. And I would expect nothing less once this NWHL season starts.

When you look at the NBA and NHL, those players are in a bubble. With the MLB, we recently had Toronto be told they can't play there this season. With Toronto as the new expansion, if the border situation is settled by January 2021, do you think the NWHL will be able to continue with their season?

MB: So I'm just gonna preface this by saying this is completely just my opinion of things, but my thought is if the border is still closed, the NWHL season cannot go on as planned because yes, you talk about the NBA and the NHL being in a bubble and things like that. But those are also players who make a living off of playing sports, whereas these players can't leave their jobs to go play in a bubble for weeks or months at a time. And that also, I think, would impact their status of being able to cross the border, because are you crossing the border for work? And kind of, but not for your living wage paying jobs. So how does that impact things? So I think it's a lot more complicated than the NHL or the NBA getting in a bubble or even the MLB, where we've seen where Toronto isn't going to let the Blue Jays play there, but they're going to supposedly play in Buffalo. The other thing to think about is the precautions that they're going to have to take. I recently saw a video of the North Town Center at Amherst showcasing, 'These are the precautions that we've taken. We have this entrance open for players who are walking in. And this for players who are exiting and locker rooms are closed in and all this other stuff.' And you have to think all of that has to get a lot better before an NWHL season begins because you're not going to reasonably expect professional hockey players to have to come to the rink in full gear, not have access to a locker room, You're not going to reasonably expect that of them. So I think it also really depends on what happens in the next few months. 

MB: And then of course, there's the aspect of will there be fans. And if there aren't fans, do they even do the games?

And its worth mentioning there are still players boycotting the NWHL this year who are signing up for the PWHPA.

MB: Yes, so as of right now there's about 130 players who have signed up for the PWHPA who have been announced,for next season. Some of them formerly played at the NWHL. Some of them are new college graduates like Maddie Rooney from Team USA who I recently spoke to. And their season is also up in the air. It's a perfect time for a conversation like this because I am in the middle of finishing my next piece for the Victory Press on this very topic kind of updating where things stand for the organizations and what's going to happen going forward.

READ: What Does Women's Hockey Look Like Amid A Pandemic?

Victory Press ran a piece last year with players criticizing the NWHL over the conditions of practice facilities, etc. I have to imagine during a pandemic, the conditions for these players has to be at the front of the NWHL's mind.

MB: Yeah I think that's something that you can look at with both the NWHL and the PWHPA is these players are not making a living wage off of this, off of playing hockey. Obviously the PWHPA in this case, they're not getting paid at all. This is not their normal job. They cannot afford, literally cannot afford to take risks that could put their livelihood and their health and their safety at risk because if they get sick playing a game that impacts their off ice job, that impacts their daily life. Their income. Their housing. So it's all these other factors that the NWHL and the PWHPA are going to want to take all the necessary precautions and then some to make sure that conditions are really safe for these players.

If everything moves in a positive direction and we get a season, what will the Beauts look like come 2021?

MB: It's gonna be a very different team for the Beauts this coming season as far as we know right now there's a handful of new players and just a small contingent of returning players. New goaltending. Still waiting for captain Corinne Buie to sign. Whether she signs in Buffalo or elsewhere, I'm not sure. But the Beauts have a lot of defenders signed for next season. I think they'll be strong on the back end and probably obviously flex some of those players to play forward. But still some names from last season that we're waiting to hear sign. I think it'll be an interesting team, a lot of new blood, but then also adding in that Toronto rivalry. Hopefully those new players on the Beauts kind of instantly are able to pick up on that Buffalo-Toronto heat and take that to the ice.

There were concerns heading in to last year the health of the NWHL. If the NWHL were forced to miss another season entirely, would it potentially be in danger of folding?

MB: You know, I think it would definitely have an impact. Yes, there's sponsorship money. But if you can't have fans in the stands, then you're not getting the income from tickets. You're not getting as much merchandise sales. And those are things that contribute to the player salaries and things like that. With a year off, if that were to happen, I also think just from the fan base, you've got diehard women's hockey fans who are going to come back even if there is a year gap. But some of those more casual fans really might fall off if there's a year break and that would absolutely obviously stink. But I think you just have to wait and see what happens. I think if COVID does negatively impact the season more than it already has to the point where the season has to be canceled that the league can take that time and build more sponsorships, build more media. coverage, and maybe work on building their fan base even further than what it is, despite the fact that they may not have that nice product to showcase. But I think that would definitely be a real challenge.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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