After NWHL's 'Bubble' Bursts, Where Does the League Go From Here?

The only women's pro hockey league in North America has made some very positive strides, but will the damage done over the past 11 days - a lot of it self-inflicted - be too much to overcome?
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You talk to some people involved in women’s hockey and they’ll tell you that there are huge changes coming to the National Women’s Hockey League. Really positive changes around being more organized, accountable, transparent and professional. And apparently, there are still people willing to sign cheques to try to make that happen, even after the complete debacle that was the 2020-21 NWHL’s non-bubble non-season.

And that’s great, but you have to wonder if the damage that has been done over the past couple of weeks is irreparable. You hope it isn’t, but it might be. Considering all that has transpired since the league launched in Lake Placid 11 days ago, you’d have to think there are fans (and potential sponsors) who are so turned off that they feel this league can’t fold soon enough, paving the way for the NHL to save it. That might be the only answer here.

We do know this. The 2020-21 NWHL season and playoffs in Lake Placid was an enormous opportunity for this league to make strides and capture the hearts and minds of casual sports fans. And it failed. Miserably. The two semifinals Thursday night and the final Friday night were to be televised nationally on the NBC Sports Network, which would have given the league a level of exposure never seen before. But in the space of 11 days, the league waffled on its ties to a misogynistic website, then had to send a team home (the Metropolitan Riveters) because of a COVID outbreak, then saw another team (the Connecticut Whale) leave because of fears of COVID, then had to shut the entire season down because of a further outbreak.

We also know this. These things did not happen in the WNBA, a league that successfully completed its bubble season in October. Nor did they happen in the National Women’s Soccer League, which survived having a team drop out before it became the first pro league to complete its season in July. The NWSL, in fact, got record TV ratings, attracted new sponsors and announced a Los Angeles expansion team backed by actor Natalie Portman.

And what was the difference between what the NWHL did and what their basketball and soccer counterparts did? Well, the WNBA and NWSL had a strict protocols and bubbles that were enforced. The NWHL sort of had a bubble that it talked about, then kind of followed, but not really. When the league announced its format, it clearly used the word ‘bubble’ to describe the set-up. But when commissioner Tyler Tumminia spoke about it Wednesday night, she suddenly started using the term, ‘restrictive access environment’.

Well, you’re either in a bubble or you’re not. And the NWHL was anything but a bubble. Players from some of the teams did not arrive at the same time in Lake Placid. Teams were allowed to bring players into the bubble after the tournament began. There were reports that, despite the fact players were supposed to be restricted to the rink and the team hotel, some players were seen walking around the town. The league will take some time to contact trace and determine where things went wrong, but it’s pretty clear the protocols weren’t near tight enough, nor did everyone involved follow them. And that was where everything broke down.

And because of that, the NWHL is wondering what might have been rather than taking advantage of an enormous opportunity. There were teams that followed the protocols religiously and there were others that were less vigilant. What was supposed to be a bubble was actually a ‘restrictive access environment’ and if people from the NWHL had taken time to get input from the successful leagues, they would have quickly realized there was no way they were giving themselves a chance to be successful without an air-tight bubble.

“I think hindsight is always 20-20 in anything that anyone does,” said NWHL Players’ Association director Anya Packer. Yeah, but you know what is also 20-20? Foresight, that’s what. And as one person pointed out, it’s a lot easier to get someone to comply with a strict bubble when hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars are on the line. But what leverage do you have with an athlete who makes $7,000 a year?

Until last season, the NWHL was known as a single-entity league, which basically means all the teams in the league were owned by one group, in this case, a group called Women’s Hockey Partners. The ECHL started the same way in the 1980s and it has done pretty well. That model changed when a group of investors called BTM partners purchased the Boston Pride and launched the expansion Toronto Six team. In October, the league underwent a major restructuring, replacing commissioner Dani Rylan with Tumminia and establishing a league constitution and by-laws that had not existed and installed a board of governors for the first time. With the folding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the emergence of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, which is home to the majority of the elite international players, the game is fractured in a way it never has been before. These are major growing pains. The only problem is over the past little while, the women’s game has seen the pains without the growth.

“We’re really more of a teenager than a fully formed adult,” said John Boynton, the top investor in the league whose wife, Johanna, is owner of the Toronto Six. “But we’ve got good parents and we’re on a good path. I’m confident that we’re going to get there, but it’s going to take some time.”

After what transpired over the past 11 days, the NWHL can only hope it’s not too late for this troubled teenager to get it’s life back on the right track.

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