The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the NWHL Bubble

The NWHL has been busy in Lake Placid over the past week, kicking off the now-five-team tournament to declare a champion. Not everything has been easy, but there's been a lot of things to get excited about, too.
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In the words of Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play legend Bob Cole, “Everything is happening.” 

In case you haven’t been keeping up with the latest goings-on with the National Women’s Hockey League of late, well, let’s just say it has been rather eventful. Yeah, eventful. That’s a good word to describe it.

Where do we start? Well, the NWHL is currently trying to play a truncated season and playoffs in a bubble at the Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y. The hockey has been quite good and there’s been a fair bit of on-ice intrigue. 

The Boston Pride, who lost one game all of last year and came into the tournament as a heavy favorite to win it all, have already lost two games, including a shocking 4-1 setback to the Connecticut Whale that would register as one of the biggest upsets in league history. It came despite the fact the Whale are without national team player Melissa Samoskevich, who had to miss the bubble tournament because it conflicted with her duties as an assistant coach with the women’s team at Penn State. Speaking of coaches, the Whale are led behind the bench by Colton Orr. Yes, that Colton Orr.

Some of the developments over the past week have been really good. Some have been really bad and really ugly. And in the case of a young, black Ivy League graduate and star defender for the Metropolitan Riveters named Saroya Tinker, some of them have been intertwined.

It’s a virtual toss-up between the worst two developments between the Riveters being forced to withdraw from the season because of a COVID outbreak and an ongoing and unseemly dispute between the league and the Barstool Sports website. For the best, it’s probably also a toss-up, between the news that the league has secured a significant partnership deal with Discover and that Tinker has raised more than $20,000 in a GoFundMe campaign for the Black Girl Hockey Club Scholarship Fund.

* The Riveters having to leave the bubble came after at least two players and a member of the coaching staff tested positive for COVID. The Riveters were off to a promising 2-1-0 start when the outbreak hit after their 1-0 loss to the first-place Minnesota Whitecaps Tuesday night. The Riveters’ exit leaves the league with the five remaining teams. As of Friday afternoon, the league had not decided how it would reconfigure the schedule or its playoff format.

* The situation with Barstool Sports has been nothing short of a public relations nightmare for the league, which released a statement Tuesday night distancing itself from the controversial website after its CEO, Erika Nardini, called out the league and some of the people who cover it after they publicly voiced their disapproval Barstool. Nardini has promoted the league through Barstool and her podcast Token CEO, which recently featured an appearance by Riveters players Kelly Babstock and Rebecca Russo. After the podcast was released, some fans of the league and journalists who cover it expressed their objections to Barstool. That prompted Nardini to release a video defending herself and Barstool and pointing out their advocacy for the NWHL.

That did nothing to satisfy Barstool’s critics. In fact, Riveters star Tinker reacted to the podcast and Nardini’s video with the following tweet:

That, in turn, prompted Barstool founder David Portnoy to say that Tinker, “should be in jail for that. To call a company white supremacist without a shred of proof…”

It’s a shame, really, that the tournament has been marred by bad publicity, but that also comes with the territory when a league is trying to establish itself as a viable entity in the eyes of potential fans and sponsors. When the spotlight shines, sometimes it hits places that you don’t necessarily want people to see. This could be seen as part of the growth process for a league that is only in its sixth season.

* And that growth will be fast-tracked by news that the league has reached a partnership with Discover that will see it become the official credit card of the NWHL. A source close to the league said the deal is as significant to the NWHL deal as the $1 million deal recently reached between Secret and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association. If that is indeed the case, it’s an enormous boost for a league that has a salary cap of $150,000 per team, but also splits sponsorship money equally with the players after expenses.

* In her rookie season in the league after a four-year career at Yale, Tinker had been a mainstay on defense for the Riveters for the three games they played, but used her platform to set up a GoFundMe initiative that, as of Friday afternoon, had raised almost $22,000 for the Black Girl Hockey Club Scholarship Fund. “As a player of color, I recognize that within surrounding arenas and hockey spaces, there are few who look like me,” Tinker wrote in her appeal. “Due to the lack of accessibility, affordability and acceptability, those of color have not been embraced nor welcomed within hockey culture and community. Although this is disappointing, we are making steps in the right direction with the help of organizations such as Black Girl Hockey Club.”

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