Women's Hockey Fans and Players Deserve Better from the NWHL

From teams up and leaving the tournament under a shroud of mystery to a bubble that really isn't a bubble, the NWHL is doing itself no favors by not being transparent and getting out in front of the story.
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With the Original 6 now down to an Original 4, it’s fairly safe to say the National Women’s Hockey League bubble season that actually isn’t really a bubble season has not gone as planned. The Metropolitan Riveters withdrew because of a COVID outbreak and the Connecticut Whale pulled the chute just prior to their game Monday night, then announced they were leaving as well.

There are conflicting reports about whether or not the Whale left for COVID reasons. Apparently the league has decided it’s going to let the Whale explain their absence, if and when they want to. If not, it will go down as a mystery. Seriously.

If the NWHL wants to be taken seriously in the hearts and minds of the sports consumer, perhaps it’s time it started comporting itself in the way that a major sports league would. If the Whale left the bubble out of fears of COVID or because of an outbreak, there’s no shame in letting people know that. If the exit was not COVID-related, then there’s some serious explaining to do. And it’s up to the league stand up, be accountable and tell people exactly what happened. You don’t leave something like this to the team to explain away any way it sees fit. (I would also suggest that if it turns out the Whale’s departure was not COVID-related that the league inform them that they probably shouldn’t bother coming back when next season begins. There has to be some very serious sanctions for just up and leaving in the middle of the tournament.)

And, hey, what happened to the bubble here? When the league announced its plans to hold its season and the Isobel Cup playoffs over two weeks in Lake Placid, it said, “The goal of the bubble season is to play in a protective environment that prioritizes the health and safety of the players, staff and surrounding community.” It talked about all teams having to adhere to strict protocols and, in addition to nasal testing, teamed up with Yale University to also conduct saliva testing. “With the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape, these protocols will be modified based on the most current research and evidence,” the league said at the time.

So then what does it do? After all the players have quarantined and been isolated in Lake Placid, it begins to allow players to join their teams in the middle of the tournament. Wait, what? The Buffalo Beauts added a player, as did the Minnesota Whitecaps. Prior to leaving the bubble, Connecticut added three players. Either you’re playing in a bubble or you’re not. We’re being told now that the NWHL actually considers its format to be a “modified bubble” that would allow teams to add players provided they tested negative before departing for Lake Placid and then once again when they arrived. All the players who were added to rosters met those requirements.

How convenient.

There are a couple of key lessons for the NWHL to learn here. One of them is all about transparency. In the absence of facts and explanations, people are going to make assumptions and that is what is happening right now. All of this screams, absolutely screams, for league commissioner Ty Tumminia to hold a news conference to tell people exactly what is happening here. I’ve said this before, but what the NWHL has to realize here is that if you’re going to put yourself in the spotlight, you have to be prepared to deal with it shining in places you’d rather it didn’t. If you want to be taken seriously as a league, you can’t simply expect fans and media to focus on the feel good stories and ignore the ones that might incite controversy. That’s not the way this works. Would a Ty Tumminia news conference right now be perhaps a little tense, maybe even confrontational? Probably, but leaders of sports leagues face those issues all the time. And the ones with credibility meet those issues head-on, they don’t hide from them.

See because here’s the thing. Women’s hockey has a lot of momentum going right now. The growth in enrollment in girls’ hockey is the envy of a lot of other sports. The league just signed a partnership deal reportedly worth $1 million with Discover. The semifinals and Isobel Cup final will be telecast by NBC Sports and on Jan. 30, the NWHL’s stream on Twitch received 1.37 million views. That is not insignificant. This league is doing some really good things and it’s chock full of incredible athletes who are talented, compelling and inspiring, both on and off the ice.

The interest is there. But it’s not going to stay there if the league continues to operate in a haphazard way under a cone of silence. Fans deserve better. And the players who dream of someday being full-time athletes who can live on what they make in this league deserve better, too.

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