The NWHL’s “bubble” has not gone according to plan. For as much as the league marketed a safe environment where players would be held to strict protocol, the NWHL itself cut corners to make a season happen. It took 10 days for the “bubble” to become a “modified bubble” where players can be added to rosters halfway through and a third of the league drops out before they can finish the briefest of tournaments.
Worse still, the lack of consistent updates from league management have kept fans and media alike guessing. It’s easy to be confused by rules that have allegedly been set from the beginning when no one knew what those rules are ahead of time. It’s led to a chaotic sequence of events with one surprise after another.
Let’s assess the timeline of events:
- Sat, Jan. 23, 1:00 p.m. - Riveters play the Toronto Six. Forward Tatiana Shatalova is conspicuously absent from the Metro lineup.
- ~4:00 p.m. - Head coach Ivo Mocek is asked why Shatalova did not make the trip to Lake Placid: “Various reasons. We don’t like to get into that too much.”
- 6:40 p.m. - Shatalova announces she will not be joining the team in Lake Placid. In a translated Instagram post, she says “Don’t get sick” with a green germ emoji. It remains unconfirmed whether Shatalova was present for any team functions/practices leading up to departure for Lake Placid.
Really hope missing Riveters' forward Tatiana Shatalova doesn't have COVID. Whatever's up with her preventing her from bubbling, though, best wishes! pic.twitter.com/DNMHtpSwfT— Meredith Foster (@fosterwrites) January 24, 2021
- As a point of interest: During their game against Toronto, the Metropolitan Riveters have Connecticut Whale trainer Paul Fernandes behind their bench (identifiable by Whale mask). Fernandes is later seen behind the Whale bench for Connecticut’s Jan. 24 game against Metro.
It is curious that the league would allow personnel to hop from bench to bench when so many other precautions remain in place to keep players and coaches away from each other off the ice. Fernandes is not the only borrowed trainer in Lake Placid. Tim Murray, hired to Lake Placid from the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, also bench-hops. A league source confirmed that the four league-owned franchises (Buffalo, Connecticut, Metro, Minnesota) shared Fernandes and Murray as team trainers. Boston and Toronto, independently owned, brought their own staffs.
- Tue, Jan. 26 - Riveters head coach Ivo Mocek and forward Rebecca Russo are removed from the Metro bench mid-game against the Minnesota Whitecaps. They are said to be “unavailable” after the game by assistant coach Ashley Johnston. Athletic trainer Tim Murray is behind the Riveters bench, as well as the Beauts’ bench for the following game against the Toronto Six. Paul Fernandes serves as athletic trainer for the Minnesota Whitecaps.
- Wed, Jan. 27 - Whale play the Boston Pride. Nicole Guagliardo is withheld from the lineup after dressing for the first two games. Fernandes is also not seen on the bench and is no longer working other games. Murray is also no longer behind the benches.
- Thu, Jan. 28, 2:37 p.m. - NWHL announces the Metropolitan Riveters have pulled out of the Lake Placid tournament. Multiple confirmed positive cases within the organization are confirmed. Madison Packer, Rebecca Russo, and Brooke Avery among those quarantining in hotel.
- 8:43 p.m. - Matt Porter of the Boston Globe reports that “at least one” Connecticut Whale player has tested positive. An unscheduled round of testing is planned for the following day.
- Fri, Jan. 29 - NWHL announces revised schedule and playoff structure, including a 4-vs-5 play-in series between Boston and Buffalo and a three-way round-robin between Connecticut, Minnesota and Toronto.
- Sat, Jan. 30 - Buffalo adds defender Lisa Chesson to its roster. Chesson was not previously in the Lake Placid “bubble,” but is said to have self-quarantined in the days leading up to the tournament.
- Sat, Jan. 31 - Whale sign four new players to their roster: Rachael Ade, Sarah Hughson, Maeve Reilly and Mariah Fujimagari. They suit up for that night’s game against the Toronto Six. Brooke Wolejko, Kayla Friesen, Tori Howran, Nicole Guagliardo and Mackenzie Lancaster are all “unavailable.”
- Mon, Feb. 1, 12:22 p.m. - Minnesota adds Amanda Boulier to its roster. Like Chesson, Boulier had not previously been participating in the tournament.
- 5:00 p.m. - Connecticut Whale announce forfeit of their game against the Minnesota Whitecaps, the last opponent Metro had played prior to ending their season. Whitecaps had already dressed for the game and taken the ice for warmups. Note: since playing the Riveters on the 26th, Minnesota played the Toronto Six on Jan. 30.
- 6:06 p.m. - Sportsnet’s Marisa Ingemi reports that there have been no positive tests on the Connecticut Whale, but the team sought to postpone the game out of concern for further exposure.
- 7:55 p.m. - Boston Pride head coach Paul Mara is informed that their game against the Buffalo Beauts- intended to be an elimination game to determine the fourth seed of the Isobel Cup Semi-Final- is no longer do-or-die. The Whale intend to leave the tournament.
- 8:30 p.m. - The puck drops on Boston Pride vs Buffalo Beauts, “Game 3.”
- 8:35 p.m. - NWHL releases to reporters that the Connecticut Whale have pulled out of the Lake Placid season.
- 8:47 p.m. - NWHL league account announces the Whale’s departure on social media.
- ~9:00 p.m. - Buffalo Beauts head coach Pete Perram is informed “late in the first period” of the Connecticut Whale’s departure. His team has made the Isobel Cup Semi-Final.
- 9:01 p.m. - Ingemi reports that the Whale did not want to risk further exposure with confirmed positives on the Metropolitan Riveters.
- Tue, Feb. 2 - The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell publishes a piece alleging that the Whale will announce the reasons for their absence themselves, “if and when they want to. If not, it will go down as a mystery.”
There haven’t been any reports of players or staff members breaking protocol once they arrived in Lake Placid. In fact, Beauts head coach Pete Perram has said that when not on the ice, his players are holed up in their hotel rooms with team meetings conducted exclusively through Zoom so as to limit exposure. That’s an awfully extreme measure to take for players on the same team in a supposed “bubble,” but good on them for being extra safe and making the right move for self-preservation.
That caution is completely undercut by the league’s lack of available staff, unfortunately. If players and coaches are meant to be kept as distant as possible unless taking the ice opposite one another, why would four teams be asked to share two staffers? Doesn’t that ensure if one team falls ill in a doomsday scenario, there’s a potential carrier in the midst of the other three? Without speculating as to who has been exposed to what and insinuating someone has tested positive when they haven’t, the optics alone raise red flags.
Updates from the league have been brief, vague and intermittent. Neither commissioner Ty Tumminia nor any other league representative have been available for public questioning in the wake of the Riveters’ and Whale’s health concerns. Per league sources, a statement from the Connecticut Whale is expected at some point in the next day or two.
Which is a long time to wait in Media Time. While it is difficult maintaining full transparency and medical privacy, teams and leagues have tended to lean more towards the former during the pandemic in the interest of public safety and to limit baseless speculation. For an immediate example, the New Jersey Devils of the NHL have postponed their next few games because 14 players have been added to the COVID Protocol list- and those names are public record.
By constantly delaying announcements and leaving it up to individual reporters to break news, often with no warning, the NWHL as an entity is playing catch-up, rather than getting out in front of a media circus.
The NWHL ought to be the first to break the bombshell news that a team is dropping out of a season, not individual reporters. It should have a prepared explanation, however flimsy. It should make itself available for public comment that night, rather than leave it up to reporters following conflicting leaks and rumors- “Is it COVID-related or isn’t it??”
Fans aren’t the only ones burned by a lack of knowledge. For instance: how does it happen that one team’s coaching staff knows its fate before the other? Though Perram did not publicly acknowledge any hurt feelings about finding out his team’s inclusion in the Semi-Final significantly later than his opposing coach (not that he’d manage the game any differently, most likely), that information should be disseminated simultaneously.
If Shatalova did indeed test positive and is posting as much on Instagram the day of the first game (conveniently after her team’s press conference), at what point did the Riveters know of that positive test? The league? Was Shatalova at practice? Did other players on the team fail to quarantine before their bus trip to Lake Placid? Was proper contact tracing conducted?
If the Whale pulled out because they did not feel safe, what is the official stance of the other four teams? The ones who played Metro specifically? The ones who shared trainers? If the Boston Globe is reporting “at least one” Whale player tested positive, how is it safe to bring in four new players to the roster?
How much longer is this going to be dragged out before there are concrete answers to big questions?
See how the questions pile up?
Any team or league that chooses to operate in the middle of a pandemic, touting safe working conditions in an insulated environment, needs to be ready to answer the call when things aren’t as safe as advertised. Make no mistake, the bubble walls have popped.
While it’s cynical to think so, one can’t help but speculate whether the league wishes to avoid talking specifics on the failings of their “bubble” right before they take the largest national stage they’ve ever taken on NBC Sports Thursday night.
The counter-argument to that of course being the more shrouded in mystery this issue becomes, the more bothersome it is to watch the league put on a happy face and boast its storylines and marketable personalities as if it hasn’t already lost some of its best storylines and marketable personalities.
Enough with Twitter leaks, enough with vagaries. Face the music.