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The NWHL fan experience is embracing the madness

This season on Law & Order: BUBBLE — ice crimes

Michelle Jay

In addition to the myriad challenges going into the Lake Placid Bubble, the NWHL was also faced with one unique complication: when fans are completely removed from the in-person equation, how does a league make viewers’ experiences as memorable as they would be if they were at the rink?

The answer has manifested itself in some unconventional and unabashed silliness.

Creating new traditions

Take, for example, the Seventh Inning Stretch.

“Ty [Tumminia, NWHL commissioner] is from the baseball world,” NWHLPA director Anya Packer told The Ice Garden. “So she was like, ‘Why don’t we have a Seventh Inning Stretch?’”

It goes without saying that hockey doesn’t have innings, but according to Packer, Tumminia wanted to bring one of her favorite things about baseball into the bubble, no matter how odd it might seem to viewers. While some of the bubble’s features, like the aforementioned Stretch and the now Twitter-famous Lavender Ice were planned in advance, the best of the best fan engagement has emerged on its own, in no small part thanks to the unique and thriving Twitch chat community.

Thanks to the chats, penalties are no longer penalties. Gone is two minutes for body checking; now it’s a two-minute sentence for ice crime. If it’s the Connecticut Whale committing said crime, they’re off to spend two minutes on the penalty krill while the offender serves out their sentence in the Fin Bin.

Meanwhile, during the breaks between periods, a star has been born. The man, the myth, the captain of the Gleam Team, the Gloss Boss himself — Aaron the Zam Man. Accompanied by his Partner in Shine Harv, the Zambonanza has taken on a life of its own.

How big is Zambonanza? Just ask a certain senator from Vermont.

Aside from Zambonanza and a new hockey lexicon being born, the highlight of the Twitch fan experience is undoubtedly the chat. Overseen by eagle-eyed mods who weed out trolls with lightning speed, the viewing community has cultivated a space built on welcoming everyone with open arms. LGBTQ+ pride emotes fly left and right, which might seem like a tiny thing in the grand scale, but when young queer viewers announce that the chat is the only place they feel comfortable showing pride in their identity, it becomes something much bigger.

The community is coalescing

“We can be a place where people feel like they can be themselves or feel like they can share a part of themselves that they’re not comfortable sharing yet,” said Packer.

“[Fans] can explore that idea of what does gender fluidity look like? What does orientation look like? What does love look like to me? And in that space they can learn, and they can see somebody like Harrison, they can see somebody like Layshia in the WNBA, they can see gay players, they can see bi players, they can see all these different facets of players.”

Another unique part of the welcome atmosphere? The gift-giving. Gifting subscriptions is a hallmark of the Twitch platform, with revenue from every gift sub going to both Twitch and the NWHL, and every single game stream has seen boosts of generosity.

According to Packer, a “conservative estimate” indicates that 3,000 subs have been gifted so far.

Twitch’s on-the-fly nature allows the league to accommodate fans’ requests in real time. When the chat requested an emote for the Black Girl Hockey Club, Packer didn’t hesitate to reach out to BGHC founder Renee Hess for permission.

“I was like, I don’t want to take your likeness and I don’t want to use your face and your image if you’re not comfortable,” said Packer about their conversation. “[Renee] was like, ‘Here’s a photo, here’s what it looks like.’ She was like, ‘Let’s go!’”

Working to change hockey culture

In addition to the emote, Hess pointed to the league taking the BGHC Get Uncomfortable pledge, the Minnesota Whitecaps donating $30 to the nonprofit for every goal they score, and the landmark work of Riveters defender Saroya Tinker with the Black Girl Hockey Club Scholarship Fund, which to date has raised almost $27,000.

Of course, as the past couple of weeks have demonstrated, the antiracist work in hockey culture has long, long way to go, something Packer acknowledges when discussing the fan experience.

“I think we’ve seen that now more than ever that there is a lot of work to be done,” said Packer. “I always say I’m straight-passing. Nobody would look at me and be like, ‘oh, that’s clearly a gay person.’ And every time we talk about these conversations, I go, ‘well, I could always just not say that I’m gay if I felt uncomfortable.’ But Saroya, or Whitney Dove, or Briana Mastel, or Mikyla [Grant-Mentis], or any of the players in the league can’t just take their Black skin off.”

In a culture notorious for its rigidity and stiff-upper-lip ethos, creating an environment that celebrates fun for its own sake is borderline subversive. Once the bubble’s mayhem is over, hopefully, the league will carry forward what it’s learned from fans.