Mentally preparing for the NWHL bubble

It’s okay to find all this strange. Those involved do, too.

It’s impossible to say this is business as usual.

A potent combination of real-world circumstances and tremendous social media buzz have made this the most anticipated NWHL season in the league’s young history. While it is delivering all that it promised in terms of quality of play, broadcast clarity, and pure spectacle, it still feels a bit surreal for those on the inside.

“I’d definitely say it [feels] different,” explained Riveters goaltender Sonjia Shelly. “Going into [our first game] we had a lot of excitement, and I just wanted to channel that excitement and not get too high, not get too low. You still have those butterflies that you get.”

“We’ve been on a lot of Zoom calls,” laughed Beauts head coach Pete Perram when asked about his team’s preparation process, acknowledging the “limited” opportunities to take the ice as a team these last few months.

For all sorts of people, Zoom has become a staple of pandemic life as a means of staying connected. That’s apparently no different in a sports bubble. With no official quarantine period leading up to the season, teams are practicing an abundance of caution when not on the bench together.

Perram’s Beauts, for example, spent their first two days in Lake Placid prepping for their 7 p.m. starts by holding team meetings over Zoom, rather than in person, to minimize exposure.

“I think everyone’s been getting up at the same time these past two days and trying to stick to a routine,” Buffalo forward Jordan Juron described. “We’re trying to fill the time in our rooms alone. I think we’ve been doing a really good job of connecting on Zoom calls, whether that’s lines, power-play units — we’ve done a team Zoom call, just players.”

“The mental aspect is so huge,” she continued. “The biggest thing is just finding what works — everyone has something different — and just sticking to that.”

Though the bubble format has proven to be the most effective means of having a successful sports schedule in the Pandemic Era, nothing about a “bubble” is really natural. Perhaps there’s a contingent of people who have accepted isolation amid the grueling reality of the last year, but it’s a lot to process when teams are being ushered hours away from their families for multiple weeks to play in an empty arena and they’re not even able to share face-to-face interactions with teammates off the ice.

A wintery Lake Placid is a charming place to explore in Normal Times. Alas, the shops and snowy streets will have to wait for another day. Instead, players and coaches will get well acquainted with every nook and cranny of their hotel rooms.

But then there are moments of clarity. On a cold January weekend afternoon, the Riveters and Six played a hockey game to open a professional hockey season. Players left the world outside and got to enjoy the beloved children’s game. And wouldn’t you know it, the Riveters scored 61 seconds in. And there was joy. High fives. Hugs. It’s as much of an escape for players on the ice as it is for those watching at home on their screen miles away.

“After that first goal, you could see the weight go off our shoulders,” said head coach Ivo Mocek. “I would say that was a game-changer.”

Even Toronto Six head coach Digit Murphy could not help but exude positivity moments removed from a shutout loss to the Riveters in the season opener.

“What was so fun was playing in this historic game in the bubble,” said Murphy. “It was magical.” She added with a wry chuckle, “Wish we could have had a win.”

To hit the ice after such a hiatus is a sensational release. Postgame press conferences on opening day were filled with smiles and laughs, regardless of game results, out of sheer gratefulness to finally play a game that mattered after all this time. For at least a few hours each day, players can hit the ice together and feel the same competitive fire and bench camaraderie as they did this time last year; freedom, if only for a moment.

“The intensity and emotion was there,” commented Minnesota Whitecaps head coach Jack Brodt following his team’s opener. “We’ve been practicing against each other for four months. I think they’re sick and tired of listening to me … chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp, you know? It gave them an opportunity to finally go out there and do something on their own.”

“Once we knew the bubble was going to be a reality, everything was focused on making it to the bubble, trying to stay healthy, getting here,” said Pride captain Jillian Dempsey. “Now that we’ve done that and got the first game under our belt, we’re just trying to get rolling.”

Consider this when watching the NWHL Bubble: around the sporting universe, entire leagues are shutting down. Or operating with limited teams. Or attempting full seasons and running into game postponements and scheduling nightmares.

It’s just comforting to have hockey again in any capacity, however brief. It makes jumping through the extra hoops in the interest of safety worth it.

For as bizarre as everything about life in a hockey fishbowl seems, it’s wonderful that the fish are swimming at all.

It’s okay to think this all a bit strange. Those involved do, too.