The NWHL will set its sights on a January 2021 start for the league’s sixth season in order to comply with health and safety directives during the global pandemic.
The 2020-21 season was initially intended to begin in November, already later than its traditional October start, but is being pushed back due to the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic.
The league expects each team will complete its 20 regular-season games between January and March ahead of the Isobel Cup playoffs in late March, and will aim to host its annual All-Star Game following the postseason.
A league executive told The Ice Garden getting 20 games in per team over a short season is “not difficult to get in over more than 12 weeks when we always have teams play two games each weekend.”
In April, the league formed a COVID-19 Safety Committee to plan for the return to play. The committee is led by infectious disease and Sports Health experts, including doctors Andrew Feldman, MD, and Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas, MD, from NYU Langone Health, one of the top academic medical centers in the U.S. NYU Langone Health is also an official NWHL partner.
“The Safety Committee has and will continue to prioritize NWHL player, staff, fan, and media safety above all else while adapting to the ever-changing COVID-19 situation,” said Dr. Gonzalez-Lomas, assistant professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and SportsHealth expert at NYU Langone Health. “We are eager to meet the challenge ahead and do our utmost to safely return the athletes to the sport they love.”
League executives and the NWHLPA also are on the committee.
“The NWHLPA is well-represented on the league’s COVID-19 committee,” said NWHL players’ association director Anya Packer in a statement. “The PA has been included in all discussions in regards to player safety and league scheduling, and co-authored the overall return-to-play protocol. We feel our voices have been heard thus far and we will continue to ensure that the safety and well-being of the players is at the forefront of all discussions and formal protocols.”
Optional on-ice practices and off-ice training will begin for players the week of Sept. 21 with formal practices during the week of Oct. 19, in accordance with local regulations.
A league spokesperson also told The Ice Garden the league plans to “more deeply” engage with fans through Twitch streams in the event audiences are not permitted to attend the games live.
“We see it as the best of both worlds. Thanks to our partners and team owners, the NWHL is providing more three months of coaching and development with practices and off-ice training, and then an exciting sprint to the Isobel Cup from January through March,” said Deputy Commissioner Shelly Picard in a statement to The Ice Garden. “It will all happen under the direction of the infectious disease experts at NYU Langone Health, whose support has been invaluable in creating Return to Play protocols and guidelines that will help us get our athletes safely back on the ice.”
The NWHL’s sixth season will begin with six teams, as the league welcomes in the Toronto Six, still to be decided on an arena. To date, 99 players have signed with teams for the upcoming season.