Transcript: NWHL media availability on the suspension of the 2021 season

In light of today’s announcement that the NWHL’s 2021 season would be suspended due to COVID-19 and player safety concerns, the league held a media availability over Zoom attended by NWHL Commissioner Tyler Tumminia; Toronto Six owner Johanna Neilson Boynton, Toronto Six president and head coach Digit Murphy; Buffalo Beauts head coach Pete Perram; and NWHLPA executive director Anya Packer.

In the interest of providing our readers with as much information as possible a full transcription of that press conference — excluding an introduction of those being made available to the media — can be read below.

Tyler Tumminia: Hi, good evening, everyone. Obviously, it’s with great sadness, a broken heart from the league that we are here today. And unfortunately, we didn’t get to the end zone here of breaking history and making history and with having our athletes on the network [NBC Sports]. I want to first make sure I thank all of the staff and employees at Lake Placid Olympic Center, ORDA, and state department [of health], and everyone that we had to deal with on the business end of stuff. Our sponsors as well, in order to support us and make what we still believe is quite a successful turn of events in the last 12 days.

Of course, I couldn’t do it without our board of governors, our owners. Anya [Packer] and her help with the [NWHL] Players Association, our coaches, our staff, and our players.

We still are very, very excited and thrilled about what happened here in Lake Placid. And what this meant to women’s hockey overall.

Granted, we didn’t get it to [be broadcast] the network. But we are still thrilled. The strides in brand, in awareness, and what we were able to do with this league, which I feel has been unprecedented in the last couple of weeks in our growth, again, very heartbroken. We didn’t get onto the network. But safety has always been our first priority. I do feel we made the right decision.

So instead of putting our athletes, our staff, as well as ORDA and their staff at risk continuing, it was in our best interest to suspend.

Digit Murphy: You know I always love the microphone. Guys. Thank you so much for being here. You guys know that the press is such an important part of what we need to do, which is getting the message out.

I have to thank, obviously, Tyler for making this happen — 10 weeks as commissioner. We didn’t get to the finish line; the bubble burst. What are we going to do our owners, everyone put so much time, energy, effort into this. I’m bummed we didn’t get there. We didn’t make the history, but our players are pumped that potentially we come back at some point. We are in a spot where women’s hockey is on the map. Again, better for this bubble. Twitch viewers were up, so much positive happened. We were thrilled — over the moon. The Toronto Six is so pumped. They’re so grateful, we are grateful. As someone that’s been in this sport for 45 years — yes, 45 years, I know I’m old as dirt, but it’s just been a pleasure. We’re gonna soar and we’re gonna hockey stick it up in the future. But thanks, you guys. Thanks for everyone for being here. And we’re so bummed that we couldn’t play but we’ll be back and the dance party will be back and the tiny hands.

Pete Perram: I can’t follow Digit that well, but I’ll do my best.

I too want to thank everybody. I think you know, coming into the bubble there was a little anxiety, we didn’t know what to expect, but the moment we arrived the focus was on hockey and the focus on celebrating women’s hockey particularly was amazing.

Are we disappointed? Unbelievably disappointed, we wanted to be there, we wanted to play Digit, we wanted to play Toronto tomorrow night. We were ready. We had one-on-one meetings last night with each player, just a mental health check, just to make sure everybody was up, to a player, that we were ready to go. We wanted that. So it is disappointing. But we look back, we talked about it as a team, and we look back and say, ‘You know, this is an experience we’ll never get back again.’ You’ll never have that opportunity. So we will have this to carry forward and remember and the development of our teams and the family and it’s just pulled together.

I’m sorry, I’m probably dragging on too long. But I want little one little analogy for you. And I know a lot of you out there that write for us are very smart hockey people. And so I’m going to use a coaching analogy, and I’m going to put the hat on just so we get a pure perspective here. But when we, when we consider this as a game, and you know, every game, there’s going to be mistakes made, and turn the puck over in the neutral zone it’s going to cause a goal, it’s a mistake. Every opportunity builds to a better opportunity and a better result, I expect that that’s going to be the case in this with our experience here.

And in this case, you know, we can look at this look back at this game that we played as a team with Ty as the coach and know we trusted her, trusted the plan game plan she had, and it worked. It worked. Yeah, we turned the puck over a couple of times ... but in the end, we got to where we wanted to go. We built the recognition, and I’m so thankful for that. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to coach these amazing women, professional athletes that don’t nearly get the recognition they deserve. And because of you guys are getting that opportunity. So I want to thank you as well.

Erica Ayala: Thank you. First, I would actually like to hear, Anya, if you had a statement that you’d like to offer to everyone after being able to hear the coaches and then for Ty, if you could maybe describe — you had two teams that essentially dropped out before the league decided to suspend activity. Can you walk us through the difference of approach between the Riveters being disqualified and the Connecticut Whale essentially opting to not continue? Thank you.

Anya Packer: I’ll start quickly, Ty, then I’ll pass it over to you. I want to echo everyone’s thoughts and sentiments. But from the Players Association, naturally, we always are going to advocate for the well-being and safety of our players. We stuck by a very strict protocol and, you know, there’s human error. And so for us, it took constant conversation with the league head office with Tyler, with the players, with the board of governors to make sure that our players were safe.

So from my standpoint, I’m here to represent the player voice, and also answer any questions that might come our way. But know that we were in lockstep and we work very closely with Tyler and her organization to ensure that the players were treated at the highest level.

Tyler Tumminia: Just to comment on two different varying reasons as to why the two teams left. The first team leaving: we had a designated threshold of what that looked like approved, going into the bubble, of when we would make a decision when a team would be out because of the COVID risk, or the numbers of COVID.

So as it’s been stated, the numbers were for the Riveters when they first came in a couple of days. There was no other option for them. They had to be removed from the bubble. In regards to Connecticut, I believe they came out with a statement today which the league supports. If they at any time — with the coaches or players since it was a team-level decision or their owners at the team-owner level — said that ... they would like to opt out, the league fully supported that.

It’s kind of what we said at the beginning of the bubble, right? We gave everybody the option, and we also gave them the acknowledgment of saying this is a risk, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, they were under full knowledge coming into this bubble, like all sports leagues are experiencing. Unfortunately, we have now been trapped into what other sports leagues are experiencing as well. This is a no joke, this pandemic, we’re right in the middle of it, and if ... doesn’t care.

So the one major thing from a league standpoint, which we’ve always stood by, was a player has to feel safe, that they would like to proceed forward. We would have never, from a league standpoint, [have] told any team or any player that they had to be here. With that said, as much as you guys all know, the league still stands by their statement that anybody that did opt-out, we are still honoring their full contract.

Erica Ayala: Ty, can you maybe just talk a little bit more about that threshold number? I don’t think that was ever explicitly shared. But how many players would the Riveters have needed to continue on in the tournament?

Tyler Tumminia: Well, for that threshold, it’s a little bit unique. Right? So it’s been out there that it was 10, I think, that we had positive cases. That would have been a little bit hard to complete that roster going forward, that bench. So yeah, that threshold was determined between us and ORDA. And that they didn’t meet that threshold. So, therefore, they had to exit out.

Mike Murphy: Thanks so much for your time. Really a question I guess for Tyler and Anya, specifically. You mentioned there’s human error involved here. Is there some sense of knowing where things went wrong in terms of how this started? How the first couple players got infected with the protocols that were in place? And with the testing that was in place? Do you have some sense of following the breadcrumbs to how this happened? And how there was difficulty trying to contain it even with pulling some of the teams out?

Anya Packer: I think that for us, we’re doing an extensive amount of contact tracing. So at this point, we’re investigating internally. And you know, Ty, if you want to kind of elaborate a little bit further, but I think right now, what we’re trying to do is, make sure our athletes are safe, and go back to ensure that we’ve figured out where there might have been a chink in the armor.

Tyler Tumminia: All of this ... after the bubble, or the restrictive access environment, there’s going to be a lot of review and assessment, right?

Unfortunately, I hate the fact that I have all this knowledge about COVID now. But there is an evaluation period. I know from my standpoint, from a league standpoint, we will have as we go into next week, defining the origin and placing blame right now is not really our game. Yes, there is an amount of accountability that has to happen in order to make a bubble successful on a team level, 1,000 percent. A restrictive access environment cannot be successful unless we have all participants leading in the right direction, having accountability, doing what they’re supposed to be doing in the COVID plans, and all of the information that we’ve been giving prior, during, and after.

I think we’ll have a little bit more clarity as to, you know, maybe some next steps moving forward, you know, some best practices moving forward as well. But from our standpoint, right now, that’s still stuck. Because we’re so small, right? We’re in a two-week, not a two-, three-month [window]; the assessment has to happen after the battle.

Mike Murphy: And one quick follow up with, you know, talking to coaches and players after games. We heard a lot about “unavailable” players, players who weren’t in the lineup, and things like that. Were there positive COVID tests on every team or was it just a few of the teams?

Tyler Tumminia: Sure. So, guys, the reason why we chose to say “unavailable” was mostly because of HIPAA policies and rules. That was a defined league policy going into it. I am not allowed to tell you who has COVID. Also, the amount of numbers right now is also something that the league had taken a stance that we weren’t going to talk about. There’s varying degrees of privacy levels and HIPAA levels, and we had agreed with ORDA that we would not disclose that information.

Hannah Beavis: Hi, this first question is for Anya and then potentially the coaches if it’s relevant, you think it could answer. We’ve seen with the Whale that some players weren’t comfortable staying in the bubble, with positive tests. So Anya, how were you able to stay in contact with players from different teams who may have felt that their safety was compromised? And same for the coaches? Pete, I know you touched on this a bit earlier?

Anya Packer: Yeah, I think it’s the most important that we live in a technology-filled world. So it’s regular cadence, whether that be through, you know, ‘Hey, guys, pick up your phone, let’s get on a FaceTime, or let’s get on Zoom.’ So, you know, anytime we had any varying degree of conversation, whether that be a question for clarity, or a raised concern, the PA steps in very swiftly.

We have our two reps per team, and those reps will funnel to myself. And then that data then goes from myself to Ty. So we created a pretty seamless process through our PA, and how those athletes communicate amongst each other, and then elevated through me. So there were a few meetings that were, you know, spun up pretty quickly.

But, to your point, the most important thing is to understand the level of risk, to communicate back what medical [guidance] or advice we’re getting from all angles, and then share that with the players. And then obviously allow them to make the decisions that they feel the most comfortable with, because a certain level of risk is always going to be assumed in this world right now, unfortunately. But the players know that their PA stands very firmly with them. So that was how we processed and how we move forward. And it opened a lot of conversations for us. And in doing that it also helped us share data across the line over with the league head office, as well.

Digit Murphy: Hey, I just want to say that coming into the bubble from where we were in complete lockdown in Canada, was a huge risk for us.

Our players had no problem coming in, we felt 100 percent safe, and all we wanted to do was play the game. We would’ve died if we could play the game, we would have died if we could have played against Minnesota. Our kids just wanted to play hockey. They were safe. They were looked after. And we knew when we came in, it was huge — we’re going from like 100 cases to 100 million cases. But we wanted to play, so we’re here. We’re bummed. But we want to come back.

Pete Perram: I’m with you, Anya. Just, quickly, my players, the Buffalo Beauts were confident all the way through. I mean, we talked every day and Anya spoke to that. I think there was a lot of communication, a lot of interaction. And, and there was not a moment, even to this point now, where there’s no confidence in the process that we have.

Matt Porter: For Ty, what changes do you think, at an administrative, executive, league-wide level, need to be made? As you try to get bigger and obviously avoid something like this? Where do you see the league offices changing, the makeup going forward?

Tyler Tumminia: It’s no secret, I think I’ve been in this role now for I don’t know, a hot 10 seconds. There was a lot that I had to do coming out of this role for a major event on a network that I needed to do with current roots in place. As I move forward after this bubble, I can assure you that there’ll be a lot of evaluation, now that I’ve been involved and now actually meeting my staff for the first time on a lot of different levels in this bubble.

There will be an incredible amount of evaluation and assessment and change. And necessary change, I believe. So there’s a culture that I know that is going to be here and it’s going to be created and it’s going to be successful if we bring this league to the next level. And fortunately [or] unfortunately that does involve change. But so now that I’ve had some time, I think I hit my first 100 days or 90 days ... there definitely needs to be an assessment period and evaluation and of course, I’ve got to think.

Matt Porter: A follow-up, I know this isn’t necessarily a binary thing, but do you see this as a success or a failure?

Tyler Tumminia: I actually see it as a success. I was 12 hours away from history.

I mean, I gotta tell you — I mean, it’s really just frustrating and breaks my heart. But overall, I really, truly believe that this was successful. We saw a lot of hard work and grit. I’m very proud of where we got to this point. But yeah, I mean, the stuff that we’ve been able to do, guys, in such a short 12 days, it presented not only an incredible leadership challenge for myself, and everything else, but to me, all the remarks and all the comments I’m getting as soon as we made this announcement was one of heartbreak; was one of, ‘Wow, this league should be so proud of the platform that we’ve been able to get’ — because of you guys on this call and aiding in our success.

I’m really proud. Yes, we didn’t raise the Cup. I also will say it doesn’t mean we’re not going to raise the cup for season six. But at this moment today, we will not be raising the Cup tomorrow. And the fact that we didn’t get these athletes on their deserved and due platform on NBC. That’s the most heartbreaking part to me.

Johanna Neilson Boynton: I would say enormous success in that one, we didn’t have to even have a season, right? We had a whole lot of people come together and say, ‘Let’s do this’, knowing the risk.

You all follow a lot of professional leagues, and they’ve had bumps along the way of COVID and postponements and positive tests. And we knew going in it was a gamble, we were in a really compressed season. But to think if you back way up to hiring Ty, to getting Lake Placid secured, to getting NBC to be the broadcast of the semis and the finals, to get the various sponsorships that came in from, most recently, Dick’s, and Discover and Dunkin. And there were over, I don’t know, 30–40 different kinds of sponsorships that came in. That is in and of itself an enormous success.

I was here the whole time and enormously proud of this product that Tyler put together with her staff, and Anya’s help was enormous. They really, they were all-in and did everything they could and we could to make it to the finish line. While we didn’t get the last two days, and it’s heartbreaking, I do believe you we’ll put our heads together and see if we can find a time for that. Because these athletes deserve it.

They’re the most incredible, impressive group of athletes and young women and there’s so many stories here. We got elevated in a way that people really got to enjoy watching really good hockey. And they’re just so many successes to it. So it’s heartbreaking not to have the semis and finals tomorrow on NBC, of course. But there’s so much about this, I feel is just the launching pad for so much more. It’s just a chapter in the journey and the story of women’s professional hockey and getting where we want to get. So I think there were enormous successes and Tyler, her staff, and Anya were just terrific. Nonstop.

Rachel Brady: I have a question maybe that Anya and Tyler could both take. I wonder what the agreed-upon practice was for allowing taxi players to come into the bubble, what that looked like and how that played out? And was that perhaps a vulnerable area where COVID might have got in?

Tyler Tumminia: Yeah, so we kind of mirrored our taxi squad with what other sports leagues do. The same thing ... we came in with the designated roster, knowing that if there was a possibility that we had to replace, those athletes were in quarantine, we’d get PCR testing and then they’d get another test on entry in Lake Placid, if need be. So, unfortunately, we did have to pull on some, just like other major sports leagues have pulled on taxi squads or had athletes on ice, for lack of a better word.

Anya Packer: I echo Tyler's sentiments. Also, these athletes were athletes that were practicing with our clubs the entire preseason. So many of them ... were going through our process, regularly testing throughout the season. So we’re still following those protocols as well. So we feel comfortable with their involvement in the way that we utilize those players.

Rachel Brady: I wonder also, as a follow-up, if there was any thought to having the teams arrive earlier? I know they arrived, you know, a day or two before the games began. Was there any thought or any regret that they hadn’t arrived earlier and been tested earlier before games began?

Anya Packer: I can speak to that. I think hindsight is always 20/20 in everything that anyone does here, I think we can all look at the situation and say that. But for us, and for the PA specifically, we regularly advocate for our athletes to have the function to work as well as play. We aren’t yet in that position where they’re full-time athletes. We — JoJo, Digit, Ty, Pete — we’re all focused on the same thing. We’re definitely fighting for that goal. But when we looked at our season, to increase the amount of support that we could give our athletes, it does make it a little bit more challenging with the resources that we have.

Dan Rice: A little bit of a two-parter. The statement today mentioned that the season was suspended. You’ve all alluded to wanting to complete this at some point. Probably too early to say, but I’ll ask anyway. Would that include six teams or four? And subsequently, what changed from when Connecticut withdrew until today that caused you to have to do this?

Tyler Tumminia: Probably starting Saturday we are going to start to get requests from teams about what the seeds are going to look like going forward. I can’t comment right now.

I have not yet defined what that raising of the Cup is going to look like. I can assure you, we definitely will try to define an ending to season six, and not let it be a cliffhanger. Which changed, I will say 9:30 last night when I started to get a couple of results in. It was clear, from our standpoint, from a league standpoint ... and conferring with ORDA, that we were not trending in the right direction.

Our actual numbers, per se, were not alarming in comparison to the scope of other sporting clubs, or sports leagues. However, if you project a number that was going to happen, it just didn’t make sense for us.  I don’t care — I do care about our sponsors and our network — but I care mostly about the fact that we have athletes and staff here that we need to protect.

So I value ... ORDA, all the work that Essex County has done, all the way up to New York State Public Health and Safety Department when conferring and making an agreement, it was unanimous at that point.

Melissa Burgess: I have two questions if that’s okay. My first question: it seems like there are still teams or players remaining in Lake Placid. What is the protocol in place for getting those folks home safely? Whether they’ve tested positive or not?

Tyler Tumminia: We’re just going to follow what the protocol is. They have to test on the exit out, the positives will be removed as soon as possible as well as the negatives. There’s a lot of choreographing that needs to happen with individual teams, their staff, their leadership and their owners, and then my office as well in order to remove them safely. But we’re right in the middle of that right now.

Melissa Burgess: How frequently was testing done? You know, before the COVID concerns arose, and then obviously after some ... people started to test positive?

Tyler Tumminia: Before we went into the bubble it was a 72-hour PCR test. They were also — everybody was rapid tested before they left their home state. And then they were tested again, as soon as they entered into Lake Placid. In our plan, the next scheduled test was supposed to be ... the PCR test on that following Monday.

We actually ended up increasing our testing, not because it was told or asked for us to increase it, but we just decided to increase testing. As we were going into it more, and it’s pretty much daily, that the athletes were participating in the PCR and rapid testing. As well as the staff.

Steve Whyno: Tyler, you used the phrase “restrictive access environment.” I know, before, the term “bubble” had been used, was this not a true bubble in the way that the NWSL, the WNBA, and other leagues had a bubble in previous months?

Tyler Tumminia: The restrictive access environment is what it is. It’s that the athletes came in into designated hotels on designated floors. They’re restricted in the sense that they went from their room, to the rink. To the rink, to their room.

And so that is the technical term of what this bubble was. So that’s how we defined it.

Portions of this transcription have been edited for brevity and clarity.