NWHL drops puck on “bubble” season
by Liz Montroy|25 JAN 2021
Breanne Wilson-Bennett scored two goals for new NWHL team Toronto Six.
photo: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images
Since the 1980s, Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York has been the scene of countless history-making moments, a trend that continued this month as the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) dropped the puck for the 2021 season. 

It goes without saying that hockey in 2021 looks notably different than in years past, with many leagues either cancelling games or using a “bubble” set-up that involves regular COVID-19 testing and no fans in attendance. 

For its sixth season, the NWHL has opted for a condensed tournament-style format with all games played at Herb Brooks Arena. The league’s six teams entered the NWHL’s bubble on a staggered schedule on January 21 and 22, with the first games taking place on January 23. Twenty-four games will be played in total, with a round-robin regular season followed by seeding games and semi-finals, and concluding with the 2021 Isobel Cup Final on February 5.

Over 95% of the players who signed contracts for the 2020/21 season committed to playing this modified season, with six countries (United States, Canada, Slovakia, Sweden, Czech Republic and Austria) represented. 

Making its NWHL debut is the league’s first ever Canadian team, the Toronto Six. Announced in April 2020, the team is coached by Digit Murphy and Lisa Haley, and led by players such as American Shiann Darkangelo, a 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship gold medallist and 2017 Isobel Cup Champion with the Buffalo Beauts, and former Team Canada teammates and 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship gold medallists Elaine Chuli and Taylor Woods.
The 2019 Isobel Cup Champions, the Minnesota Whitecaps, will be looking to play in the final for the third year in a row – 2020’s final, which was set to feature the Whitecaps versus the Boston Pride, was called off due to COVID-19. Amongst those returning for the Whitecaps is Allie Thunstrom, who led the league in goals last season with 24. 

The Boston Pride have a returning scoring champion of their own in captain Jillian Dempsey, a 2009 U18 Women’s World Championship gold medallist and 2012 World Championship silver medallist with the United States who led the NWHL in points (40) and assists (23) last season. Also back on the Pride’s roster is Swedish star goaltender Lovisa Selander, who led the league in all goaltending stats in 2019/20. 

The Connecticut Whale will be aiming to improve upon their last place finish in 2019/20, with veteran Austrian national team player Janine Weber back for a second season with the team. Also being represented by players who have crossed the Atlantic to play in North America is the Buffalo Beauts. The Beauts’ Lenka Curmova and Iveta Klimasova have a long history playing together, having both made their Slovak national team debuts in 2013. 

Rounding out the six teams is the Metropolitan Riveters. Long-time Riveter and fan favourite Madison Packer remains one to watch, while former team captain Ashley Johnston has made the transition from on on-ice leader to bench boss with her new role as an assistant coach.

“The NWHL is excited to provide hockey fans a fast-paced schedule of thrilling games on the road to the Isobel Cup,” NWHL Interim Commissioner Tyler Tumminia said in an NWHL press release. “The continued challenges brought by the pandemic resulted in a mandate for our league, players and partners to collaborate on creating a controlled environment protecting the health of everyone involved.” 

“At a time of hyper-growth for girls’ and women’s hockey, we see this season as a celebration of the sport. This will be a historic moment as the hallowed arena that was the site of the ‘Miracle on Ice’ in 1980 hosts its first women’s professional championship. It is a proud moment for the NWHL, the players, and all hockey fans.”

Regular season games run until January 30. Games are being broadcast globally on Twitch, with the semi-finals (February 4) and Isobel Cup Final (February 5) also being broadcast on NBCSN in the United States.