Takeaways from NWHL season
by Andrew Podnieks|08 FEB 2021
Former world champion Shiann Darkangelo, who captained the Toronto Six, was among the players at the shortened NWHL season in Lake Placid.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
It wasn’t just a great Christmas present – it was the best news in the short, six-year history of the National Women’s Hockey League. On 22 December 2020, NBC announced that the semi-finals and finals of the brief NWHL season in early February 2021 would be broadcast on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN). This would have marked the first time a women’s pro game was broadcast on a major cable network in the United States.

This was fantastic news for a league that had to cancel the Isobel Cup championship game last year between Boston and Minnesota the day before it was scheduled because of the coronavirus. 

But with a new commissioner in place, Ty Tumminia, and a very conservative two-week schedule planned in a bubble in Lake Placid, New York, the league felt it could hold a tournament-style season and pull off a successful event in front of a national TV audience in the U.S. on top of good streaming numbers of the regular season.

Those plans came to a crashing halt on Wednesday when Tumminia was forced to cancel the remaining games of the tournament. The semi-finals were to have featured the expansion Toronto Six playing the Buffalo Beauts, as well as Boston (champions of the first event in 2016) and Minnesota (most recent champions, in 2019). 

Ironically, the cancellation came on National Girls and Women in Sports Day in the U.S., a day highlighted by the announcement that the 125 or so top women from Canada and the United States who had boycotted the NWHL and currently made up the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) were going to play a game at Madison Square Garden on 28 February as part of its Dream Gap Tour.

The problems for the NWHL started when the Metropolitan Riveters were forced to withdraw during the preliminary round robin because of at least ten positive tests. Days later, the Connecticut Whale also left. Further positive tests convinced Tumminia the health risks were not worth continuing the season, even though she has not ruled out playing the final three games at a later date.

In the end, the preliminary round consisted of ten games. The Riveters’ withdrawal forced a new format which included a placement round, of which two of three games were played. Buffalo and Boston also played three games in a playoff qualification mini-round, Boston prevailing.

And that’s when everything exploded.

“It was in our best interest to suspend,” Tumminia acknowledged Wednesday evening after it was learned that at least six members of the Pride had also tested positive, including head coach Paul Mara. This all but prevented a true playoffs from being played.

The NWHL’s plan was tricky from the outset. Although players had to have a negative test within 72 hours of travelling to Lake Placid, there was no isolation or quarantine period when they arrived. Each team was supposed to stay on its own floor of the same hotel and would go to the rink and back, nothing more. 

But the hotel wasn’t limited to NWHL personnel only, and not all players seemed to adhere to the conditions outlined. Many were spotted at the arena watching the games of other teams, and players socialized outside their team bubble and posted photos from outside the bubble. Players from various teams were also spotted in the hotel lobby on their electronic devices. 

Teams were also allowed to add to their rosters after the tournament began, meaning players were flying in from elsewhere. In the end, the term “modified bubble” was used to describe the NWHL’s setup.

After withdrawing, the Whale released a statement which indicated they wanted to, “prioritize our players' health and safety above all else. When given the choice of competing vs. ensuring the physical and mental well-being of our team, we chose the latter."

By Tuesday night, after further testing, Tumminia became aware of the obvious. “It was clear, from a league standpoint…that we were not trending in the right direction,” she said. “Our actual numbers, per se, were not alarming in comparison to the scope of other sports clubs or sports leagues. However, if you project a number that was going to happen, it just didn't make sense for us [to continue].”

And so the Isobel Cup is threatened of not being awarded for a second straight year.

“At this moment, we will not be raising the Cup tomorrow,” Tumminia concluded. “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.”

Despite the bad news on the suspended season, there was positive news from the sponsoring and media coverage side, and a short window for women’s hockey player to show themselves to the world.

The next events for women’s hockey fans will be the Dream Gap Tour followed by the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in spring.

Results & Standings
Minnesota Whitecaps 3 3 0 0 9 6 5
Toronto Six 4 2 1 1 11 12 5
Connecticut Whale 3 2 1 0 9 6 4
Metropolitan Riveters* 3 2 1 0 7 4 4
Boston Pride 4 1 3 0 8 9 2
Buffalo Beauts 3 0 2 1 4 11 1
*withdrew out of an abundance of caution for covid

January 23    Metropolitan 3-Toronto 0
January 23    Minnesota 2-Boston 1
January 23    Connecticut 2-Buffalo 1 (5:00 OT/SO)
January 24    Boston 5-Buffalo 1
January 24    Minnesota 6-Toronto 5 (5:00 OT/SO)
January 24    Metropolitan 4-Connecticut 3
January 26    Toronto 2-Boston 1
January 26    Minnesota 1-Metropolitan 0
January 27    Toronto 4-Buffalo 2
January 27    Connecticut 4-Boston 1

Pre-Playoff Round Robin
Toronto Six 2 2 0 0 10 3 4
Connecticut Whale* 1 0 0 1 0 6 0
Minnesota Whitecaps 1 0 0 1 3 4 0
*withdrew out of an abundance of caution for covid

January 30    Toronto 4-Minnesota 3
January 31    Toronto 6-Connecticut 0
February 1    Minnesota-Connecticut, cancelled

Best-of-Three Playoff Qualification

January 30    Buffalo 2-Boston 1
January 31    Boston 6-Buffalo 0
February 1    Boston 7-Buffalo 1


February 4    Toronto-Buffalo, cancelled
February 4    Boston-Minnesota, cancelled


February 5    cancelled