Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic across North America, the six teams of the National Women's Hockey League are attempting to prepare for an upcoming season, even if they don't know exactly when that season will start, when games will happen; or, let's be honest, if the season will even happen at all.
The NWHL's fifth season ended in a smolder; the Isobel Cup Final was all set to be played between two of the league's best teams, the Boston Pride and the Minnesota Whitecaps. The championship was postponed, and eventually canceled, due to the pandemic, and the league named the Pride and Whitecaps co-champions.
In a normal year, the NWHL would have begun its sixth season in early or mid-October. Given the ongoing pandemic, social distancing requirements and gathering limitations, the league has now pushed back its season start to sometime in January, although no schedule has been released yet.
There's also, of course, the continued closure of the US/Canadian border – ahead of the first season where the NWHL plans to have a Canadian team, the Toronto Six. And of course, even if the league is able to play, there will still likely be limitations on gatherings. This would likely mean few or no fans permitted in the stands if games are played, a consequence that would have a heavy impact on league revenue and visibility.
Although any meaningful hockey may still be months away, I wanted to get a sense of what the NWHL's teams were doing during this time – practicing, following social distancing and COVID-19 protocols, trying to prepare for a real hockey season. I spoke to at least one member of each team, save for the Boston Pride, to see what each market is currently going through.
(Note: The Boston Pride respectfully declined to be interviewed and said that they "are waiting to speak on the season until the league officially releases the schedule and all the details.")
In general, teams are practicing twice a week as well as doing off-ice workouts, using this time as a sort-of extended training camp to hone their skills, improve special teams and build team chemistry. Most players are with their teams at this point, but a few Canadian players have not made the journey across the border.
"There's a large list of COVID protocols that we follow that the league's COVID board has put together for everyone's safety," said Connecticut Whale forward Kaycie Anderson. "We also have to follow state protocols at our rink. We get tested every week, and we have to fill out a questionnaire online before practice asking how we feel that day."
Across the league, players are required to wear face masks except when on the ice. Teams are generally spread out into two locker rooms, and players are tested weekly for COVID-19. They're also not allowed to enter the rink too early before practice, which is quite a change for most players who would normally arrive more than an hour before their ice time.
While protocols at the rink are pretty standard, it's more than just what happens in the locker room and on the ice, said Metropolitan Riveters general manager Kate Whitman-Annis. It's also about what players do away from the rink, with regards to social distancing, wearing face masks, washing their hands, and following other protocols to help avoid getting or spreading the coronavirus.
"It's so hard right now; everything changes every five seconds. It's being able to be flexible and understanding, while still knowing that we're asking a lot of our players," Whitman-Annis said. "We ask a lot of our players every year and this year it's even more, because what they do when they're not on the ice directly impacts our team and our players and then all of our families."
"We have people whose parents are immunocompromised," she said. "We have people with babies. There's a whole bunch of different things that go into this season right now that people need to be aware of and be on board with. We talk a lot about that, the commitment that we're making to each other, and I think that's really important."
Kayla Meneghin is an NWHL veteran, but she's now getting ready for her first season with the Buffalo Beauts. After two years with the Whale, Meneghin has moved to Western New York, where she's living with four of her teammates, three of whom are also new to the organization.
"The difficult part is not coming to practice an hour early and preparing in that aspect, but everything else is going pretty well," Meneghin said. "Obviously, the Canadians haven't been able to cross the border yet but we have a decent number at practice so it's been very competitive so far."
An Extended Training Camp, Of Sorts
Prepping for a season that is still months away, following an extended "offseason" in the midst of a pandemic, is certainly a different experience than what players are used to. Meneghin said the Beauts often have small intra-squad games during practices to try to keep up the level of competition, even though it isn't the same as an actual game. They're also focused on their off-ice workouts and recovery to stay in shape.
Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann said they're working on some of the small things, including team-building on and off the ice.
"It's giving a chance to fine-tune a lot of skill-based things, getting the focus on a lot of the things that last year maybe we got rushed into doing before the season started," Neumann said. "I think this year we're really getting a chance to work on some of those basic skills that we don't always get the time to work on."
The Beauts aren't the only ones working on their team chemistry, of course.
"I've used this extended preseason to recover and prepare for the upcoming season mentally and physically," Anderson said. "This will also be good for us and the other teams having a chance to really work on skills, systems and gain chemistry so we're ready to put the best product on the ice come January."
Like others, Minnesota Whitecaps goaltender Allie Morse said her team is also using these extra months as an extended training camp.
"Practice took a little longer to start up, so [Amanda Leveille and I] got a chance to get our goalie skates in first and get our feet under us before practices started," Morse said. "Other than that, it's pretty much business as usual."
Toronto Six defender Lindsay Eastwood is preparing for her rookie season in the NWHL, coming off four successful seasons at Syracuse during which she became the school's all-time leading goal scorer among defenders. So far, the transition from college to pro hockey seems to be going well for her.
"It's a lot different," she said. "I'm not on the ice as much as I usually am, but it's been a different transition. It almost feels less stressful; I don't know if it's because I was older on the team [Syracuse] and now I'm a rookie and young in the league. I don't have to worry about school now, so it's nice to just get the work day done and that's it."
"Hockey is like my escape now," Eastwood added. "Where sometimes in university I'd dread going to practice, I really enjoy it now."
What to Expect
So, when/if the NWHL season does finally get underway, what can you expect from each of these teams?
As the Whitecaps prepare to defend their co-championship, they're returning a solid number of last year's roster, which should help them find their way to the top of the league once again.
"As long as the Whitecaps have been in the league, we've had a pretty consistent roster, which obviously, year to year, helps," Morse said. "We've got a good amount of size with us now, which I don't think has been a problem for us but I think it'll help, adding a bit more size. Obviously we've still got our speed with us, so I think it'll just be a vamped-up version of the Whitecaps."
Meanwhile, Connecticut are trying to figure out a way to move up in the standings after finishing the 2019-20 season at the bottom of the league, with only two wins and six points.
"We've added a lot of size to our roster," Anderson said of the Whale. "We'll have a lot of characteristics of the Whale team everyone caught a glimpse of from the second half of last season, with some added size and offensive depth from our new forwards and D. I'm biased, but I think we'll have the best goalies in the league."
Meneghin is joining a Beauts team with a healthy mix of NWHL rookies and veterans, and says the Buffalo squad this year is trying to step up its defensive game. The Beauts allowed the most goals in the league last season (116).
"We've talked a lot about defense," she said. "I think that's going to be huge for our team. Obviously scoring goals, but in order to score goals, you need to play great defense, so I think that's going to be our focus heading into the season."
The Riveters also have a significant number of returning players, which Whitman-Annis says is a positive for the team.
"It's so nice to be able to renew those relationships," she said. "They're faster than I've ever seen them, which is great. I think speed is something we wanted to build in the offseason, so we did that. Scoring is also something we wanted to build. We were super excited to welcome Babs [Kelly Babstock]. She and Emily Janiga and Kendall Cornine, that group, they work so well together."
The Six are entering their first year in the NWHL, but expect them to be competitive from the get-go. Eastwood noted the speed of the Six, as well as their strength, as two aspects that will help the team get far.
"I think we have a really talented team," Eastwood said. "There's a lot of experience, even though we're new to the league. There's some really experienced players, like Shiann Darkangelo who's played World Championships, and the list goes on, some leaders and great experience that I can look up to as a younger player and learn from."
In Boston, the Pride look to be another sharp team, as they have been continually during the league's existence. The return of players like McKenna Brand and Lovisa Selander, combined with newcomers including BU alumna Sammy Davis, means that Boston will once again be icing a team with some incredible talent.
At this point, the NWHL's sixth season is still expected to begin in January, although no official schedule has been released and much is still up in the air depending on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the status of the pandemic in each of the respective locales.
Even if they don't know exactly when the season will begin – or at this point, if it even will, or what it will look like when it does – the players, coaches and executives are just happy to be back at the rink.
However, COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly in both the United States and Canada, with record-breaking numbers of new daily cases in both countries. (The United States, of course, is blowing every other country on earth out of the water, with 163,402 new cases on November 12 alone, and no sign of these numbers trending downward. On the same day, Canada reported 5,516 – much lower, but still a record daily high.) The next few months could change the NWHL's plans altogether, not to mention everything else.
(Photo: Kate Frese / Metropolitan Riveters)