The NHL held their 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs inside Toronto and Edmonton “bubbles” over the summer and it was a success. Everyone got in and got out as safe a possible, and a Stanley Cup Champion was crowned. Since then, Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA have all completed, nearly completed, or are starting bubble-less seasons. All three have had their problems with COVID-19 in that time. The NHL has started the 2021 season with the Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, and Washington Capitals all landing at least a handful of players on COVID absence lists. Each of the major four men’s professional leagues has pushed through challenges, whether right or wrong, and things have been messy at best.
This is where the National Women’s Hockey League comes in and does it right. Although we’re primarily about the Blackhawks here, we are – more broadly – all about hockey. And I’m really digging what the NWHL is doing.
After missing the completion of the 2020 Isobel Cup Playoffs due to the COVID shutdown, the NWHL returns to the ice on Saturday in Lake Placid, New York, back inside the bubble. It won’t be any regular season the league has seen before, but it’s adapted itself to be able to provide a season for the fans and players alike.
From Saturday, January 23 through Friday, February 5, the NWHL will play 24 games in total in a two-week, round-robin tournament amongst the league’s six teams to crown the 2021 Isobel Cup Champion, the fifth in league history. Last season’s Isobel Cup Final between the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps was cancelled due to the pandemic shutdown, so the Whitecaps enter the bubble as the de facto reigning Cup champions.
I wanted to provide a comprehensive season preview for the NWHL season, but because I’m still a newbie to the league, I approached a few writers who cover the league extensively for The Ice Garden to help give us a clear picture heading into Saturday:
A HUGE thank you to all of them for taking the time to answer my questions and provide us with this in-depth look at the bubble season ahead! I highly recommend following their work on social media and at The Ice Garden.
First off, how did we get to the NWHL bubble in Lake Placid?
Murphy: “For a long time it looked like we wouldn’t have a 2020-21 NWHL season because, to be frank, the NWHL doesn’t have the resources like the NHL and other men’s professional leagues have. But they put together this two-week sprint in Lake Placid against the odds and it sounds like they are putting all of the necessary precautions in place to make this safe for all of the athletes and staff members. That in and of itself is a massive achievement. If they pull this off, it will be a huge success story. Lake Placid, of course, has a rich history in the hockey world. I am sure other locations were looked at but Lake Placid likely held appeal because all six teams can travel there by bus.”
The league has six teams, what would be a short synopsis for each team?
Murphy: “Connecticut Whale – The only “Founding Four” franchise without an Isobel Cup victory, the Connecticut Whale have a reputation of being the lovable underdogs of the league. With that said, they have added a lot of talent this offseason and were definitely trending in the right direction at the end of last season. ”
Strollo: “Boston Pride – The top dogs. This team was near perfect at everything they did last year, have kept most of their really good core, and phenomenal goaltending. They should land at the top again.”
Tokarski: “Metropolitan Riveters – I’m a little biased since I’m on their beat for the season, but I think the Riveters have what it takes to be a really strong team this year and make some significant strides in terms of their postseason dreams. The addition of Kelly Babstock through an off-season trade with Toronto is huge for this team, not to mention the fact that they’re returning almost their entire top two lines.”
Murphy: “Buffalo Beauts – Isobel Cup Champions in 2017. The Beauts have a history of making noise in the Isobel Cup Playoffs and a reputation for playing physical hockey. Buffalo is led by All-Star defender Marie-Jo Pelletier who logs a ton of minutes and plays in every situation. Returning to the team this year is U.S. Olympian Lisa Chesson who will join MJP on what looks to be a very strong blue line for the Beauts.”
Strollo: “Minnesota Whitecaps – Speed and talent. This team is fast, really well-polished and disciplined with the puck. That paired with goalie talent that does not bend or break makes them nearly impossible to beat.”
Tokarski: “Toronto Six – Truly one of the wild cards for this season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make the playoffs, but I also wouldn’t be too surprised if they bowed out in the playoff round, as they’re entirely untested in head-to-head play. That being said, I think this year’s roster is really underrated in terms of star power — a lot of quietly productive players.”
The season will be a round-robin tournament, then a single-elimination “final four.” Can there be a favorite team to win in this style of a tournament compared to a normal season? Who would it be?
Tokarski: “I definitely think the favorite team would be the most consistent team that’s solid all the way through their roster, rather than a team with a clear first and second line and a handful of reliable depth players. A team needs to be solid all the way through, and can’t really risk having an off game. This season, I would say that’s the Boston Pride, just because that team is unbelievably stacked in terms of both forwards and defense.”
Which player or players should be on MVP watch?
Strollo: “Allie Thunstrom of the Whitecaps and Jillian Dempsey of the Pride are always players to watch when you’re talking about who the best is. I personally think Madison Packer of the Riveters will take it home, after five years in the league, she still dominates a lot of plays in this league and knows how to be such a versatile player. Kelly Babstock making her return to the league by joining the Riveters is a player to watch. Mikyla Grant-Mentis scored three points in three games with the Beauts last season, joining them at the tail end of the year. She is now with the Toronto Six and I think is certainly someone who will light up a scoreboard and could win. Sammy Davis was the No. 1 overall draft pick last year for the Pride, so she is one to watch too. The cool thing about this league and the way they will play this year is anyone could really show up and have a great tournament and take the title. The unpredictable nature is an added layer of why all of these players will be so fun to watch.”
Hey now…. don’t cry. Here’s Allie Thunstrom’s game winning goal against Boston to hopefully cheer you up 🙂 pic.twitter.com/u31Qa7vqGZ
— Minnesota Whitecaps (@WhitecapsHockey) March 30, 2020
Tokarski: “Jillian Dempsey, Madison Packer, McKenna Brand, and Mikyla Grant-Mentis are some of the ones I can think of off the top of my head.”
Murphy: “The easy answer here would be last year’s MVPs: Jillian Dempsey of the Boston Pride and Allie Thunstrom of the Minnesota Whitecaps. I’d also add Packer of the Riveters, Pelletier of the Beauts, and Leveille of the Whitecaps to the shortlist of players who can really steal the show and/or prove to be indispensably valuable to their teams. ”
Gotta get into the gear – so which NWHL team has the best look in the league?
Strollo: “Honestly, all of the teams in this league have jerseys that far surpass that of NHL teams. I’m just saying it. It’s true. That being said, I think the Buffalo Beauts have always had amazing jerseys. The color blue they use is just not really seen elsewhere, and the detail in their patches is so unique and well thought out. I’ll also give a shout out to the Toronto Six, the new kids on the block, for having a really consistent set in their set of jerseys and they even introduced an alternate.”
YOUR 2020-21 BUFFALO BEAUTS JERSEYS! pic.twitter.com/tTfUw59svR
— NWHL Future (@nwhlfuture) November 24, 2020
Murphy: “All of the sweaters look great this year but the Whitecaps’ home white jerseys are simply gorgeous.”
Tokarski: “I personally really like the Connecticut Whale’s, though I’d argue there’s a case to be made for both the Riveters and the Six taking the cake on this question. I just think there’s something so effortless about the green, blue, and white color scheme; not to mention the fact that their home and away jerseys aren’t complete inversions of each other, which adds some spice.”
The NWHL and the teams seem ahead of the game with their online presence and how it interacts with fans and each other. How has social media played a role in the growth of the league?
Tokarski: “Social media and fan interaction has played such a huge role in the growth of the league. In years past, there was a much more muted online presence, but the addition of people like Juliana Nikac, Samantha U’Ren, and Alyssa Turner have been truly game-changing for this league. These are three women who know what they’re doing and who get the audience they’re catering to – and that’s something that’s hard to find and recruit, especially when you’re an up and coming league. I think what these three have done for their respective teams and for the league as a whole is huge. ”
The games leading up to the “final four” will be broadcast on Twitch TV, which the league has had a broadcast deal with before, but what does it mean for the league to have the Isobel Cup Playoffs on National TV (NBCSN)?
Strollo: “It is huge. This is the first time professional women’s hockey will be broadcast live on a cable network and thus is the first time we really get to see, factually real numbers on what that viewership will look like which can set the blueprint going forward as far as what to expect and what to ask for when setting goals to grow the game. Also, just the idea that a casual viewer can find it from the channel guide or clicking through channels is something we’ve never had the opportunity for before. The three-year Twitch partnership has been massive garnering over 8 million views over the course of one unfinished season but even that was games you had to know how to find for the most part.”
Tokarski: “It’s really significant, and I think a good benchmark of the league’s success the past few years. There’s no denying that the NWHL isn’t perfect, but I think the deal with NBC goes to show that there are people who are willing to invest in products that they believe in, whether they’re perfect or not. ”
Murphy: “The Twitch broadcasting deal from last year was huge and this, in a lot of ways, is even bigger if we think about it just from the perspective of exposing new fans to the game and making it accessible to people. Having the Isobel Cup Semifinals and Isobel Cup Final on NBCSN is a nod to what this league has accomplished and the growing interest in women’s professional sports. It’s a great sign but we still have a lot of work to do to get more eyeballs fixed on women’s hockey. ”
Finally, who is your Isobel Cup pick?
Tokarski: “Boston Pride. It’s a safe answer, but I think it’s the right answer.”
Murphy: “It’s the Pride. Any team can win the Cup once they make it to the semifinal because the playoff format is single-elimination but, on paper, Boston really has it all. They’re the team to beat and they know it. They feel like they have unfinished business to settle because the 2020 Isobel Cup Final was postponed and then ultimately canceled. This is their chance to become the first team to win the Cup twice and they want it bad.”
Strollo: “I’m rooting for some chaos so I’d love to see the Pride and the Whitecaps go down early, but I think the Riveters are going to squeeze in there and take it over Boston.”
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Again, a huge thank you to Leighann, Anne, and Mike from The Ice Garden. The NWHL 2021 season begins Saturday at 1 p.m. ET with the first matchup of the bubble season. You can find it on Twitch.Tv/NWHL and find the Isobel Cup Semi-Final and Final on NBCSN on February 4th and 5th.