Why the Bubble Burst: Gaps in the NWHL’s Protocols

16 March 2021 / by Casey Dobson
Why the NWHL Bubble burst. Black and white photo of empty hockey stadium.

Bubbles have become the norm across the sports landscape as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc. Leagues across a variety of sports have pulled off tournaments and regular-season play in a bubble format. From the WNBA, to the NWSL, the  MLS, and the NHL there are an abundance of examples on how to operate a successful bubble. With this in mind, it was nearly impossible to imagine the NWHL bubble ending up in the situation in which it was: having to suspend their tournament due to an abundance of positive cases. Yet, here the league is, still without a 2021 Isobel Cup champion. 

So how did this happen? How did the bubble burst?

The answer is quite simple: the bubble was never a bubble to begin with. The league announced their return by saying they would be holding a bubble tournament in Lake Placid. Then, by the time the season was suspended, commissioner Tyler Tumminia was referring to the tournament as a “restricted access environment.”

It all started with the arrival policies. Other leagues enforced a 48 hour quarantine upon arrival on location as well as needing two negative tests for the individual to exit self-isolation. The NWHL was operating under vastly different rules. Instead of the proven system, the NWHL was requiring a negative result within 72 hours of leaving for the tournament as well as one on arrival. No requirement for the two consecutive negatives, nor for the isolation period. 

This policy exacerbated risks when it was uncovered that teams were adding players to their rosters. The additions were happening midway through the tournament, and those players weren’t isolating upon arrival. Both Buffalo and Minnesota had players fly in to join the teams and they were allowed to do so immediately on arrival. By their own creation, the league was unable to keep track of who was bringing in the virus. 

While league officials were adamant that players were restricted to only moving from their rooms to the rink, this was demonstrably untrue. For example, the Buffalo Beauts official Instagram account shared a picture of players out exploring the town. 

These incredibly lax rules are in stark contrast to the ones of other leagues. The circumstances under which the NWHL operates financially are very different from the rest of pro sports. Still, it is puzzling that even the players weren’t discipling themselves when it came to respecting the guidelines.  

The suspension of play sparked much debate across the hockey landscape. This was often in regards to the league itself and how the ordeal was managed. While these critiques are undoubtedly warranted, there has been little attention paid to other aspects. For instance, how the termination of the bubble has affected the players involved. In speaking with Shiann Darkangelo, there are many insights to be gained about the array of emotions these athletes experienced. 

“It was a bummer because we were finally starting to get into a groove as a team. In Canada, the restrictions [made it so that] we were split practicing so now you could walk with a different person every day,” she said when reflecting on her initial feelings.

“We’re excited to finish this season but obviously it would have been nice to do it there.”

To hear more about the NWHL bubble that burst, listen to the interview below. This story is the second in a four-part series on women’s hockey.