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The National Women's Hockey League called off the remainder of its season Wednesday on the eve of the playoffs because of additional positive test results for the coronavirus.
The NWHL cited safety concerns for what it called the suspension of play inside a quarantined bubble in Lake Placid, New York. COVID-19 instead wreaked havoc on the two-week event.
"We were not trending in the right direction," interim commissioner Tyler Tumminia said of more test results coming in Tuesday night. "Our actual numbers per se were not alarming in comparison to the scope of other sports clubs or other sports leagues. However, if you project a number that was going to happen, it doesn't make sense for us."
Two of the league's six teams had already withdrawn from the tournament, with the Metropolitan Riveters citing "several" virus cases. Tumminia said the team had 10, which was over the threshold for disqualifying a team.
The Connecticut Whale's departure was a choice made at the team level. Tumminia said the NWHL would not disclose how many total positive tests it had in what she called a "restrictive access environment" that did not hold up like other pro sports bubbles.
"The athletes came in into designated hotels on designated floors," she said. "They were restricted in the sense that they went from their rooms to the rink, rink to the room. That is the technical term of what this bubble was. That's how we defined it."
The NWHL had an agreement with Yale University to provide saliva-based COVID-19 testing for players and staff, similar to what the NBA used for its Disney World bubble last year. Even that testing couldn't keep the virus out, and Toronto owner Johanna Neilson Boynton said, "We knew going in it was a gamble."
"We stuck by a very strict protocol, and there's human error," NWHL Players Association executive director Anya Packer said.
Tumminia added, "Defining the origin and placing blame right now is not really our game."
Two semifinal games Thursday and the final Friday were set to be televised nationally in the U.S. on NBC Sports Network, putting women's hockey in a prominent spotlight a year away from the Beijing Olympics.
Despite not doing that, Tumminia called the NWHL season "successful."
"I actually see it as a success, she said. "I'm very proud where we got to this point."
The end of the NWHL bubble experiment came on the same day the rival Professional Women's Hockey Players Association announced it will play a game at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28. The PWHPA is made up of 125 of the sport's biggest stars, including members of the U.S. and Canadian national teams, who banded together in the hopes of forcing the creation of a new pro league.
The game at MSG comes 13 months after PWHPA players took part in NHL All-Star Weekend. It will be the first professional women's hockey game at the storied arena.
"This is a major milestone for women's hockey and young girls who aspire to play professional hockey but don't have the option to make it a career today," said Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, an operations consultant for the PWHPA.
The NHL's New York Rangers are hosting the women's game with the team playing at Buffalo that day. Rangers president John Davidson said the team is "excited to play even a small role in helping elevate visibility for the women's game."
"The talent level of women's hockey is simply incredible," Davidson said. "We all love this sport so much and any opportunity the Rangers have to participate in its advancement is something we want to be a part of. It's a win for everyone involved."
The game in New York is set to be the first stop on the second "Dream Gap Tour," with others around the U.S. and Canada to be determined. The announcement was made on National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
"Investing in and advancing women's hockey strengthens the game overall and creates a range of professional opportunities for women as coaches, front office executives and athletes," said Bauer Hockey vice president of global marketing Mary-Kay Messier, an adviser to the PHWPA.
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