Taking a look at the highlights and heartbreak of the NWHL season so far.
By Alex Holmes
The 2021 NWHL season has wrapped up week one in the Bubble, and before we grab our streaming devices, coffee, and blue light glasses—yes, Millennials and Gen Z, I’m looking at you—to tune in for the league’s final stretch of games, let’s take a look at the wonderful shenanigans that went down in Lake Placid last week.
From the rise of the Zamboni fandom and kissing cardboard cutouts to a Whale that is no longer beached on the sands of NWHL last place, the first week featured plenty of fun for players and fans alike. One final warning before we proceed: it’s not all fun and games. Actually, there will be no more games this year for one team, but you can save your tears and tissues for the end. To all the loyal Twitch-watchers and NDubble fanatics out there, here are your top five highlights from the bubble.
#1 Zamboni Madness
It’s the quiet hero of every hockey game. It’s captured the hearts of nearly every NWHL Twitch viewer. It’s literally driving the hockey world crazy. It’s the Zamboni.
While the ice-cleaning machine is a mainstay for every ice rink, how many Zambonis do you know that have earned their own emoji? Or their own mood lighting? What about dedicated merchandise celebrating #Zambonanza? Thanks to the unparalleled fandom energy of NWHL viewers, the Lake Placid Zamboni now has all that and more.
NWHL fans blew up the Twitch chat during the first week of games talking about the Zamboni. Viewers rallied around the silent truck and made sure it and its driver, Aaron—now the unofficial king of Lake Placid—got the attention they deserved. The league quickly went to work making a full production out of the ZamCam, featuring music and new camera angles.
The rise of Zamboni fandom actually provides several key takeaways surrounding the league’s success with fan interaction. First, fans are tuning in and engaging with the action. The constant chatter of viewers surrounding these games should be an encouragement to the relatively young league. Not only are fans watching, they’re actively participating in the bubble experience. Second, the league is showing that it’s listening to the fans. Within hours after the first games, the NWHL moved to create its own Zamboni emoji for the Twitch chat and give the fans what they wanted by hyping up Aaron and his Zamboni in increasingly hilarious ways. The league is leaning in to what its fans want, making the typically dull ritual of cleaning the ice into everyone’s favorite part of the show.
#2 The Whale’s Revival
After taking second place in the NWHL’s inaugural 2015-2016 season, the Connecticut Whale finished in last place four consecutive times. Last season was one of the team’s worst in NWHL history, as the Whale finished with only two wins and gave up a league-worst 61 goals. To say this franchise has struggled is an understatement,which makes its success story of 2021 something to cheer for.
Coming into this season, the Whale were projected to get blown out of the water. But in only three games, the Whale have already equaled their total number of wins from last year. With a week to go in the season, the Whale have given up the least amount of goals and sit in third place after a third period, four-goal comeback against the Boston Pride.
The Whale are led by a trio of forwards in Alyssa Wohlfeiler, Emma Vlasic and Katelyn Russ. Wohlfeiler leads the team with 5 points, notching 1 goal and 4 assists. Vlasic’s steady play has contributed 4 points to the Whale campaign on 1 goal and 3 assists, while Russ leads the team with 2 goals on the season.
You can even crack open a cold one while watching the Whale—the team has a beer named after it thanks to its newfound success and support from Oyster Bay Brewing Co.
Fins Up to that.
#3 KissCams and Cutouts
Despite the pandemic keeping live fans out of the NWHL bubble, the seats at Herb Brooks Arena aren’t all empty. Cardboard cutouts have been used throughout the COVID-19 sports world to give fans a way to be in the arena, and the NWHL Bubble is no different. The cutouts have been used in all kinds of creative ways since the puck dropped in New York. If you tune into a NWHL game this week, don’t be surprised when you see the KissCam spotlight two pieces of cardboard at a time. The cutouts’ talents don’t stop at kissing, they even attempt to make a fan wave every now and then. And how could I forget about the human-sized dog cutouts? When you hear a reference to the Isobel Pup, this is where it started.
The cutouts are also a sign of the NWHL’s growing support network. The faces of many MLB, NHL, NBA, NWSL, and WNBA players are in the stands. Several teams are supporting their home markets, such as the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Wild. The WNBA is well represented at the arena, with the New York Liberty, Connecticut Sun, Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces sending their support via cardboard cutouts. Some of these cutouts will be auctioned off at the end of the season, with proceeds going to local charities.
#4 Rookie Standouts
The first few games of the season featured strong performances by the league’s first years. Among them are Carly Jackson, Tori Howran and Haley Mack.
Buffalo’s Carly Jackson burst onto the NWHL scene by making an astonishing 45 saves in her NWHL debut against Toronto. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NWHL Draft leads the league’s goaltenders with 122 saves through three games.
Howran has been an integral part to the Whale’s success. The former University of New Hampshire standout has proved to be a versatile playmaker and is third-best on the team with 3 points from 1 goal and two assists.
Forward Haley Mack of the Minnesota Whitecaps leads her teams with two goals through the first three games. Eight of her 9 shots have been on goal this season.
The elite performance of so many young players indicates a bright future to come for the league.
#5 A Popped Bubble: Rivs Leaving Lake Placid
This is not a highlight of the 2021 season, but will be one of the most notable events when all’s said and done. The Metropolitan Riveters had to pack their bags after several members of the organization tested positive for COVID-19. The Rivs left Lake Placid tied for third place and for the lowest number of goals allowed through three games.
While we are all disappointed that we will have to wait until the NWHL’s seventh season to see the Rivs back in action, there is some silver lining to their premature exit.
The league’s organizational prowess has been on full display since the news broke about the Rivs leaving. Everyone who has been following sports for the past 11 months and closely watching the bubbles of other leagues knew there was a risk of players getting COVID-19 while playing in a pandemic. While it’s terrible that the league’s protocols had to be put to the test, so far they have passed with flying colors. The league was able to identify positive cases and quickly move to make accommodations for the Rivs to leave the Bubble, while also going on with the rest of the season. The NWHL is one of the first professional leagues that has had to navigate this issue and its preparation and organization is on full display as the season moves forward.
The last week of the 2021 season begins with a battle for Isobel Cup seeding between the remaining teams. The league announced Friday that the Boston Pride and Buffalo Beauts will play a best-of-three series, with the winner earning the fourth seed for the playoffs. Meanwhile Minnesota, Connecticut and Toronto will each play each other once to determine the top three seeds.
The Isobel Cup semifinals will air live Thursday, February 4, on NBC Sports Network at 5:30 P.M. and 8 P.M. The final on Friday, February 5, at 7 P.M. will decide the 2021 NWHL Isobel Cup Champion and will also air live on NBCSN. The bubble has been full of fun stories and great hockey so far, so the final week is sure to be well worth watching.