NWHL Joins the Bubble System for 2021 Season

By Preston Bradsher
Source: NWHL Instagram

The Isobel Cup is back on. After last year’s season ended without a chance for the Minnesota Whitecaps and Boston Pride to compete for the NWHL’s highest honor, plans to revive the tradition are officially underway. 

The league announced last week that the 2021 NWHL season will follow the successful models of the NWSL and WNBA with a bubble of its own. The condensed season will run for two weeks in Lake Placid, NY, starting January 23 with the Isobel Cup final set for February 5. 

The NWHL finds itself in a unique situation among professional sports leagues because they can’t ask their players to commit to a long-term bubble. The salaries in the league at this time are just not high enough to allow the players to take the time to play a longer season like the one the WNBA recently completed. 

The players of the NWHL don’t just have day jobs; they have careers. With everyone from mechanical engineers to elementary school teachers suiting up each week, the league has to account for the lives of the players outside of hockey. This two-week bubble season seems like a good step in that direction–a way to keep the season alive in this difficult season of COVID-19 restrictions while still respecting the careers of its players until those league salaries can be raised.

The NWHL is also following the lead of the NWSL by giving its players the opportunity to opt out of the season entirely for safety or personal reasons. Players taking this option will be paid their full, 24-game salary, as will every participating player. At this time, 95% of signed players have agreed to play in the bubble next year.

The significance of the bubble season happening in Lake Placid is huge for any hockey fan. The site of the famed ‘Miracle on Ice’ has been a hockey icon for years, and this season will mark the first women’s professional championship to be played there. Even under the limiting circumstances of the pandemic, the NWHL is still looking to inspire as it works to cut a viable path for professional women’s hockey in the U.S.

Another big step towards that viability happened back in October when the league announced a new governance model as well as a new interim commissioner. The new structure will have the league operate as an unincorporated association with a board of governors representing the individual teams, a change from the previous private ownership model. The franchise model the NWHL is heading towards is well-tested in the U.S. and has been proven to work on a large scale with leagues like the NHL, MLB, and NFL. 

Interim commissioner Tyler Tumminia made it clear that the primary goal of these big shifts is growth, with new partnerships and possible expansions on the horizon. The changes are meant to create room for the league to reach new heights, and the successful execution of this bubble season would be a great first step for the new commissioner. Hopefully putting the Isobel Cup back up for grabs will be just the beginning of a year of real growth for the league.

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