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NWHL’s Placid bubble begins today

For one player, Lake Placid season is ‘dream come true.’ Another worries, ‘It’s been almost a year since I’ve played’

The Connecticut Whale (in green and blue) host the Boston Pride at Bridgeport, Connecticut on Feb. 22, 2020. (Provided photo — Bryan Johnson)

LAKE PLACID — Drop the puck!

After seeing no official hockey games played at the Olympic Center for more than 10 months, those words can ring out again this weekend as the National Women’s Hockey League begins a condensed two-week season in Lake Placid.

The cornoravirus pandemic forced the fabled arena to abruptly shut down early in March last year after a Can-Am Hockey tournament ended, and hockey is now returning in a big way as the six-team NWHL will hold 24 games in a span of two weeks at the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena. The games will take played in a “bubble” with no fans present.

Each team starts off with a grinding run of five games in seven days, which will be followed by playoff rounds. The ultimate goal for all six squads is hoisting the Isobel Cup, which goes to the winner of the Feb. 5 championship game.

Teams participating are the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, Minnesota Whitecaps and one brand-new squad in the league this year, the Toronto Six.

Not only are coaches and players happy to finally have the opportunity to compete again; they’re excited to play in the hockey town of Lake Placid.

For Rebecca Morse, a veteran defender for the Riveters, playing in Lake Placid could be considered a homecoming. A native of New Jersey, Morse was introduced to the game as a youngster when she visited the Olympic Village to watch her brother play in a Can-Am tournament. Some years later, Morse was a student-athlete playing hockey for Lake Placid’s National Sports Academy, where she spent four years before moving on to suit up for the Providence College Friars.

This week, she’s back in Lake Placid as a pro playing her fifth season with the Riveters.

“Lake Placid is my favorite place in the world. It’s a dream come true. It’s surreal,” Morse said. “I fell in love with hockey when I first came up here. I was 8 and watching my brother play in a tournament. He’s a couple years younger than me. I thought Lake Placid was a winter wonderland, and I told my dad I was going to move here. I couldn’t believe that a few years later, I was getting recruited to play in Lake Placid. Now I’m heading back as a pro, so I’ve kind of come full circle.”

All six teams faced COVID-19 struggles arranging practices in their respective home areas, but fortunately, they’ve been able to get in full-squad sessions over the past several weeks to prepare for the season. Morse said the Riveters have been practicing at the Montclair State University ice arena.

“Given the pandemic, we’re heading into somewhat of an unconventional season,” Morse said. “With the structure essentially being a two-week season of high intensity back-to-back games, it may not necessarily be the strongest, most skilled team that wins. The team that comes here playing together, playing for each other, being able to adapt quickly — that could be the team winning it all.”

“It’s going to be a ton of hockey in a short period of time,” said Buffalo Beauts coach Pete Perram. “I think one thing we’ll have to rely on is our facilities to recover quickly in a very competitive environment.”

Perram said a big focus of the Beauts has been shoring up their defense.

“If anyone had followed the team last year, I think they quickly saw that we were lacking on the D end and in goal,” he said. “We have a couple of solid forwards who can put pucks in the net, we’ve bulked up on the back end, and I’m excited to see what we can do.”

Perram said the Beauts have been able to practice as a full squad for nearly two months at their home rink, the Northtown Center in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst. He said at first that it was a bit of a challenge because a number of skaters on the team live in Canada and had to obtain exemptions from border restrictions to travel back-and-forth from the two countries.

Like the rest of the teams, the Beauts will be leaving their fans behind.

“We’ve specifically talked about that every day,” Perram said. “Our players are going to have to take it upon themselves for inspiration, find that ingrown energy between each other. We have a strong fan base. We have a number of them out there and they’re loud. The Beauts Brigade, we’ll be hearing them cheer all the way from Buffalo.”

Perram said he’s been to Lake Placid once in the past but not for a hockey game, and is looking forward to spending time inside the Olympic Center.

“I came to Lake Placid once. I took a peek at the rink, but that’s as far as I got,” he said. “I think from my personal approach, just to be able to stand on the same bench as Herb Brooks, that’s going to be a lifetime achievement for me.”

Lindsay Eastwood enters her first NWHL season as a member of the Toronto Six. A native of Kanata, Ontario, near Ottawa, Eastwood wrapped up her college career last March as a senior captain of the Syracuse University women’s team.

The defender said her team’s early practices were split-squad sessions due to the coronavirus protocols in Ontario, but the Six have since had full-team workouts at their rink in the Toronto suburb of York.

Normally, a hockey tradition sees rookie players gathering up the pucks after practice, and Eastwood laughed about a situation she found herself in after her team completed an early session while preparing for Lake Placid.

“I was picking up the pucks, which is what first-year players do, and some veterans asked my what I was doing,” Eastwood said. “They told me, ‘Hey, everything is different this season. We’re all new to this. We’re all rookies.'”

In echoing a common theme, Eastwood said she’s just happy to be on the ice in a meaningful situation.

“It’s been almost a year since I’ve played,” she said. “We all admit that it hasn’t been a great year for anybody, but when you’re on the ice, nothing else matters. I’m definitely excited, I think all my teammates are excited to compete again and work toward a common goal, like winning the cup. That’s what every team’s goal is.”

Saturday’s triple-header kicks off at 1 p.m. with a game between Toronto and the Riveters. Boston and Minnesota clash at 4 p.m., and Buffalo and Connecticut wrap the day up with a 7 p.m. match-up.

Although no spectators are allowed to attend the games, contests can be viewed online, and the semifinals on Thursday, Feb. 4 and the championship game on Feb. 5 will be televised live on NBCSN. More information, including scheduling, can be found on the league’s website nwhl.zone or the NWHL’s Facebook page.

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