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NWHL experiment is lesson for local hockey

The coronavirus got inside what was supposed to be a “bubble,” and it burst.

The National Women’s Hockey League’s two-week season in Lake Placid was limping into its playoffs after two of the six teams dropped out. Then the league called it all off on Wednesday afternoon, suspending the season just before the semifinals.

The NWHL had wanted to show it could successfully pull off a difficult maneuver like the NBA and NHL had with their bubble seasons. But it didn’t work out.

With girls hockey participation growing at a rapid pace and new TV contracts, this league is on the rise, and the Lake Placid season should have been a big coming-out party. But as with most things, COVID crashed the party.

Remember, we’re in the middle of a pandemic that has killed nearly 450,000 Americans and almost 2.25 million people worldwide. We’re all wearing masks at work, in school, every time we go into a store and even when we pass people on the sidewalk. Nursing home residents and their loved ones aren’t allowed to see each other. Many of us with families far away haven’t seen them in well over a year. No one has been to a concert or play or anything like that in almost a year, for fear of spreading the virus through the ventilation system. Holding a hockey season, with players sharing sweaty locker rooms and smashing into each other on the ice, is stretching things.

Nevertheless, it could have worked — we truly believe that. It would have taken thorough planning, tight organization, strict discipline and clear communication. Those things were lacking in the NWHL season.

Communication was a big unforced error that hurt the league’s reputation. After the second team departed without even giving a reason, league officials went dark, not returning reporters’ phone calls or answering even basic questions.

The most basic question is, what was the “bubble” in the first place? What were players and coaches and staff allowed to do and not allowed to do, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus? Also, how often was everyone tested? What was the lab turnaround time for test results? The league had been vague about the rules before the season started and refused to talk about them later.

This was an experiment, and an educational one. The experiment “failed,” in that it didn’t fulfill its hypothesis that the NWHL’s plan could keep players safe, but if people look carefully at what didn’t work and how, they can develop a model that might work in the future.

This is how we North Country residents need to think about this. Our region is trying to start up high school hockey and basketball to salvage some sort of winter season for these sports with high risk of virus transmission. But if a league of professional players and staff can’t pull it off when they’re all (supposedly) isolated in one “bubble,” can small schools make it work with teenagers mixing on the ice and then going back to hundreds of homes in dozens of towns?

We are skeptical, but the Essex, Franklin and Clinton County health departments have green-lighted it, and Section VII is moving toward allowing it. Section X has not. New York state’s list of conditions to play high-risk sports is long and difficult, and we just can’t see our small school districts successfully meeting them all. We can see them trying, but they may well end up like the NWHL — plus with kids and their family members getting sick.

If you think it can be done safely and are willing to fight for it, do so by studying the NWHL experiment, learning from its failures and coming up with a plan with tighter discipline, better anticipation of problems and better communication to the players and public, so everyone knows the expectations. Then try to see if state, regional and local officials will allow it.

In our view, though, it’s not worth that risk just to play a few games with no playoffs. This coronavirus is a monster that has gobbled up many things — and people. We have to accept that a few more events will have to be canceled before our vaccinations get the better of it. Let’s work toward a safe spring and summer instead.

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