How one sports season fell apart, even in a bubble

By Marisa Ingemi

The coronavirus infiltrated the National Women’s Hockey League season at the end of January, and players still don’t know how that was allowed to happen.

That was the main theme from a dozen players who spoke with The New York Times who saw their season at a so-called bubble environment in Lake Placid, New York, cut short after positive tests overwhelmed the league before its semifinals and finals, which were scheduled to be televised nationally.

The league could not complete its 2019-20 season because of the pandemic, but it had momentum entering the two weeks of games it planned to hold for its sixth season. It had added a sixth team to the five returning from the previous season, and reached a broadcast agreement with NBC Sports.

Since the season was postponed Feb. 3, with intentions but no announced plans of resuming play, the players, including several dozen who believe they contracted the virus while playing, have returned home.

“If we just stuck to our game plan and original protocols, no matter what was happening, I think a lot could have been prevented,” Kayla Friesen, a rookie forward for the Connecticut Whale, said. “I’m not sure all of it, but I think we would have been able to finish.”

In a statement to The Times, the league said the number of positives was just north of 20% of everyone there, though the league declined to share names or the precise number of cases in its end-of-season news conference. Tyler Tumminia, the commissioner, said in the news conference that the Metropolitan Riveters had 10. Players with the Whale said it was “at least” half their team; the other teams have kept those numbers under wraps, but each team had at least three verifiable cases after Lake Placid. Minnesota, which had many players deal with the virus at training camp in the fall, had the fewest cases. Connecticut had the most.

“Those impacted returned home safely and followed local health guidelines and recommendations during their process of recovery,” Tumminia said in a statement. “We learned a lot, and I take responsibility for not providing enough oversight to be sure our plan was followed effectively.”

Some believe the original case belonged to the Riveters, the first team to leave the site, on Jan. 28, after playing in three games.

One of their players, who partook in training camp, tested positive before the team’s departure to Lake Placid, and she stayed behind; the rest of the team tested negative and traveled there 72 hours before the season began.

Within two days of the start of the season, two Riveters players tested positive, and they and coach Ivo Mocek left in the middle of their second game. The Riveters’ case numbers soon shot into the double digits, and they left.

The Whale, who shared a hotel with the Riveters and the Minnesota Whitecaps, believe they can trace their initial cases to a trainer who alternated between the Riveters and the Whale, and a false sense of security when their rapid tests weren’t as reliable — there were several false negatives, according to Whale players — as the PCR tests, which took longer.

The league had developed its protocols in conjunction with the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), which operates Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid. Players were to stay in their hotels other than going to the rink, though Instagram and other social media posts from players across several teams seemed to contradict that. Players say they followed the guidance the league gave them, and followed what was enforced.

After the Riveters left, Friesen said, one of the protocols changed from teams having buffet-style meals away from other clubs to eating only in their rooms.

“The state’s partnership with the local health department, along with ORDA’s operation and oversight of this venue, identified several teams’ failure to follow the mandatory protocols, which contributed to a rise in positive cases, and created an unsafe health condition,” a spokesperson for the development authority said.

Requests for comment sent to NYU Langone, the league’s medical partner, were not returned.

Other players felt that the league should have stepped in and stopped the potential spread as soon as there was an inkling of trouble by telling the Riveters to stay home.

“I know if I was on that team, that would have been incredibly heartbreaking to hear, but one team had a positive case right before coming and that would have been the one moment I can think of, honestly, they could have made the choice to not allow them to come,” said one player who requested anonymity for speaking against the league’s decision-making.

By the time the Riveters departed, it was too late. From their perspective, they followed the protocols, testing negative before departure and upon arrival. No positive players took the trip to Lake Placid.

Instead, players watched in real time as cases ticked up.

“There’s certainly theories that have floated around, but it could have been before we left or when we were there,” Riveters defender Rebecca Morse said. “Regardless of what happened, we were out of the tournament, so you can’t point fingers and blame anyone for getting sick.”

Connecticut had six positive tests shortly after the Riveters left the bubble, and called on four players — including an emergency backup goalie, Mariah Fujimagari, who was on location — to join the team.

No one seemed to have a clear answer to when puncturing the bubble became acceptable. Some teams that had injured players earlier in the season said they didn’t think teams could do that. One player with the Whale said the team had players drive there, while another team flew a player in, which was less safe.

“I’m not sure how that was allowed, but I guess the state approved it,” Friesen said. “I guess rules and protocols changed during the tournament.”

By the time the Whale were scheduled for a game against Minnesota on Feb. 1, with no implications in the standings, they had just played short-handed and were worried about additional positive results.

They took tests the evening before the game, but with a blizzard consuming the East Coast, the tests did not return results from New Haven, Connecticut, until Tuesday night, after both Feb. 1 games were scheduled.

The Whale left the bubble Feb. 1, but not without some animosity. Connecticut had asked the league to forfeit its game against Minnesota, since it would face Minnesota in the semifinals anyway, to reduce exposure while they awaited results.

According to three members of the Whale, the league told them if they were to not play that day, they would have to leave the bubble. The league did not respond to a question to confirm or deny that.

One player said they never got a chance to speak with Tumminia, and the ultimatum was passed on down to them. Another said they felt the league was forcing them to choose between playing in unsafe conditions or not at all.

The test results turned out to be telling; the Whale were in the double digits, while Boston, which stayed in its own, isolated building and had no contact outside the rink, had three positives for the first time.

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