If the call had been made any later, there was a possibility the Minnesota Whitecaps would have been airborne and Boston bound. With the Isobel Cup final slated for last Friday at Warrior Ice Arena, home of the Boston Pride, the NWHL’s second-ranked squad had planned to depart from the ‘State of Hockey’ and touch down in Massachusetts for the one-game, winner-take-all affair by Thursday afternoon. But in the late hours Wednesday evening, the NWHL made the call: the league final was postponed until further notice.
“We had a 9am flight on Thursday morning, and I think the official word was around 10pm on Wednesday night,” Allie Thunstrom said. “It was very, very close to us getting on that plane.”
It was, of course, the right decision. It was clear then and it’s all the more clear now that’s the case. The announcement itself came hours before the NHL announced that it was suspending its season and in the wake of the NBA’s announcement that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. In the days that followed, league cancellations throughout North America became the norm. Compounding matters was that days earlier, news had broken about an outbreak of coronavirus at a Biogen conference in Boston, where the NWHL final was to be held. The conference is now linked to roughly 100 cases of the virus.
Despite the outbreak, Thunstrom said she believed a lot of the players wanted to play regardless, that they were willing to take the risk, though she said it’s evident now that it was “in the best interest of everyone involved not to have done that” and supported the league’s decision. Prudent choice or not, though, it was still a decision that was tough to stomach for players from both teams. The conclusion of the season was so close. The crowning of a champion was one 60-minute contest away.
“For us, it's the championship game, which is obviously huge, and we pour our hearts and souls into the season to get to that point, so it's devastating,” said Thunstrom, who was named co-MVP of the NWHL alongside the Pride’s Jillian Dempsey. “But then you look at the colleges and college seniors who had their seasons ripped out from underneath them, and that's devastating, as well.”
But amid the cancellation and the continued uncertainty that surrounds the spread of coronavirus across the globe, there does remain a silver lining for those in the NWHL, and particularly the Whitecaps and Pride. Though professional leagues stateside such as the ECHL and SPHL, and more recently major junior circuits throughout Canada and the United States, have cancelled portions of or the entirety of what was left of their campaigns, the NWHL has held fast with its assertion that the Isobel Cup final will be played. In a league statement last week, the NWHL said it is “determined to present the Isobel Cup Final that the Pride, Whitecaps and the fans deserve.”
“That's the question that a lot of players seem to have. 'Do you really think that we'll play?' And I do. I genuinely do,” Thunstrom said. “We’re fortunate in the one sense that this is just one game that needs to be played. You look at the NHL and the NBA, they have to consider playoff scenarios and then rounds of playoffs with seven-game series. That's a very different animal.”
What the make-up game looks like and when it could happen are the biggest questions, however. At this moment, there’s no timetable that anyone can provide, at least not with any degree of certainty. And while timing can be an issue given NWHL athletes have other commitments, be it work or otherwise, on their schedules, Thunstrom doesn’t see that as a concern. She’s of the mind that when the time comes, if there’s enough lead-in to the game and time for players to plan for the event, the clubs can come together to make the game happen. More pressing, though, is ensuring there are fans in the building.
“Yes, just the desire to play in the game, we're going to have the adrenaline and the energy, but fans really do add a lot to it and I don't know that they get as much credit as they deserve,” she said. “That was one thing, as it was starting to come out, I was like, 'I don't even know. I'd rather have a postponement than play without fans.’ ”
The reality is that those choices are largely out of the players’ control, though. But what players from the Pride and Whitecaps can manage is their preparation, which presents its own challenges. If we use the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eight-week guideline, the earliest the Isobel Cup could be played is May. That would signify a two-month layoff for the players, during which time they’ll have to attempt to remain in game-shape for a do-or-die championship game.
“Hopefully we'll be able to get back on the ice in a week or so in controlled environments,” Thunstrom said. “I think maybe that will be deemed safe and we can start practicing like normal and maybe start doing some intra-squad scrimmages to keep that up. But while everything is closed and under quarantine, staying as active as possible to keep your cardio up is going to be the big key, because the rest of it you can kind of pick up, but the cardio piece can be hard.”
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