With Women’s Hockey in Flux, League Says It Will Play in 2021

The National Women’s Hockey League announced plans on Wednesday to postpone the start of its season from November to January, becoming one of the first North American professional leagues to move its schedule to 2021 because of the pandemic.

According to Anya Packer, director of the N.W.H.L. Players Association, the decision was reached by the league’s safety committee weeks ago. That panel of about 20 members includes infectious disease experts, league executives and members of the players’ association who have had calls every two weeks since the committee’s formation in April.

The league said it would make decisions about medical protocols, ticketing and arena capacity for fans before the start of the season. “Our decisions are directed by science and driven entirely by safety,” Michelle Picard, the league’s deputy commissioner, said in an email. “In a pandemic, you’re not thinking about being opportunistic as a business. We’re doing what’s best for the players, staff, fans, media, and everyone in the communities where we play our games.”

This was to be a year of expansion for the league, which added a Toronto franchise in April. The N.W.H.L. said it still hoped to run a 20-game regular season, with each team playing two games over 10 consecutive weekends. The playoffs are slated for late March, with an all-star game to be played after the championship.

While the delay will be a financial setback for the N.W.H.L., which relies heavily on ticket revenue, a January start provides more time to ensure adequate safety protocols and to navigate travel restrictions as practices begin in the fall. Saroya Tinker, a rookie with the Metropolitan Riveters who is training in Toronto, said she was relieved by the league’s decision.

“From a public health standpoint, I think that many professional leagues need to take a step back and put their players’ health and safety first, rather than rushing back into play,” she said.

Teams will be allowed to hold optional practices beginning Sept. 21, with formal practices starting the week of Oct. 19.

Packer said the committee consulted with the National Women’s Soccer League and W.N.B.A. on their protocols, heeded guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and worked with the authorities in cities where its teams are based.

She also confirmed that players would still receive their full salaries. Last season, the N.W.H.L.’s highest announced salary was $15,000. Because a majority of N.W.H.L. players earn income from other jobs, the league never considered a “bubble” environment, as the N.H.L. has deployed.

“To protect the health of the players, I think that’s never a bad decision,” Nicole LaVoi, director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, said of moving the league’s start back to January. “I think anyone that studies sports, we would probably be remiss if we didn’t think it was too soon, just for the very reasons we see are happening in Major League Baseball now.”

The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which organizes many Olympic stars to play in exhibition games, has not yet announced its 2020-21 schedule. U.S.A. Hockey, which regularly hosts a women’s hockey national festival in August, has not announced 2020 plans.

“We’re at an interesting moment, where interest in women’s sports is highlighted in a way like never before,” LaVoi said in regard to the W.N.B.A. and N.W.S.L.’s summer leagues. “The hockey league is perhaps going to miss out on that.”

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