The National Women's Hockey League bubble tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y., started out as a dream come true for Winnipegger Kayla Friesen, but it ended as a nightmare.
The 22-year-old forward scored in her professional debut for the Connecticut Whale on Jan. 24 in her team's 2-1 win over the Buffalo Beauts in their opening game of the two-week event at Herb Brooks Arena.
Fast forward to the present and Friesen, and the majority of her Whale teammates, are now in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. After starting 2-2-0, the Whale forfeited Monday night's game against the Minnesota Whitecaps and made the decision to withdraw from the tournament entirely owing to COVID-19 health concerns.
They were the second team to do so as the Metropolitan Riveters dropped out last Thursday for the same reason.
With the Whale and Riveters out of the picture, the NWHL was left with four teams. On Wednesday the league announced it had pulled the plug on the event for the safety of everyone involved. The semifinals, which were going to air live on NBC Sports, were supposed to be played the following day.
"It started off great. Things were good. Everyone was following protocol and whatnot. And then, I guess, just one thing went wrong, and then it expanded rapidly and pretty quickly," Friesen told the Free Press on Thursday. The former St. Mary's Academy star was chosen second overall by Connecticut in last year's NWHL draft.
"It got pretty scary pretty quick. So, we as a team obviously made our own decision to put our health and our safety first because it's not just a two-week season anymore. It's a long, long life afterward that can be affected from something like this."
After helping the Whale beat the Boston Pride 4-1 on Jan. 27, Friesen woke up one morning with several symptoms. She was one of five players that were listed as "unavailable" for the Whale's fourth and ultimately final game, a Jan. 31 matchup with the Toronto Six. The Whale signed four new players to the roster prior to the game.
Friesen said the first few days of symptoms were "awful" but she's feeling a bit better now. The Whale were training together in Connecticut prior to the tournament and didn't have any positive cases come up.
"Leading up to it, I felt safe. I felt safe. I thought I had done everything right. I finally made it to the bubble which is where I thought I was going to feel the most safe because of how it was explained to us," she said.
"Obviously, there's always a risk with the virus. You don't know what's going to happen, but I definitely felt safe coming into it. I think as time went on and cases were popping up, I was like 'Oh s---. There's a very strong chance I can get it now.' So, it just sucks that I've done everything right for months coming up to it. The place I was supposed to probably be the safest, that's sadly where things went wrong for me."
It's a bit of a headscratcher as to how so many cases could arise in a bubble, but it turns out this wasn't a bubble after all despite the fact the NWHL previously advertised it as one. NWHL commissioner Tyler Tumminia stepped back from that term in a Zoom meeting with reporters Wednesday and said the season was held in a "restricted access environment."
"I mean, when they talked about the protocols leading up to it, it was great and it looked great and everyone thought it was going to work. That's why we all came," Friesen said.
"It just seemed that when some cases came up positive there could have been a more conservative approach to moving ahead. I don't think there was anything malicious or done with intent, I just think we should have slowed down to understand the full impact of continuing play early on. As a team and league, we will learn from it and be better because of it."
Friesen isn't the lone Winnipeg native on the Whale as the team's head coach is Colton Orr who played nine seasons in the NHL. Orr said around "two-thirds" of the team tested positive for the virus and they decided as a group to back out of the season. Orr was not one of the positive cases.
"Everyone wants to play and do whatever it takes. Being a former player myself, I know that players sacrifice a lot of things to play and (there's) injuries and all sorts of stuff. But knowing there's more to risk on the line than a broken bone, it was definitely a difficult decision to make as a group, but we all felt comfortable with it being the right one," Orr said in a phone interview.
Orr isn't sure what his future will be with the club as right now he's focused on the health of his players.
"Yeah, it's a tough one. To have to tell a player they're sick is not fun," Orr said.
"Amy (Scheer) our GM did take a lot of those calls. We just want them to be safe and healthy. You want to protect your players as a staff so our main goal right now is making sure everyone's safe and healthy and taken care of."
While the NWHL's sixth season didn't go according to plan, Tumminia also said on Wednesday that there are some positives to come out of the situation.
"I actually see it as a success," said the commissioner.
"I was 12 hours away from history. It’s really just frustrating and breaks my heart. But overall I really truly believe that this is successful. We saw a lot of hard work and grit, I’m very proud of where we got to this point."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.