The National Women's Hockey League is going to crown a champion after all.
The Isobel Cup was supposed to be raised back on Feb. 5, capping a two-week bubble tournament at the Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y.
But the day before the puck was supposed to drop for the semifinals the bubble burst. Two of the league's six teams — the Metropolitan Riveters and Connecticut Whale — had to withdraw as they were hammered by COVID-19. Two-thirds of the Connecticut roster tested positive. The remainder of the tournament was cancelled.
To make it so close to the finish line and have it all fall apart was a major disappointment to everybody, especially the Toronto Six. The expansion club, and lone Canadian team in the league, was in first place at 4-1-1 when the plug was pulled. Morden native Taylor Woods, a 26-year-old defender who starred at Cornell University, plays for the Six and had four goals and an assist during bubble play.
"We did prove like 'Hey, the Toronto Six are the team to beat,' but of course, you don't have any championship to show that... It was very unfortunate. In a short period of time, there were a lot of emotions. It went from 'Hey, we're headed into the semifinals and this is what we're ranked.' Then all of sudden we're not playing and going home the next day," said Woods in a phone interview with the Free Press.
"There was a lot going on and everything was a blur at that point."
Luckily, Woods and the Six will have an opportunity to finish what they started. The NWHL rescheduled the playoffs to this weekend in front of no fans at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton, Mass. The semifinals go Friday with Toronto taking on the Boston Pride and the Minnesota Whitecaps challenging the Whale. The winners will meet for the championship on Saturday. The games will be streamed on Twitch in Canada and televised on NBCSN in the United States.
"I know last year they weren't able to crown a champion because the pandemic hit around that time and they weren't able to finish," said Woods, who previously played in the defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The NWHL is in its sixth season.
"So, showing that 'Hey, we started a season and we're going to end it and award a Season 6 champion,' it's a big priority. It shows a lot, especially having TV contracts with NBC. It's a great stride forward for the women's game and showing the product."
The Six will roll into the weekend with a slightly different squad than the one in Lake Placid. The team had to quarantine for two weeks after returning from the bubble last month and they will have to do so again after this weekend. Several players had to opt out as they weren't able to take another two weeks off work. Woods, a strength and skills coach, was nearly on that list as her schedule is packed with coaching and training gigs.
"I was on the fence about coming. I had decided to not go to Boston due to work," said Woods, who resides in Hamilton.
"I wanted to show my respect to the places I work at and I wanted to make sure I came back to my clients and made sure they're doing good. But I had a conversation with some people at work and they're like 'Hey, I don't want you to miss out on this great opportunity.' So, I was able to change a lot of my work to virtual and get the assistance that I needed to go on this trip. So I'm very fortunate for that."
Prior to the bubble, Ontario's pandemic restrictions didn't allow the Six to train as usual. The team was split into cohorts which would take turns on the ice, or they would split the rink in half with a curtain. They had only had six training sessions before their opening game. They've now been granted an exemption as a professional team, which allows them to practise as a team. The Six have been preparing for over two weeks now.
"It's been great. Especially with everything that's going on, it's something to look forward to — being able to get to the rink and skate as a team and be with everybody," said Six captain Shiann Darkangelo in a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday.
"Prior to Lake Placid...it was kind of like summer training just pushed into a season is how I'd describe that — doing skills and smaller stuff. But now, we've been able to skate as a full team and practise systems and do different things like that, so it's been good."
The Six will bus it to Boston today. While this season has been a bumpy ride, it wouldn't take anything away from what it would mean to walk away with the trophy this weekend.
"It would mean a lot, especially with this group," Woods said. "We've been really tight through this pandemic. New team, new franchise, it'd mean a lot. I'm really hoping we can pull it out and I'm really confident we can pull it out."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.