Crown Conversations: Previewing the NWHL and the Quest for the Cup

Analyst and media member Erica Ayala joins Crown Conversations to look at the NWHL’s abbreviated season and the crazy next two weeks to follow on these women’s journey to glory as they fight to reach the pinnacle of their sport.

The Los Angeles Kings are off to a disappointing start. So instead of focusing on them, Robyn (sans James, who was busy working, womp womp) chatted with Erica Ayala, analyst, journalist, and media member covering all things NWHL. Erica joined Crown Conversations to preview the 2021 NWHL season which kicks off this Saturday, January 23, when newcomers Toronto Six take on hearty fan favorite Metropolitan Riveters at 1 p.m. EST. Find the full #NDubble schedule here.

Erica and Robyn also reflect back on the business aspect of the persistence of the NWHL and how they’ve not only managed to survive thus far, but are actually thriving. It’s an amazing story of perseverance and a determination not to fail in spite of all the odds stacked against them.

Then Erica lays out the NWHL’s bubble situation (two weeks, five games each, plus a sort of “pre-playoffs” round) and discusses whether or not the Connecticut Whale finally have the mojo to make an impact. Plus, are the Buffalo Beauts now the low-key underdog? Can anyone topple the mighty Boston Pride? Will any team be able to slow down the extremely speedy Minnesota Whitecaps? Will Digit Murphy, one of the winningest coaches in women’s hockey, be able to guide her dark horse team (the Six) to a victory? All these questions and more pondered on the podcast.


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INTRO: The Kings are the Kings! He wins it back… TOFFOLI OH MY GOD SCORES NO WAY OH MY NO WAY WITH NO TIME REMAINING! Doughty passes it back and they score! Grundstrom in game number one has tied it with his first NHL goal! Wagner down the middle… Scores! First career goal Austin Wagner! Here’s Luff looking for his first—scores! Matt Luff first NHL goal and the Kings have the lead! What’s Luff got to do with it? [Musical interlude]

RP: Hello and welcome to another episode of Crown Conversations. Unfortunately James is a little busy this afternoon so he will not be joining me instead is the wonderful, the talented, and the very knowledgeable Erica Ayala! Erica, thanks for joining me today.

EA: Thank you so much for having me. It’s good to connect. We have worked together virtually in the past and now we get to have a conversation, not quite in real life, but in real time. [Chuckles]

RP: Yes, well, you’re 3000 miles away at the moment, so… It’s sort of a virtual work together like you said.

EA: Right.

RP: We’re going to talk women’s hockey today. I’m super pumped for the upcoming NWHL season. They are in Lake Placid, correct?

EA: Yes, Lake Placid, New York. It’s the single site. I’m calling it the “NDubble.” That’s kind of a play on the “Wubble” which was the WNBA, but yes, that starts up—I can’t even believe it—this Saturday, January 23rd.

RP: Wow. Time flies cuz I feel like they were just talking about how to logistically have an NWHL season in the midst of a pandemic and now here we are, it’s starting in 3 days!

EA: It’s so wild.

RP: Okay. Lots of changes happened recently with the NWHL. Let’s start with the Six. That is the newest addition to the NWHL.

EA: Yes, the Toronto Six were announced this past offseason and so prior to, there was an expansion team, the first-ever expansion team for the national women’s hockey  was the Minnesota Whitecaps. They actually won the Isobel Cup Championship—that’s the... it’s like the Stanley Cup, actually, there’s a link there. But anyway, that’s the championship trophy that teams play for and the Minnesota Whitecaps won that in their expansion season. That was back in 2018-19. 2019-20, the Minnesota Whitecaps, they made it back to the final but, you know, covid had other thoughts. So now that means that with the Toronto Six coming in also the first—uh second ever expansion team, first franchise in Canada, the Toronto Six are looking to keep the streak alive of the expansion teams winning the Isobel Cup in their first season. But they have a lot of players that have played in the NWHL. Their captain Shiann Darkangelo, anyone who’s watched professional women’s hockey in the last handful of years probably knows that name. She played for the Connecticut Whale and the Buffalo Beauts in the NWHL, also has played and they CWHL and now is coming back to play in North America she played in China and with the China National Team that was a part of the CWHL and so Shiann Darkangelo is a player to watch Emily Fluke has also had time in the NWHL. But then there are a lot of locals like Mikyla Grant-Mentis, the other two captains... Emma Woods is another example—and so is there just like so many really good names that it is plausible for the Toronto Six to have a really good season.

RP: Side note, Mikyla Grant-Mentis is so good.

EA: So good. She’s known as Bucky which is a nod to like an old school hockey helmet. But, yes, very good, made... officially made her rookie debut last season, came right out of college, played for the Buffalo Beauts, made an immediate impact on the ice, but now is going to play for the, as I mentioned, the lone Canadian team and cross that border over by Buffalo and play for the Six.

RP: Yeah watching her last year was such a treat and she was such a bright spot for that Beauts team. I mean the Beauts team was... they-they had a lot of, like, great things going on, but anytime you see Grant-Mentis on the ice, she was making things happen and I’m like, where did this girl come from? It’s crazy.

EA: So wild. I believe she came from Merrimack, that’s where.

[Both laugh]

RP: There’s a long of when a… No, we’re not going to go there, but…

[Both laugh]

RP: So, we have to… I think... Let’s just address this and get this out of the way. I don’t want to pit the PHWA… P… [pause] PWHPA against the NWHL, but we kind of wouldn’t be here without that—I mean the Six wouldn’t really be here without them and nobody really thought the NWHL would survive without those household names from the national team and... But here we are and here they are and they-they’re thriving and now they’ve got the Toronto Six so there’s lots of exciting things happening.

EA: Yes. I was talking with someone else about this. It’s to be determined, you know, hindsight  20/20 or however you want to say it. It’s... It’s definitely questionable whether the expansion to Canada would have happened this soon in season six. But, we do know even after the first season that the NWHL was kind of eyeing the Canadian Market. But you’re absolutely right also that it was a roll of the dice, bringing a team to Canada shortly after the CWHL folded, which of course then led to the hashtag for the game movement—which has evolved as you mentioned into the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association—and not having National Team players in the domestic league here in the United States for some people that is not appetizing or appealing and there’s an argument that you don’t have the best players that could potentially play in a professional league in the NWHL. And I think there’s an argument to be made on quote-unquote either side of that statement. But what we do know is, yes, Dani Rylan Kearney, who is now managing subgroup—we can talk about the governance model if you’d like—but the founding commissioner of the league has found ways to keep the league afloat amid financial crises... amid a lot of controversy with governance... and the Connecticut Whale, my goodness, they’ve gone through so many general managers and coaches... of course,  the for the game movement where players essentially said since the CWHL folded they would not play in any professional league in North America because they didn’t see it viable. And of course, with the CWHL no longer around that was essentially a statement so that was targeting the NWHL. And there are pieces of the PWHPA that I think are important for the sport elevating the sport. I’m not sure if you get a 50/50 rev-share revenue share between the NWHLPA and the league if not for the for the game movement, as an example. So, while I think there is still a little bit of—as Taylor Swift once sang, “bad blood”—I do think that if you step back and you look at the landscape of hockey, we’re not exactly sure where everything is going to land as far as if there will ever be one league. I’m not of the opinion that there necessarily has to be. We certainly are no closer to knowing if the NHL is going to fund one league. But what we do know is women’s hockey is still here. Whether it’s the pwhp a or the NWHL, as we have seen time and time again women’s hockey persists and that to me is exciting.

RP: You’re absolutely right. I mean like you said, they-they went through a lot of crises. I remember, I think it was at the end of season two, Bauer or was it CCM? One of their vendors was accusing them of not paying their bills and it looked like, “oh boy, here we go. They’re not going to make it.” But against all the odds, these women—and I’m not talking about just Dani Rylan Kearney and-and the governors, but I mean the players, everybody who’s had a hand in this—they have against all the odds, they have persisted and they have insisted that women’s hockey is viable and it’s-it’s really, if you look at the big picture of it, like you said, I mean it’s like, it’s, to me, an amazing business story in and of itself.

EA: Absolutely. And you have to think... I mean... I’m not much of an American football fan but I know enough to know because failed football leagues like the XFL that’s failed how many times? Are they in their third iteration now, something like that? These-these groups fail and they come back. They fail, they come back and there’s little doubt to whether they can somehow find the mojo and the magic because... And the reason I say that is because they come in with multimillion-dollar investors and broadcast deals. And even with... For example, the PWHPA, they have the national team players from the United States and Canada and Secret is a $1000000 (one million dollar) sponsor, which is fantastic. But that’s only one sponsor that you need at least a handful more to have a league that’s going to be able to maintain financially, let alone pay a livable wage. So there’s still a lot of, as the WNBA would say, betting on women that’s not happening in the women’s hockey space. We’ve also seen the USA team, the national team fight for better and more equitable pay and-and kind of benefits to the national team in the last handful of years. So again there is a lot of resilience in women’s hockey and I understand why there is still like I said a little bit of friction and contention. I think that there are reasons that players, even fans, should feel very put out by a lot of what has been tolerated over the last few years. But again, if we if we just pull back a little bit and take what’s working and and and find the underlying message and continue to use the other women’s leagues that exist as models, I think women’s hockey could be in a really unique position to elevate and escalate whatever the professional league or leagues is much quicker than we’ve seen the WNBA, which will go into 25 Seasons this coming summer, or the nwsl, which is the third domestic league for women’s soccer and I think is up in about season 8 or 9 coming up this summer. I think, again, in season 6, if it’s the NWHL or in cycle... We’re in cycle two now, so maybe cycle three... either next year or at the end of the next Olympics, we could see the PWHPA really make great strides. But it’s going to take a little bit of that stepping back, looking ahead, and seeing what’s best for the sport andI do think that there are ways where those groups can co-exist. But I also think there are ways, where even the groups as they are now without the NHL could find ways to come a little bit closer to the middle and I think that would be really great for women’s hockey.

RP: You know, even without the NHL, it’s not necessarily a bad thing—in my personal opinion—to have the PWHPA and the NWHL, as sort of—I’ll call it a rivalry even though it’s really not. But, they’re sort of pushing each other to make the sport better and I mean, isn’t that the goal at the end of the day?

EA: It is, it is. And you know, it’s a little bit of that sparring. I have sisters… I don’t know if anyone else listening has siblings, but there are things where you rely on your siblings because you know they’re good at them and then every once in a while, especially if there’s an odd number like in my family, you have one or two—well obviously two or more—siblings that kind of butt heads. They both want to be good at the same thing. And there are a few ways you can take that. You can kind of go, you know, “survival of the fittest” or, again, you can find ways to come together and enjoy the same activity. And so… I think that there’s a way to do both. And I think that, and I’ve been saying this for a few years even before the CWHL folded, but I think we’ll see, at least through the next Olympics and the one after that, where these leagues are co-existing. I think, again, women’s sports have so much more to prove than a men’s sport ever that there’s a viable to get sponsors and I think we’ve seen in very different ways that PWHPA and NWHL within the last hockey season, and now again, in a hockey season amid a worldwide pandemic, both models have been able to level up from the last time they hit the ice. That’s extremely difficult to do. We see excuse after excuse being made by professional sports leagues as to how much money they’re losing and yet, women’s sports—and I’d venture to guess that this will also be the case for women’s hockey—women’s sports have found more nationally televised games. And in having more nationally televised games, their ratings, their viewership has exponentially grown! I mean, literally off the charts grown year over year. What that tells me is that there’s an underserved market for women’s sports and I do believe strongly that women’s hockey will follow as well. And we’ll have an opportunity to see that, to some extent at least, when the NWHL has their games exclusively on NBCSports Network in the United States and they’ll also have Twitch for international viewership, which, of course now includes Canada. But I think it’s an exciting time and I do believe that, because of the star power that PWHPA has, that they can also capitalize on some of that. But I think what we’re seeing through the PWHPA and why we saw that with the NWHL in their first three, four, five, even six to some extent seasons, and why we saw the CWHL struggle is because it’s hard. It’s hard to build a league from scratch. It’s hard to build a women’s league from scratch and pay a liveable wage from the get-go.

RP: It’s as you said, though, that... It’s hard for women to get a chance because, out the door just like right off the bat, it’s almost always an automatic no. You don’t get the benefit of the doubt, as you said, that men’s sports get and it’s… It’s silly to me that we’re still having this argument in 2021. It’s like if you watch it, like... I honestly think that this product is better than the AHL, ECHL, NAHL, but hey, that’s just me. So...

EA: You’re not gonna get an argument from me, I’ll say.

[Both laugh]

RP: Let’s focus let’s focus our attention back on the ice the Connecticut whale they have made massive strides this year I might be a little biased I think they each year through the first five seasons I was kind of rooting for somebody a little bit different and then last year the whale to sort of swim into my heart and I think now they’re just like stuck there permanently... But, Colton Orr, he has made such a difference with this team.

EA: Yes Colton, but you know I also want to make sure that Bray Ketchum Peel gets some credit. She stepped away from being the General Manager of the team midway through the offseason to pursue a teaching opportunity, but some of the early signings that you saw that gave an indication of what Colton Orr, the head coach, Laura Brennan, the assistant head coach and former player for Connecticut, some of that happens but with Bray Ketchum Peel’s first year as General Manager and she, of course, is a Riveters alumna and won the Isobel Cup with the Riveters in the third season of the NWHL, um so I want to make sure to mention Bray. But yes. I have heard... And Colton was away from the team for an extended period of time... It’s just that kind of a scheduling mishap... He-he did better on Battle of the Blades than maybe he anticipated but um... You heard from the team that they they felt confident in what Colton Orr wanted to do and, you know, I’m left to wonder if he had been with the team at the beginning and kind of executing that in real time because, as we’re learning, we’re doing our best in this virtual communication, but there’s some things where it it almost always works better in person and dad argue that coaching the hockey team is probably one of those. But you saw a steady increase and that’s been a characteristic of the Whale. But you definitely saw when Colton Orr returned. So now to have that to have the the clout and the cachet that Bray Ketchum Peel had as a former player as an alumna of Yale to bring in in and attract some young players and also some veteran players—getting Janine Weber mid-season last year, who had been away from the league and not even competing with her national team, Team Austria... I think it’s really exciting. We have unfortunately heard now that Melissa Samoskevich will not be going to the NDubble, but that’s because of her coaching responsibilities with Penn State... But I mean... You’ve got Friesen... You’ve got so much good talent on this team with an... coupled with a lot of Veteran talent that is experienced in the NWHL sand also at the international level, that if the coaching would’ve made a difference last season, we’re going to find out really soon with this Connecticut Whale roster.

RP: And I always have to give a shout out to the heart and soul of that team, which is Shannon Doyle. I mean she’s putting her body literally on the line for that team I don’t know if she’s still doing her... If she’s doing it again this year, her fundraiser that she did last year the… [pause]

EA: Blocks for Books.

RP: Blocks for Books, thank you.

EA: She is, she is… And you’re absolutely right to mention Shannon Doyle. She… At this rate, is the lone survivor from the original Whale roster. And she has announced that this will be her last season. So yes, it’s going to be a special season for Shannon Doyle. And she is everything that you want in a leader, literally putting her body on the line. She is a defender and… Connecticut Whale D-line, D pairs, excuse me, have had to put in a lot of work for the Connecticut franchise and yet, Shannon Doyle also manages to be at the top of the table when it comes to assists in the league, league-wide excuse me, but also in points overall for her team. Which tells me that, again, Shannon Doyle is doing everything and anything she can to get and meet the success that the Whale want and need and know that they have the capability of doing and it certainly runs through Shannon.

RP: Certainly. Now, on the back end… Er, well in net, they have Brooke Wolejko and of course  your team is really as good as your goalie and “Brooke Wall Brick”—Brick Wall Brooke, she certainly fills that role for the Connecticut Whale. But what about for the other teams? Who do you see as being their brick wall in net?

EA: Well, I mean the easy place to start is with I believe two-time Goaltender of the Year and that of course is... The name is escaping me just as I was about to say it Amanda Leveille! My goodness, how do I forget Mandy, Mandy Leveille? I was just stunned by playing her highlight reels in my head. But Amanda Leveille is a goaltender that I’m not sure you always recognize necessarily as elite, but if you look at the teams that she’s played on, you look at their record and then you see her in really important games, you are left with no doubt that Amanda Leveille is the real deal. The other player who was a rookie last year, and whose name I absolutely love to say, is Lovisa Selander and she was the starting netminder for the Boston Pride and really led the league in all goaltending categories and statistics last season. I want to give an honorable mention to Victoria Hansen who was the second goalie in that duo for Boston but when she got her starts, she actually got the first shutout for the Boston Pride last season and she’s a very good, very capable goaltender and, especially in such a short season where the teams are playing a lot of games back-to-back, I wouldn’t be surprised if head coach Paul Mara realize a little bit more on Victoria Hanson, so someone definitely to look out for. When it comes to the Riveters, they actually picked up Sonjia Shelley who was the original starter for the Connecticut Whale last season. But then Brooke Wolejko got good starts at a good time and was fitting into the pace of the Whale, so Brooke Wolejko eventually took over in net for Connecticut. But Sonjia Shelley kept Connecticut in really close games early in the season against the Minnesota Whitecaps, against the Buffalo Beauts, and that can’t be overlooked. So I’m excited to see what Sonjia Shelley is going to do in net. Another player as far as the goaltender that I honestly have never gotten to see play, I’ve seen tapes, is Carly Jackson for the Buffalo Beauts. Her teammates throughout the league from the University of Maine are very excited to see Carly Jackson to play hockey in this league which makes me excited to see Carly Jackson play hockey in this league.

RP: So that would make her a rookie correct?

EA: Correct.

RP: It’s going to be really exciting. Can you lay out the format, a little bit, what we’re going to see on the ice?

EA: Sure and that’s a great question because it’s definitely going to be different from what we’ve seen. So, there will be a regular-season. The NWHL has condensed their season by, like a lot, by about a fourth, one-fourth of what they might usually do. So they’re playing five games in the regular—what they’re tabbing the “regular season.” So essentially, you play each of the other teams one time. Then you enter what the league is calling a round-robin, but might not be the perfect name for it. But the round-robin is essentially two additional games, but the games that you play, you’ll be seeded after the regular season and so it will be 1 plays 6, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So then after the regular season and after the round-robin all of the wins and losses are calculated and the teams are re-seeded. After those two rounds the regular season and—I think I’m going to call it the pre-playoffs—after the regular season in the pre-playoffs, the teams are re-seeded and the top four teams advance to the semi-finals. 1 vs 4; 2 vs 3. It’s a one-and-done playoff scenario in the Isobel Cup semi-finals and that is also when NBC Sports network will pick up the exclusive rights in the United States, so all those games will be on NBC. International audiences can watch also on Twitch and then the is a winner-take-all in the semifinal. The two winners of the two games on February 4th will play the very next day in the Isobel Cup Final also on NBC exclusively in the United States, on Twitch for the international audience and then we will have an Isobel Cup champion for the first time in two seasons!

RP: [Chuckles] Definitely going to be exciting. Now, talking about NBC really quick, if we’re in the U.S., will we still be able to stream on Twitch, do you know?

EA: You see now that is interesting. How shall I say this, especially as someone who is gonna be on the Twitch broadcast? I… I am going to be streaming both. Well I’ll be on the call, so I’ll obviously be on the Twitch stream. What I think you’ll have to do if you want to watch in the United States is if you happen to have a VPN service, I highly recommend utilizing your VPN and then logging on to Twitch while using your VPN but I would also highly recommend turning on the tube and also playing the NBC broadcast because, again, this is the opportunity for women’s sports to be on National Television. I have every indication and the numbers have told us in the 2020 and then now leading into the 2021 sports season that women’s sports have shown an increase even amid a worldwide pandemic, so that’s my guesstimate is that you’re probably going to need a VPN if you want to stream the twitch broadcast.

RP: But go ahead and try and give them both your clicks and views.

EA: Correct. That’s the real advice. That’s the best advice. But, again, I, of course, would love to have everyone tune in on Twitch because I will be the analyst for the Isobel Cup semi-finals and final for the international audience, so, really looking forward to interacting with those fans. But again, do what’s comfortable for you and I guarantee you will have a good time either way.

RP: The.. The favorite teams that are expected to make the Isobel Cup Final, it’s probably going to come down at least two, in a tie—not tie but it’s it’s going to come very close between the Boston Pride and the Minnesota Whitecaps at least on paper but I feel like we can’t rule out the Metropolitan Riveters, what do you think?

EA: Not at all. I was asked to give a prediction. I actually did not predict the Metropolitan Riveters to advance to the Final, even though for those who don’t know, it’s kind of a… a... you know, a public secret, I guess, like it’s public knowledge that I’m a Riveters fan, so I kind of felt bad not picking them. But. This is what I will say: the Riveters can easily be a sleeper team. I think that they’ve done some pretty important work on the blue line. I don’t know if it’s enough, if I’m being honest especially looking at what Buffalo has done defensively and what Connecticut has done defensively. That being said they also increased their power and potential at forward. I mean Kelly Babstock is on the Metropolitan Riveters. Rebecca Russo has returned to the Metropolitan Riveters.

RP: That’s huge.

EA: Russo was essentially not like lights out non-stop assists, points machine assist, goals, could do it all, playing with Amanda Kessel, playing with Madison Packer and eventually leading the Riveters to that season 3 Isobel Cup Championship. So, I do think the Riveters have a shot, especially because it’s such a short season it will come down to goaltending. Sonjia Shelley, as I mentioned, is quite capable but we have to see how she’s going to fit in with this Riveters team. Boston, and I mentioned this elsewhere, they’ve... They have earned the right to be the favorite coming in. The season that they had last year, the way Paul Mara and Karilyn Pilch the, General Manager, have built this roster, they’ve improved that, they traded up for the number one pick so that they could get Sammy Davis—much like every other league around the world if you are one of the winningest teams you have the lower… You don’t have the first picks, you have deeper picks in the draft, and so to trade up as the number one team coming out of the last season, that tells you how much they wanted Sammy Davis and they got a really good one. But there are a lot of other rookies on that team that are really good. Minnesota is a favorite because they only have three new players to the roster and so that tells you that that roster was good enough to give Boston their first loss all of last season and find their way to the Isobel Cup Final, which unfortunately was at first postponed and then eventually cancelled because of covid. So Boston and Minnesota both have really earned the right to be a presumed favorite, but I absolutely love that you mentioned the Riveters because they’ve done some work. Again, my question is if it’s enough because every team has gotten better this season.

RP: Let’s talk about the Buffalo Beauts because I kind of feel like they have almost slid into that underdog role.

EA: Yes, it’s wild! And I think someone tweeted that and I was like really? Because historically that’s a franchise that... They made it to the first three Isobel Cup Finals, they won the second, and, you know, it was bookended by two losses, but they still advanced to the Final every year for the first three seasons of the NWHL. But then I thought about it. Ever since the separation from Pegula Sports Entertainment—the Buffalo beauts were actually the first ever team to be independently owned from the league, now the Toronto Six, the expansion team are, and the Boston Pride is going into I believe their second or third full season… I think their second… [pause] No, third.. Third full season, excuse me, of being independently owned—the Buffalo beauts had that and then for the game, which eventually led to the PWHPA happened and we saw that there was... You know that that partnership dissolved and so since then, they’ve really struggled. They’ve had great offensive players... Taylor Accursi, she scored four goals in a game and the Buffalo beauts still lost. She scored four goals in the third period and the Buffalo beauts still lost the game! They were little bit young and undisciplined defensively they didn’t play a good team defense but they have Lisa Chesson back, Marie-Jo Peltier’s back... They definitely in the off-season have focused on defense. My question, though, to them is similar to the Riveters: is it enough given that I do believe that every team has improved this season?

RP: It’s going to be a very close season amongst all these teams. I mean, you have two weeks and it really could go either way. Who is going to be hot? I mean, there’s-there’s still a few questions that every team has, you know? And so... Will Minnesota speed be enough? It has over the last couple of seasons but is it enough to overcome the improvements all the other teams have made? I mean what about the Six? Are they at Dark Horse? ’Cause I kind of feel like they’re a little bit of a Dark Horse. They’re an unknown entity, nobody has seen them play as a unit yet and you don’t have a full season to figure them out, so I feel like it’s going to be really exciting.

EA: Yeah, absolutely. And that last point, I never really thought of it that way. But since there’s not really a good scout on them that could really work to Toronto’s advantage in  such a short season so that’s a really excellent point, Robyn, but I just guess going to have to watch and find out.

RP: Isn’t that always the way? [laughs]

EA: Yes, it is. It is the way. “This is the way” that’s the Mandalorian thing right? “This is the way.“

RP: [chuckles] I wasn’t intending to make a Mandalorian reference… I just… [laughs awkwardly] It’s such an old saying.

EA: It is. It is. But, that’s why they play the games, right? That’s essentially what we’re saying. And that’s true, it matters. And what I’m looking forward to and, you know, it’s a tough time I’ve mentioned covid a few times here and there and it’s important to recognize and understand that there are some things, you know their sacrifices that players are making to even have just the short season. And there are things that obviously the league is going to want to be cautious about so we can’t forget that. But, I like that they are doing a single site. I think if we’re going to do sports that’s truly the safest way and really the only way that I’m personally comfortable with with. But I’m not a professional athlete so that’s not a determination that that I make and certainly no one asks my opinion except for when I’m on podcasts [both laugh]. But I just think that there’s so many great story lines: the Toronto Six coming in; Shannon Doyle, you know going out one last time; Haley Moore also this will be her last run—I said for a while, at least, we’ll see if she comes back. But Haley Moore has been, you know, announced as the VP of operations for the AHL. So there are a lot of things that are-are coming in and things that are coming to a close and again it’s just a really exciting time and I think that this season has great potential to bode well for the future of women’s hockey.

RP: You know you actually brought up a really good point about the single site and they are taking a lot of precautions like, I believe they’re doing testing... A lot of testing they were doing testing before everybody got there... So they are definitely taking a lot of precautions which is interesting because when you... When you compare it—not that anybody’s comparing it—but when you kind of look at it in the same light as the NHL, like the Hurricanes just had to postpone a game because of covid.

EA: Yes, I know, I just saw that earlier today. It’s heartbreaking. You know, and I cover other sports. And, you know, you just see, you know, postponed, postponed, canceled, canceled, canceled. It’s just... It’s tough to wrap my mind around how almost exactly a year ago, we were isolating completely to avoid death from covid-19 and now that we—as a... the collective we as a society—have become more and more comfortable with people contracting coronavirus. And it’s not that the deaths have gone down, I think the awareness has raised... Of course, the vaccine is starting to roll out... But you know, it is a challenge. I mean there are a lot of things that happen in sports if we’re being honest that sometimes challenge our ethics, they challenge our morality at times... And I think what we’re seeing is everyone doing what they think is best... Because for a lot of people sports is that morale boost and that’s very real. Not to mention that for athletes and everyone that works in an arena and people like myself even, broadcasters, this is how we make our money. So there are so many things to weigh out. But the way that NWHL is moving forward as far as they partnered with Yale. They’re still doing the swab test but then they’re also doing kind of some hybrid backup test with Yale that 1) will hopefully catch any false negatives, false positives, which are still very much still happening. But then also will be used as research and make sure that there’s more accuracy so there’s even some kind of forward-thinking there. But I think that also just goes to show, again, that there are a lot of variables. We’re sitting here talking about 3 days until the bubble. But I think a lot of the athletes because of, again, those sacrifices that they’ve made with work and knowing people who contracted coronavirus and being impacted by coronavirus that a lot of athletes are like well you know I’ll believe it when we get there. Let’s get there safe; let’s get there healthy; and let’s maintain our our health and then maybe I’ll get a little excited [laughs]

RP: You know you mentioned sacrifice and this is a really interesting thing that I thought that the NWHL was doing is that anybody who decided to opt out for any reason—they didn’t have to have a reason—they just... if they wanted to opt out of the season and they were under contract—which is a little bit tricky ‘cause they only do one-year contracts—but anybody who wanted to opt out, they could still get their full salary. And it’s not like they’re getting paid millions of dollars obviously but $15,000 is nothing to turn your nose up at.

EA: Yeah, absolutely. Not to mention that there are athletes that are funding their graduate programs or you know, again, as you said you budget in that money and then it’s not there, there are some concessions that you have to make and I think it’s great. We saw the nwsl do this but the WNBA did not. If you were in a medical exemption, you did not get paid and that was highly controversial and contentious for the WNBA that just had that groundbreaking collect bargaining agreement. So again, I really appreciate that. I think also, you have to remember that with the NWSL and the and the NWHL comparative to the WNBA, although arguably you know they’re not getting paid like most pro athletes do in the United States, but you could argue that a WNBA salary is-is that minimum a comfortable salary, that’s not the case with the NWHL. And so I think that was something that the league had to have that flexibility. They didn’t necessarily have to say that they were going to pay players that opted out, but I do think that’s in good faith and I really like that move. I think that tells me that they were thinking about the athlete and the sacrifices that they make year after year and for unforeseen circumstances, you know, that a season not being played I’m so I really, I really like that. I think also, if I’m being honest—and this is just me kind of spitballing, I have no Insider information on this—but I think we’re at a time where because of a lot of things covid one of them where sponsors want to know that they are supporting athletes that they’re supporting women and there’s something to be said about a sponsor about someone who signs on to give financial aid to this league. I think that it’s a good story that they can tell that they’re supporting women’s hockey at a time like what we’re experiencing.

RP: That’s a great point. Okay I’m going to ask you your predictions. Tell me what you think... Who goes where... Sorry, let me backup… [Pause] Tell me what you think each team will end up as the final, like what their final win-loss is overall and tell me who you think takes home Izzy.

EA: Oh boy, so I have to do a little math here. Alright so they have five regular-season games, two pre playoff games so that’s seven total. I think… [pause] just because they’ve never gone undefeated, I’m going to say Boston goes 6 and 1. [Laughs] I’m going to say they go g and 1, but they get through to the Final. I’m going to say Minnesota goes… [pause] maybe 4 and 3? Minnesota sometimes has a tough time. They can be a slow starting team, which can really hurt them in such a short season, so that’s what I’m going to say 4 and 3. [Counting under breath] 4 5 6 7. [Normal] Yeah, 4 and 3. But I predict that they will lose early so that they still can bump their seeding in the pre-playoff portion of the season and still get to the semi-finals. Okay let’s go with I’m going to go with Connecticut. They won two games last season. I think they can win… [pause] I’m going to give them 4 and 3 as well, but I think maybe they lose some of those games a little later. I think they could have a good start and so, essentially the opposite of Minnesota. Who do I have left? Toronto, Buffalo, and the Riveters?

RP: Yes.

EA: Okay for Buffalo... [Pause] Mmm... They struggled mightily last season but they got early wins... Mostly ‘cause they played Connecticut, but they had to earn those... [Counting under breath] Do I think they’re going to lose four games? I think it’s possible. [More counting, then normal voice] Oooh that seems kinda harsh. But… I… Oooh… Oh man… [Cringing] I’m going to give them the 3 and 4 line... Three wins, four losses for Buffalo. [Pause] Mmmm Riveters... I just feel like that’s so harsh for Buffalo, I’m sorry Buffalo. But maybe what I’ll do is I’ll say that they lose late as well. I think maybe they lose some steam as maybe other teams pick up the pace and then they find themselves kind of on the outside looking in going into that pre-playoff and then the Riveters… Mmm, mmm... It’s hard for me to imagine that team not winning four games… But, again in such a short season. So I’ll give them 4 and 3, but maybe they have a slow start and it’s going to be a toss-up. I think they’re going to really be in a fight to get a high seed going into the pre-playoff and semifinals and then Toronto, oooh... Toronto, man... They should at least be able to win four games. Who else did I give a 5 and 3? [Counting under breath] 4 5 6 7 [Normal voice] 5 and 2 I guess. I’ll give them a 5 and 2 line, I guess. That’s what I gave Minnesota, I think.

RP: No, Minnesota was 4 and 3. The Whale were 4 and 3. The Riveters were 4 and 3.

EA: Oh ok, I think maybe I undershot for Minnesota but I’m gonna stick with 5 and 2 for Toronto. I think they have a really good shot to have a good positioning going into the semi-finals and then we’ll see what happens. I guess it depends on-on who they get matched up with. But yeah, so I think I guess that means I’m having Boston, Toronto, likely Minnesota and then I think it’s between the Riveters and the Whale if I’m being honest for that last semi-final so I guess it depends when they lose those-those games and then that might make a difference. Because if you lose in the pre-playoffs, I feel like that’s really tough. I was explaining it to someone that’s like the WNBA where you get the third seed. But because of how they re-did the playoffs, you’re the third seed and you don’t play in the first round but you play in the second round single-elimination and you can get eliminated playing, you know, like a sixth through eighth seed... ‘cause it’s a one-and-done. I mean, can you tell him a New York Liberty fan? My goodness. That’s exactly what happened to them the year after—er, the first year of the new format and I was like “whyyyy?”

RP: Ahhh.

EA: Yeah, I know that pretty that pre-playoffs is going to be really tricky. A little bit heartbreaking, but I think I’m ready for the drama [laughs].

RP: It will be a dramatic season.

EA: For sure.

RP: Ok. Who is crowned champion of the season?

EA: Ooof… [Pause] It’s really tough for me to think of anyone other than Boston at this particular time. It is really tough, it’s really tough so I’m going to go with Boston. Until proven otherwise, I really, like I said I think they’ve earned the right to be the presumptive top team coming into the season 6, yeah.

RP: Yeah, yeah. Ahhh… I just… I don’t know what to make of the Six, though. That’s the one that’s kind of like... They’re the dark horse in my mind.

EA: Oh, yes they absolutely are. And again I never really gave much thought… There’s not a good scout on them! I mean, again, these players have played in the league, they played with other players in the league elsewhere, college, pros. But they’ve never played all together... And then, of course, we didn’t even get into this: They’re being coached by Digit Murphy who is like... What! I mean this woman all she does is win. Like literally has one of the winningest records all time in women’s hockey at NCAA level and we saw what she was able to do with the Boston Blades; we saw what she was able to do with the Chinese expansion teams; I mean they did not win the Clarkson Cup, but they got there and she built those teams just like she built the Six, essentially. So wow. With Digit, that’s lightning in a bottle right on the bench, wow. Yeah. They’re going to be… They’re definitely the Dark Horse. You’ve got to watch out for Toronto six and we get to see them in the first game of the season they play the Riveters. Oh, that’s going to be fantastic.

RP: Yeah. For the Six I just keep going back to the fact that people know like the individual players, but we don’t know how they’re going to respond as a team. So I’m really excited about that.

EA: Exactly.

RP: And I think... Based on what you said I might make them... I might say that they go for... They keep the streak alive.

EA: Okay!

RP: They... They-they might be the heart breakers for Connecticut. Like I feel like...

EA: I can see that.

RP: Connecticut is going to get really close.

EA: I think so.

RP: And then, the Six are just going to come in—

EA: Oooh.

RP: —And just like break everybody’s hearts but you just like I can’t not root for the Six because—

EA: I know, it’s... It’s very tough. It’s very, very tough and I like, I think you’re right. Connecticut’s going to get right there. I really just think they have that opportunity. Will the Six spoil it or can Connecticut spoil this magical run of the Six? I don’t know. Either way... I mean, it’s going to be brutal, but also fantastic! Like you know? Like there’s the fan me and then a broadcaster me and like they have conflicting ideas. But at the end it’s just like, yes chaos. Give me all of the good stories. All of the excitement is what I want!

RP: Stay tuned for the drama, it’s going to be really exciting.

EA: For sure.

RP: Well thank you so much, Erica. Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you want to briefly mention?

EA: I think the only thing I would like to mention is… [Pause] And I’m not sure if I’m even alluded to this elsewhere because I want players to kind of talk about this... But I’m under the impression that there will be players, so Saroya Tinker plans to take a knee, you have also Brooke Stacey, who grew up on a reservation in Canada, who has said she will also take a knee... So there will be athletes in the NDubble that are taking on conversations of social justice, highlighting racism, and promoting equity and equality. And I think that’s something that—and part of its because again some things haven’t been announced yet—but I’m very excited... Perhaps excited isn’t the right word... I am comforted by the fact that there are athletes in the NWHL that are willing to have very important and sometimes difficult conversations about the history of racism in North America and throughout the world and that they are hoping to be agents of change for their sport.

RP: You know, that’s a really great point. We didn’t even have time to touch on the surface, really, of these uncomfortable conversations and I know it’s something that Anya Packer, who is Madison Packer’s, wife she was tweeting about it over the summer and I know that it’s a conversation that a lot of us, especially those of us who are more privileged, it’s a constant conversation that we have to have and it’s-it’s just really... I don’t want to say interesting but I-I know it’s something that she’s brought up before that we definitely have to keep that kind of introspective look and not get comfortable because, okay well I read a few books, you know I have a few black friends then that type of thing. So it’s... yeah, unfortunately we didn’t have time to get into that today but—

EA: Well, and that’s okay. Like I said, I-I I’m not… Necessarily… I will say that I’ve been consulted person-to-person and not in my role as a broadcaster or a journalist and have been, you know... There’s certain things and certain players that have confided and asked me questions. So I want them to be able to explore that on their own time. But I appreciate you asking and giving me the opportunity to reflect on something that, again, because not a lot of players have spoken up is maybe not being reported but it is a story line that I expect coming from the single site in Lake Placid.

RP: Well, and there is something to to be said about performative allyship and that’s always something that a lot of people are... conscious of in that yes, we want to say that we are supportive and everything but we don’t want to make it seem like it’s about us cuz, of course, it’s not about us.

EA: Yeah, it’s-it’s a balancing act and we still see with the US Women’s National Team there are athletes that have knelt before that are now standing; there are athletes that have stood in the past and are now kneeling. And... I understand why those conversations were all around but, for me, especially since Colin Kaepernick still does not have a job with the National Football League, all of what we see as far as forcing people to kneel or not to kneel, we’re way past that. I think it matters what players are talking about when they don’t have a camera in front of their face or a microphone in front of their face. And are they showing up for their teammate are they willing to be vulnerable, are they willing to be told that they are wrong and that they’re making a mistake, or that they... whether they were conscious of it or not and assaulted or offended—insulted, excuse me, hopefully not assaulted—insulted or offended someone and so those are the things that will not always be tangible and unfortunately in some ways, sports have become this “Well, are you doing this or are you not doing this? And it’s one or the other. Are you wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt or nah? Are you kneeling or nah? And that’s how people define and determine how anti-racist someone is. But man I tell you what: If t-shirts stop bullets... I don’t even think I have to finish that sentence. If t-shirts alone stopped bullets, don’t you think Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Brianna Taylor—don’t you think their family would have wrapped them in the most #woke shirt ever to keep them alive? So I’m just... And maybe that’s really what I want to say, Robyn, maybe what I really want to say is I hope people step back because, again, I’m expecting for there to be conversations. Maybe we should listen to what the players are saying and what they aren’t saying. And before we make sweeping indictments on what they wear or don’t wear, if they kneel or don’t kneel, maybe we should be prepared with questions that we want to ask about their active work in anti-racism. Maybe that’s really what I want to get across

RP: Well it has been so great and so enlightening talking with you, Erica, this is going to be a season to remember for many reasons beyond anti-racism work and the drama on the ice, it’s-it’s-it’s going to be a lot… [Laughs awkwardly] I don’t really know where to go after your such impassioned speech.

EA: No, that’s okay. It’s going to be a lot. It’s going to be a short quick short season, but I really do appreciate being able to talk to you about the NWHL and again, I really do appreciate your last question and you know I honestly don’t know if it if it would have come to my mind to even bring that up if you hadn’t opened the floor ,which again is is an active practice that we can do. So even in this conversation, hopefully we are empowering each other and listeners to you know to open the floor and two to be open to the hearing and thinking about things a little bit differently.

RP: For sure. All right, listeners, if you want to follow Erica, she is on Twitter: Erica Ayala @elindsey08 and she will be broadcasting and this is going to be a lot of fun.