When the National Women's Hockey League announced its 2021 schedule, Allie Thunstrom couldn't help but notice an opening-day matchup for a season that will be played entirely in a bubble in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Minnesota Whitecaps vs. Boston Pride, in a matchup of the 2020 Isobel Cup Final that never was played because of the coronavirus pandemic. The game is Saturday afternoon.
"We have a little bit of, if you want to call it, unfinished business," said Thunstrom, a forward and the league's co-MVP last season. "Neither one of us got to play that final game, so be able to open up the season with them, you get that closure and a little bit of the excitement of something new, too."
Thunstrom's overtime goal in Minnesota's 1-0 semifinal win over the Metropolitan Riveters on March 8 helped set up the matchup of the defending league champion Whitecaps against a Boston team that posted a 24-1 record. The de facto 2020 title game comes 10 months later, though each team has had roster turnover and the circumstances are vastly different.
Over the next two weeks, the six NWHL teams will live in Lake Placid hotels and play five regular-season games each, two seeding contests and the playoff semifinals and final. The schedule is truncated from the league's original 24-game plan that was to start in October.
"It's kind of mixed emotions," said Jack Brodt, Whitecaps general manager and co-head coach. "It's the best we can do under the circumstances, but it's not exactly what we were looking forward to or wanted for the season."
Because of work commitments, the Whitecaps will be without co-head coach Ronda Engelhardt, along with defender Amanda Boulier, whose 27 points ranked third on the team last year, and forwards Lauren Barnes (two goals, 11 assists, 13 points) and Lisa Martinson (1-7-8).
In addition, forward Nicole Schammel (11-14-25 in 2020) signed with the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, the union started when many Olympic-level players broke away from the NWHL two years ago in attempt to bring about a more financially stable league.
Relishing the opportunity
Just getting the chance to play, however, is a positive for Thunstrom, the former North St. Paul and Boston College standout. She scored a league-record 24 goals in 2020 and shared league MVP honors with Boston's Jillian Dempsey.
"It's such an historic season with everything that's going on," Thunstrom said. "We're just really excited to get on the ice and get some games going."
That starts for the Whitecaps with Boston on Saturday but continues with a Sunday game against the expansion Toronto Six, a team led by former Brown coach Digit Murphy and one that is stocked with Canadians who played at Eastern U.S. colleges. Landing a team in hockey-mad Toronto should help the NWHL.
"Finally having a team across the border is so huge for women's hockey and growth of the game," Thunstrom said. "Toronto is such a hotbed for the sport, and there's so many talented players. Their roster is pretty stacked and loaded."
Also key for the league: Its semifinals and final will be broadcast live on NBC Sports Network on Feb. 4 and 5.
"I think of the younger generation and the young girls being able to turn on the TV and see girls just like them playing professionally. It's just incredible," Thunstrom said.
Finally, some games
The Whitecaps have been practicing since October, and Brodt is hopeful that the team can quickly adapt to the bubble schedule, which features five games over eight days.
"We're ramping it up. We're trying to get the players in condition," he said. "Any coach will tell you that until you actually play the games, you're not in game-day shape. By the third game, you'll probably reach that plateau."
Thunstrom believes the tight schedule will help reduce the monotony of being holed up in a hotel room, though strategic adjustments might be a challenge.
"When you think of the bubble format and being away from home, it helps a little bit to have so many games in a short period of time because you're on to the next one," she said. "On the flip side, we don't have a lot of time to make changes and figure things out if you don't start with a bang. The adrenaline of being in the environment and focusing on hockey for that two-week period will get us through that.''