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This article was published 25/11/2020 (323 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Taylor Woods considers the bold new enterprise by the National Women’s Hockey League during the COVID-19 pandemic nothing short of a miracle on ice.
The Morden product plays defence for the Toronto Six, which will compete in the NWHL’s drastically condensed regular season and playoff format in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Games will be played without the presence of fans at Herb Brooks Arena, one of the world’s truly historic hockey venues. It’s named after the man who guided the U.S. men’s hockey team to an Oympic gold medal more than 40 years ago.
The NWHL’s sixth season is slated to run Jan. 23 to Feb. 5.
"No hesitation about going at all. I’ve never been to Lake Placid before, so I’m really excited to play in that one-of-a-kind arena. It’s a chance to actually play hockey again this year," said Woods by phone Wednesday afternoon. "What a great way to grow the game again and give it some exposure, especially during a pandemic when there’s not a lot of live sports going on.
"It’s a tough time. Everyone wants some hope. Everyone wants to just watch something fresh and exciting. It’s a two-week span and it’s going to be a great time."
The NWHL, which has operated for five seasons in the U.S., added the expansion Toronto franchise in late April.
Woods, 26, who lives in Hamilton and works as a strength and skills coach, has been skating twice a week with about a dozen Toronto teammates. The club was split into cohorts for on- and off-ice training sessions.
"We want to get practising as a full team somewhere down the line, or at least have a chalkboard talk to get on the same page," she said. "The other teams have been together for a while and we’re the new kids on the block. I’ve played with some of the girls before but you have to establish that chemistry. You can’t just try and find it in the bubble."
Players have been subjected to regular nasal swabs to ensure the group is healthy.
"It’s all been negative, no positives. We’ve taken the precautions very seriously and learning how the bubble will work," she said.
Woods said she was contacted by Digit Murphy, Toronto Six’s president and head coach, with the intriguing offer even before the expansion hit the news.
"Digit texted me, ‘I’ve got something for you. Do you have time to chat?’ I thought maybe it was an opportunity overseas or a coaching opportunity. And then she presented with me with the opportunity to play for her and offered me a contract. I had some time to think it over because the world kind of stopped at that time (owing to the pandemic)," she said.
"I just want to take advantage of it because she reached out to me, the organization really wants me and it looked like a great opportunity to have some fun with a great group of women."
Woods and Murphy both suited up for the Cornell University women’s program, although their stints with the Big Red were about 30 years apart.
In Lake Placid, each of the six teams will play each other once, followed by a playoff round with the top four advancing to the semifinals, followed by a one-game showdown for the Isobel Cup.
"I hope people get a chance to watch us. There’s a lot of open airtime and I hope a broadcaster steps up. Something live on TV would be great for women’s hockey," Woods said.
The league settled on a compressed schedule because of the uncertainties and safety concerns of the health crisis. Another issue was the restrictions on cross-border travel into Canada.
"The continued challenges brought by the pandemic resulted in a mandate for our league, players and partners to collaborate on creating a controlled environment protecting the health of everyone involved," interim NWHL commissioner Tyler Tumminia said. "At a time of hyper-growth for girls’ and women’s hockey, we see this season as a celebration of the sport. It is a proud moment for the NWHL, the players and all hockey fans."
Players who have already signed their contracts will be paid in full despite the condensed schedule. Players will also have the option to opt out and still be paid their entire salary, the league said.
Woods left home at 15 to study and play hockey at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask., returning to Manitoba for her final year of high school at Balmoral Hall.
At 17, she helped the Notre Dame Hounds reign supreme at the 2011 Esso Cup, Canada’s national female U18 championship, and then a year later captured gold as a member of Team Canada at the 2012 IIHF U18 women’s world championship in the Czech Republic.
After finishing her college career, Woods played one season in Brampton, Ont., and two in Markham, Ont., with the Thunder organization of the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
She hasn’t been home much in the past few years and, unfortunately, will miss spending the holiday season with family this year in southern Manitoba.
"I’m not going to come home, just because of the quarantine and because of work," she said. "We’re going to do some sort of Zoom dinner. That’s the way to go nowadays, and just make those connections and cherish those connections."
— with files from The Associated Press
Assistant sports editor
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