NWHL Heads North, Expands to Toronto

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As the old saying goes, third time’s the charm. After false-starting twice previously on expanding north of the border, the league announced Wednesday that they officially will be expanding to Toronto for the 2020-21 season. This is an important step for the league, as it provides a foothold in the hockey center of North America. The ownership group will be lead by Johanna Neilson Boynton, a two year captain during her time at Harvard, and founder of Boynton Brennan Builders. Tyler Tumminia, who was named one of the Top 25 Female Executives by Bleacher Report, and has received the Game Changer Award from Sports Business Journal has been named team Chairman. Women’s hockey legend Digit Murphy has been named Team President, and will be responsible for the hiring of a general manager and coaching staff for the organization.

Boynton was very bullish on the prospects of the new franchise. “We aspire to build a perennial Isobel Cup contender for Toronto,” she said. “This will be an organization with strong fan, community and corporate support, outstanding coaching, training, and player development, and a club dedicated to promoting hockey as a game for everyone. Although this pandemic is challenging everyone in profound ways today, and we are very mindful of that, our outlook for women’s sports remains positive. We are launching this team now because we believe in the future. The advancement of a professional women’s hockey league for Canada and the U.S., one that will stand and flourish on its own, is a passion for me and everyone associated with the NWHL. We are driven every day to increase the opportunities available to women’s hockey players of all ages, and that’s what this expansion is all about. There is so much potential, and Toronto is the logical next step. I look forward to working closely with players, staff, sponsors, and fans to give Toronto the team the community deserves.”

The team signed five players to begin their intial campaign.

Kristen Barbara (Mount Hope, Ontario) won a Clarkson Cup with the Markham Thunder in 2019. The 27-year-old defender has three seasons in the CWHL under her belt after a standout collegiate career at York University.

Elaine Chuli (Waterford, Ontario) has multiple CWHL seasons under her belt, tending the crease for both the Toronto Furies and the Vanke Rays. The 25-year-old previously spent her collegiate career at the University of Connecticut.

Shiann Darkangelo has a gold medal under her belt from the 2016 IIHF World Championships with the United States. The 26-year-old Michigan native spent time at both Syracuse and Quinnipiac, suited up for the Connecticut Whale and Buffalo Beauts, and a season for both Toronto and Kunlun in the CWHL.

Emma Greco (Burlington, Ontario) spent the CWHL’s final season with the Toronto Furies. Prior to that, the 25-year-old spent the 2017-18 season with the Connecticut Whale after a fantastic collegiate career at Quinnipiac.

Taylor Woods (Morden, Manitoba) was a Clarkson Cup champion with Markham in 2019, her 4th season with the team. The 25-year-old was an alternate captain in her final season at Cornell.

It is of particular note that Murphy is the one who has been tapped to lead the new franchise. Digit Murphy is one of the biggest names in women’s hockey. For her to agree to join the league in any capacity should be viewed as a major win. Murphy coached the Brown University Women’s Hockey program for 18 years before ascending to the same role with the CWHL’s Boston Blades. In 2017-18, she took the reigns of the inaugural Kunlun Red Star expansion team in the CWHL before the league ultimately shuttered at the conclusion of that season. The CWHL’s demise led to the creation of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and their Dream Gap Tour, which has made several extremely successful stops so far this season. The most well attended of those have consistently been in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), so fan support should not be a concern of the newest NWHL franchise. It is currently unclear whether the team will adopt the colors and branding of either of the former CWHL franchises that once called Ontario home, the Toronto Furies or the Markham (formerly Brampton) Thunder, or if they will attempt to build a brand new identity. Fans can chime in on the logo and branding on the NWHL website. The NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs have long been one of the most vocal supporters of women’s hockey, but it is also unclear how involved they will be with the team, if at all.

This development poses several important questions to answer, which is likely why this has taken so long to come to fruition. For starters, insuring players in multiple countries simultaneously is extremely complicated, and likely will add quite a bit of an expense to the league’s operating costs. The amount of travel also requires assessment, as consistent border crossings were frequently the complaint of note for the Boston Blades franchise in the CWHL, who were the only team based in the United States. It has not been mentioned to this point, but it would make sense for the league to now move to two conferences in the interest of scheduling – an Eastern and a Western Conference or some semblance. Putting Buffalo and Toronto in the same conference makes a lot of sense, and they are the closest to the Minnesota Whitecaps, who are the only team located outside the Eastern Time Zone. Put the remaining Pride, Riveters, and Whale together in the other conference, and schedule games accordingly. The 2020-21 season will consist of 20 games (this past season saw 24 matchups) in order to standardize scheduling across all 6 teams, and is tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-November.

Murphy seemed excited for the opportunity. “Today is just the start,” said Murphy, who is also an entrepreneur whose latest initiative is dedicated to providing female leaders to the corporate workforce. “We have plenty of work ahead. Our team in Toronto is led by women, and we are providing opportunities and jobs in the GTA for hockey players, coaches, and staff. This team will proudly represent Toronto and compete for the NWHL championship, and will also be dedicated to empowering younger female athletes through community engagement and education. We welcome everyone who wants to be part of a challenging and rewarding venture.”

Importantly, Toronto Mayor John Tory seems to be on board with the team’s establishment, vocally providing his support for the newest NWHL franchise. “Toronto is without question the sports capital of Canada,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. “The addition of a Toronto team for the National Women’s Hockey League is most welcome by our city and one that I know many Torontonians will embrace as they have with all of our other sports teams. Our city has a rich history with professional women’s hockey and we are excited to begin this next chapter with the NWHL. I hope that this team achieves success and longevity in our city and that this team will serve as an inspiration for young girls to pursue careers in professional sports.”

NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan wanted to make clear that Toronto is only coming to fruition because they deserved to be the next step in the league’s evolution.”Launching our first team in Canada is a pivotal and proud moment for the NWHL,” she said. “Everyone in the Toronto hockey community can be sure that this first-class team of professionals will make bold strides for the women’s game.”

Stay tuned to Pride Diehards as this story continues to develop.

By: Spencer Fascetta | Follow me on Twitter @PuckNerdHockey

PuckNerd

Find me on Twitter @PuckNerdHockey for all of your women's hockey content!

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