Hockey

NWHL's expansion to Toronto gets mixed reviews from women players

Professional women's hockey is set to make its return to Canada with the National Women's Hockey League officially announcing it is expanding into Toronto.

U.S.-based league's season scheduled to begin in November

The U.S.-based National Women's Hockey League has announced Toronto is its newest franchise. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Professional women's hockey is set to make its return to Canada with the National Women's Hockey League officially announcing it is expanding into Toronto.

The yet to be named franchise has an ownership group headed by former Harvard captain Johanna Boynton, features former Brown University coach Margaret "Digit" Murphy as its president, and already has five players under contract, the NWHL said in a three-page release Wednesday.

"Launching our first team in Canada is a pivotal and proud moment for the NWHL," league founder and commissioner Dani Rylan said in statement. "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."

The Toronto team increases the U.S.-based NWHL's number of franchises to six, and comes a year after the Canadian Women's Hockey League folded after 12 seasons because of financial instability.

The NWHL was founded in 2015, becoming North America's first pro women's league to pay its players a salary. It currently has teams in Boston; Monmouth Junction, New Jersey; Danbury, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; and Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The move north of the border comes a little over a week after The Associated Press first reported the NWHL's plans.

Murphy has played a lead role for the expansion franchise by having spent the past month establishing contacts and recruiting players.

Shiann Darkangelo, right, is one of five players already signed. She played for the U.S. team that won the 2016 world championship. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

All five players signed previously played in the CWHL, with the most notable being Shiann Darkangelo, a member of the United States team that won the 2016 world championships. The four other players are Canadians: forward Taylor Woods, defencemen Kristen Barbara and Emma Greco, and goalie Elaine Chuli.

"I'm delighted to be part of the first NWHL franchise in Canada because it brings me back to my roots," the 58-year-old Murphy told the AP in a phone interview.

"A year ago, when the CWHL shut down, they had one of the best hockey products on the market," she said. "So I just see this as a continuation of that, and Toronto deserves a women's franchise."

The Canadian Women's Hockey League ceased operations in April last year.

It's unlikely the NWHL will be able to draw from the rosters of current U.S. or Canadian national teams after their members helped form the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association in the wake of the CWHL's collapse.

The PWHPA members spent the past year holding a series of barn-storming weekend events across North America, and are already making plans to do so again next year.

Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin, the only player in women's hockey history to score in three straight Olympic finals, brushed off the NWHL's arrival in Canada.

"There's not much to say," she told CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo on the CBC Olympics Instagram channel shortly after Wednesday's news broke. "I don't know if it's professional. I think there's a reason why many of us are not playing in that league."

WATCH | Marie-Philip Poulin on NWHL expansion:

Team Canada captain believes little girls should dream of playing in a league that the PWHPA envisions. 2:15

Poulin, 29, is among more than 200 of the world's top players who vowed not to play professionally in North America in the wake of the demise of the Canadian Women's Hockey League.

They later formed the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, which is pushing for the establishment of a single league capable of paying players a fair wage and with a financially stable long-term economic model.

"We believe in what we are doing. We want to create that viable league and we're united," said Poulin, a former member of the Les Canadiennes de Montreal who led the CWHL in scoring for three straight seasons before it folded. "We're going to keep working together and that's something that's going to happen."

Put simply, noted Poulin, the players are fighting for a league in which they could make a living.

"We're not asking for millions like the NHL guys, just something [where] we can wake up every day and go to work. Just having that dream job," Poulin said. "We work as hard [as the men]."

Former CWHL goalie and PWHPA member Liz Knox questioned the timing of the NWHL announcement by referring to the coronavirus pandemic and writing in a text message: "It's difficult to imagine expansion being at the forefront of many business strategies."

"Our vision has not changed as we move forward, but our priorities now lie on the health and safety of our players, staff, volunteers and fans," Knox said. "We will see what the fall brings and I wish the best to any of the former PWHPA members who have signed."

WATCH | Spooner, Mikkelson discuss 'sustainability' amid NWHL expansion:

Canadian hockey Olympic gold medallists Natalie Spooner and Meaghan Mikkelson shared their thoughts on the NWHL and where they stand on women's hockey as a whole. 2:40

Last week, PWHPA executive member Jayna Hefford said she was aware of and welcomed the NWHL's expansion bid, even though it doesn't fit her association's long-term objective.

"We think this is an opportunity that's going to be provided for some women to play hockey at that level," Hefford told the AP. "But it's not the opportunity that we're looking to provide and the professional league that we want to create."

The NWHL does not reveal its financial numbers or all player salaries, with some making as much as $15,000 last season. The league also introduced a plan to share 50 per cent of revenue generated from sponsorship and media deals on top of player salaries.

Season scheduled to start in November

The NWHL was unable to complete its season after postponing its championship game due to the coronavirus pandemic. Boston was scheduled to host Minnesota in the Isobel Cup Final on March 13. The game is expected to be played before the league opens its 2020-21 season in mid-November.

Though U.S.-born, Murphy spent so much time recruiting Canadian players during her 22 seasons at Brown, she once joked about considering the possibility of retiring there.

After leaving Brown, where she won 318 games, she won two CWHL championships during three seasons coaching the Boston Blades. Murphy then spent the 2017-18 season coaching a CWHL expansion team in China, whose players included Darkangelo and Chuli.

Murphy said she has yet to secure a home rink, but doesn't consider that to be an issue at this point. Saying she will stick to her role as president, Murphy is also in the process of hiring a coach and general manager.

She was brought on board by Boynton, whom she's known for numerous years. Boynton runs a home-building construction company outside of Boston, and holds an ownership stake in the NWHL's Boston Pride.

The Toronto team's executive includes Tyler Tumminia, who has been named chairman. She serves as an executive at a firm which oversees numerous minor-league baseball teams.

Murphy envisions the potential of further NWHL expansion into Canada, particularly Montreal, but said she is focused solely on building the Toronto franchise.

Murphy said the challenges of establishing a team in Toronto will be what she called "a layup" as compared to China, which had little history in the sport.

"I'm going into the beautiful country of Canada that embraces hockey, and the greatest hockey city, and I'm like a kid in the candy store. This is fun," she said.

And with nearly 8,000 adult females registered to play hockey in Ontario, Murphy is confident she can produce a competitive roster.

"I hope to not fail Toronto," Murphy said. "I don't' want to get cocky and say, `We're going to win the Cup,' but I want to contend, baby."

With files from CBC Sports

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