With NWHL season underway, commissioner Ty Tumminia is just getting started

Digit Murphy joins Arash Madani as the NWHL decides to expand into Canada, putting a franchise in Toronto.

There are sprints and there are marathons. On the first day of her job as commissioner of the National Women’s Hockey League, Ty Tumminia was tasked with both.

Her tenure at the helm of the NWHL started the same way most work days do now: With a long Zoom meeting, and an even longer to-do list.

“The biggest thing coming out of that meeting was: ‘Ty, we have to figure out what Season 6 looks like,’” Tumminia told Sportsnet last month, reflecting on that Day 1 mission.

No pressure.

The day of Tumminia’s appointment as interim commissioner back in October marked exactly seven months since the Minnesota Whitecaps and Boston Pride were scheduled to meet in the Isobel Cup Final to crown the champion of the league’s fifth season. The showdown was first postponed and then later cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that fateful Friday the 13th in March seeing so many doors close without any hint of how long they’d stay that way.

“The board had made the decision that we’re not just going to shut it down for Season 6,” she said. “That wasn’t an option for us.”

And so began more than three months of zoom calls and deadlines and negotiations and troubleshooting, operational questions and answers as the puzzle — do we bubble up? Where do we play? For how long? How do we connect with fans from afar? – was pieced together.

“It’s been 24/7, honestly. It’s every single day, including weekends,” Tumminia said. “It’s been a thrill, at the same time. It’s been really exciting.”

Her secret?

“Caffeine, all day long.”

On Saturday, 103 days after she took on the job, the NWHL’s sixth season — a two-week campaign, complete with a battle for the Isobel Cup — came to life at the historic rink in Lake Placid, N.Y.; A culmination of all those hours of planning finally set into action with the drop of the puck.

That was the sprint. Now comes the marathon.

If the first 100 days on the job were devoted to learning the lay of the land and navigating a return-to-play, the next chapter is all about mapping out the future of the league and the growth of women’s hockey – and in that regard, Tumminia isn’t afraid to venture off the well-worn path when necessary.

“My background, really, is… I mean, I take tradition, usually, and I kind of just bust it, for lack of a better word,” she said with a laugh. “I usually end up coming in as, like, a tradition-buster.”

Tumminia is still relatively new to hockey, but she’s no stranger to the business of sport marketing and communications and the ins and outs of team and league operations. As senior vice president of The Goldklang Group, a sports ownership and management group, she was responsible for running five minor-league baseball teams and has extensive experience in the game she grew up around. She first joined the NWHL last April when she helped usher in the league’s newest team, the Toronto Six, as chairman of the expansion franchise.

News of Tumminia’s move to interim commissioner in October marked a new chapter for the league, as with it came the announcement of the adoption of a new governance model – the same model used by major pro leagues like the NHL, MLB, and NFL. League founder Dani Rylan Kearney at this time was stepping down from her post as commissioner and into a new role as president of the original ownership group to oversee operations there.

“We’re moving into this private ownership model where we really tried to figure out, who out there is going to understand our methodologies, understand our growth strategy, understand what we’re trying to do for the women’s game, and not just be coming in here and ‘Ah, I own a women’s hockey team,’” Tumminia explained. “A true owner develops a tribal community with their markets, and we’re seeing that, for example, with Boston.”

The NWHL’s Boston Pride has set the gold standard, carving out a passionate fanbase in a crowded, sports-crazed market and becoming a destination where players want to play.

“That really starts with ownership,” Tumminia said.

The ‘interim’ label on Tumminia’s job title upon her hiring isn’t so much a formality as it is a philosophy on what the leadership role means to her.

“I always answer it this way: These types of roles, they’re all interim … I would always do it as an interim role, even if I was asked to come on as the full-time commissioner. Because my role is really just to kind of get in here, try to get this going and streamline it for the next person that takes over,” explained Tumminia.

“I truly, truly believe that in these type of leadership roles across all of sports – and actually, across all of business – I never am an advocate of anybody staying in this role for too long. I think it just does a disservice to the fundamental operations of, let’s just say the league in particular,” she continued. “I think it behooves a league to kind of change leadership because that’s how you stay ahead of the curve and you bring in new ideas and thoughts … that’s always kind of been my M.O.”

For Tumminia, that means getting the league to a place where there’s strong growth – and potential for more of it – both on the ice and in front offices, making the NWHL a destination for future players and fans both within the teams’ home communities and across the wider landscape of the game.

“Creating a league where young girls are coming up through college and whatnot and saying there’s a place, there’s a platform for us to play professional hockey – and doing that all in a way where we’re in a league, combined, you know we’re building and we’re sustaining this successful business model,” Tumminia said.

“So, at the end of it, when I feel as if – and the board feels, and collectively, the league, all together feels that – we’ve gotten it to a place where it’s sustainable and we have revenue coming in from sponsorships and we have dynamic viewership across different kind of platforms, where we’re talking about expansion, when we’re talking about all this kind of stuff, I think when it gets to that point, I would think … ‘Okay, we’re headed in the right direction here.’”

QUICK SHIFTS WITH TY TUMMINIA

On launching the Toronto Six… while the world’s in lockdown:
“I’ve been part of team purchases and launching before – never through a pandemic. So, here we have this new club, it’s in Toronto, and we have all these staff and athletes that we’re not ever meeting face-to-face, so that in itself was a unique challenge. Zoom is the new relationship tool. [Laughs] Trying to get to know leadership, trying to get to understand philosophy over zoom, methodology, it’s a little bit of a wild trip. I definitely miss the face-to-face interaction.

“It’s all sort of been a very challenging year, operationally — and that’s okay. I find we have to say that every now and then.”

On working with and learning from Digit Murphy, president and head coach of the Toronto Six:
“What I love about the cultural aspect of a staff and front office is, I truly believe you have to have some dynamic personalities.

“Her nickname for me is ‘Legal’ – I’m a wet blanket, probably, so she nicknamed me that. [Laughs] She can go have the stage, which I love — go be the spotlight and the face and personality, with the depth of hockey knowledge that she has. So, it was a nice, interesting mix: I come in with legal and business, and she comes in with the game itself. It’s been great.”

On historic Lake Placid, home to the famous Miracle on Ice game of 1980, as host of the NWHL’s return-to-play:
“In my position in particular, I don’t necessarily care who wins – I care who watches. So, the stage has got to be somewhat poetic and narrative. I didn’t just want to go to any arena.

“The 1980s rink, the first time a pro league competes for a championship cup on this ice … the Olympic feel there… what’s not to like, right?”

On the NWHL’s partnership with Stathletes, which was announced in December:
“It’s really great for our coaching staff. Now we have this tremendous amount of information that we haven’t had before … We haven’t had that kind of analytics before, so I’m really, really excited to see what that produces.”

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