NWHL confirms plans to expand into Toronto

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

Professional women’s hockey is set to return to Canada, with the National Women’s Hockey League announcing Wednesday it is expanding into Toronto.

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

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

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 in establishing contacts and recruiting players.

All five players signed previously played in the CWHL, with the most notable being Shiann Darkangelo, a member of the 2016 world championship-winning U.S. team. 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 said 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."

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

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

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 demise.

The PWHPA balked at competing professionally in North America last season, instead pushing for the establishment of a single league capable of paying players a fair wage and with a financially stable long-term economic model.

Still, PWHPA leader Jayna Hefford said she wasn’t surprised that the NWHL planned to add a team in Toronto.

"I think it was a few days after the CWHL folded that announced they wanted to expand into Canada," Hefford told The Canadian Press on Monday. "Toronto is probably the hockey mecca of North America for sure. Of course it’s expected they would want to expand into this market with a lot of female players. It doesn’t impact what we’re trying to achieve."

"We’ve been very clear about what we believe the next professional women’s league needs to look like," she added. "We don’t believe those things currently are offered in any women’s pro league.

"Ticketing, public relations and marketing, having access to daily ice time, full-time coaching staffs and medical staffs, strength and conditioning people and year-round medical and health insurance, a living wage, there’s all these elements we believe that if we don’t fight for them now … the time is now in our minds."

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."

The CWHL had two teams in the Toronto area when it folded.

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

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.

Murphy has yet to secure a home rink and is 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 has experience overseeing minor league baseball franchises and is co-owner of a Futures Collegiate Baseball League team in Massachusetts.

Murphy envisions the potential for 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" compared with 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," she said.

And with nearly 8,000 women 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 Canadian Press sports reporter Donna Spencer.

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