While many professional sports leagues have paused operations during the coronavirus pandemic, the National Women’s Hockey League is forging ahead with ambitious plans for growth.
Last week, the N.W.H.L. announced a new expansion franchise in the Toronto area, its first since 2018 when it expanded to five total teams, adding the Minnesota Whitecaps.
The new, unnamed team is the league’s first franchise based outside the United States, and it began filling out its roster in the N.W.H.L. draft on Tuesday by selecting Canadian forward Jaycee Gebhard from Robert Morris with the No. 6 pick.
The move not only comes at a curious time, but also highlights a philosophical rift within the sport over how best to grow women’s professional hockey as a sustainable business. The N.W.H.L.’s entry into Canada’s largest market creates a bevy of new opportunities for players, staff and fans, even if its business model isn’t supported by most elite players.
“Lately, I’ve become kind of this mad scientist women’s sports entrepreneur and we’re moving a lot more to a place I envisioned,” said Digit Murphy, who launched a women’s pro lacrosse league in 2016, and is team president of the N.W.H.L.’s Toronto franchise. “A vision of women leading it, playing it, and as investors.”
Murphy’s blueprint — a world in which women’s pro sports teams and leagues are owned and operated by women — in this case is backed by investor Johanna Boynton, co-founder of Boynton Brennan Builders, a company that builds high-end homes in the Boston suburbs. The pair first met almost 30 years ago when Murphy coached at Brown and recruited New England prep stars coached by Boynton. Boynton has been a major donor to USA Hockey, particularly for its programs for girls and women.
The Toronto team will also have a chairwoman, Tyler Tumminia, who was formerly a vice president of a group which operates minor league baseball clubs.
Their announcement came even as top athletes continue to boycott the N.W.H.L. Several Olympians in May 2019 opted to no longer compete in the league over a lack of health insurance and salaries as low as $2,500 a season. The league’s highest announced player salary last season was $15,000.
Many of those players are now members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, which holds exhibitions and clinics throughout the United States and Canada — including Toronto — and seeks the creation of a league offering livable salaries, so that athletes do not need to obtain second jobs.
The P.W.H.P.A. has advocated for a business model akin to the W.N.B.A.’s, relationship to the N.B.A., sharing marketing, promotion and business partnerships to help launch and sustain the women’s league. In its early going, N.B.A. franchises owned and operated the W.N.B.A.’s teams. The teams moved into private ownership once suitable investment became available.
The Toronto franchise’s plan would seem to work around the idea of luring the National Hockey League as a partner, a prospect that Murphy said is unfeasible.
“The N.H.L. model is not something I have searched for. Apparently, some women in hockey want that model, and I don’t see that as something that represents true leadership in sports,” she said. “It’s the big brother taking care of the big sister. I think we deserve an opportunity to stand on our two feet.”
Toronto will be the second N.W.H.L. team alongside the Boston Pride to have private ownership (the owners of the Buffalo Beauts returned the rights back to the league before last season). The Pride led the league in sellouts and averaged crowds of 810 in an 850-seat facility. Players received additional equipment on top of the sticks provided by the league, and took flights instead of bus rides for long road trips. Last year, the Pride went 23-1.
Currently, the Toronto N.W.H.L. team does not have a home arena, although Murphy said the club could have home games at different locations throughout the province. With dedicated private investment, Murphy believes Toronto can produce similar success.
Left unanswered in the Toronto team’s rollout are questions of how expansion resolves concerns about wages, benefits, and marketing without the N.H.L.’s support.
The N.H.L. has been more engaged marketing women’s hockey recently, including creating a three-on-three women’s exhibition as part of its All-Star events this year, and has seen an increased number of female coaches, scouts and broadcasters. But the N.H.L. has stopped short of investing in a women’s professional league, and it does not appear to be a priority as the league is still figuring out ways to resume its season (which was paused on March 12), reschedule its draft and navigate financial concerns, all changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Toronto Maple Leafs said in a statement that the N.W.H.L.’s expansion announcement “came as a surprise to us as there has been no involvement or communication between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the N.W.H.L. At present, our focus is currently centered on supporting our players, staff, and most importantly — our community, during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
According to emails reviewed by The New York Times, an employee of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Maple Leafs, was contacted by an investor in the N.W.H.L.’s Toronto team. When asked for a follow-up comment, Steve Keogh, director of media relations for the Maple Leafs, provided a statement that said: “No one from the N.W.H.L. league office spoke directly with our management/hockey operations team. To be clear, we were unaware of the timing of any announcement; nor have we had any formal communications between our respective offices.”
The N.W.H.L. also faces upcoming hurdles. Foreign players are not covered by Canada’s universal health care and some may need reciprocal work permits, which the Toronto team will pay for and manage their processing, according to a league spokesperson. However, these processes could be delayed because of the ongoing pandemic.
The Canadian government will also dictate when games can continue within its borders. The N.W.H.L. has not announced a start date for its 2020-21 season, but has previously opened in October.
Whenever the new Toronto N.W.H.L. franchise hits the ice, they will have to engage the hockey community there without the Maple Leafs as power brokers and without the strong ties the P.W.H.P.A. has built.
Despite Toronto’s reputation as a hockey-crazed metropolis, women’s hockey has not always flourished in Canada’s largest city. The Toronto Furies played in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League before that entity folded in 2019, and sometimes drew about 300 spectators for home games.
“The base of women’s hockey fans in Toronto is larger than anywhere else in the world,” said Sami Jo Small, the former general manager of the Furies before they folded and three-time Olympic medalist for Canada. “They are knowledgeable, supportive and want hockey to succeed in the greater Toronto area. In order for this Toronto team to be successful, they will have to connect with the fans, have a clear marketing strategy and make the games accessible so fans know how to get behind their team.”