NWHL adding first Canadian team, in Toronto

The NWHL is expanding to Toronto for the 2020-21 season, the league announced on Wednesday.

Johanna Neilson Boynton, a former captain of the Harvard's women's hockey team, is leading the ownership group for the league's sixth franchise. Margaret "Digit" Murphy, the longtime Brown University and CWHL coach, is the team's president, while Tyler Tumminia is a chairman.

"It's probably not a coincidence that we have [three women] leading this new team," Boynton told ESPN. "But it's super exciting, I think it's incredible that we have women who have been invested in women's sports for decades."

NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan called expanding to Canada "a pivotal and proud moment for the NWHL" in a statement, while the city of Toronto also welcomed the new addition.

"Our city has a rich history with professional women's hockey and we are excited to begin this next chapter with the NWHL," Toronto mayor John Tory said in a statement. "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."

The new team in Toronto doesn't yet have a name nor a home base or arena to play in. "There's an enormous number of things to pull together," Boynton said. "And we don't want to be hasty in that."

The NWHL is also still sorting through issues involving insurance and salaries for players, considering it is a U.S.-based league trying to create employment in Canada. The league is confident those issues will be sorted out.

The NWHL was supposed to wrap up its fifth season in March, but the Isobel Cup Final between the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps was postponed because of the coronavirus.

Boston had been the toast of the NWHL, going 23-1 in its first season as an independently owned team. Miles Arnone leads the investment group that owns the Pride and is friends with Boynton. Arnone suggested Boynton get involved, and she said she spent the past few months having countless conversations with those inside and outside of the NWHL to get a pulse of the women's hockey landscape.

"For me, it was about the big picture of providing an awesome opportunity for young women in ice hockey to continue to play and develop and enjoy it so much," Boynton said. "It's about being part of a professional league that we expect will continue to grow and strengthen. And they'll be part of that story, which is going to be a great one."

Last season, roughly 175 women's players -- including some of the sport's top names -- created the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, and boycotted the NWHL, hoping for a new league to emerge. Since that has yet to happen, the PWHPA is planning counterprogramming for the second straight season.

So it is notable that Toronto's first five player signings -- Kristen Barbara, Elaine Chuli, Shiann Darkangelo, Emma Greco and Taylor Woods -- all were initially part of the PWHPA. All five also formerly played in the CWHL, the NWHL's rival league in Canada, which folded in 2019.

Toronto's players will join the pool of NWHL players receiving 50 percent of revenue from all league-level, Canadian and U.S. national sponsorship and media deals. In a statement, the NWHL says it is coming off its "best year in partnership marketing history" and "expects to execute more national and regional broadcast deals in Canada and the U.S. in the coming seasons."

The new team has been in the work for months, and Boynton wasn't deterred by the economic uncertainty of a pandemic.

"A lot has changed in the last couple weeks," she said. "But it seemed so logical, for all of us who have been involved, that there is a ton of interest, talent and energy about the idea of a franchise in Toronto, and all of them are super positive and optimistic. We're navigating carefully to see what the landscape will look like, and obviously take our leads from both the Canadian government, U.S. government and CDC, and be thoughtful and sensitive in our approach -- all the while knowing it will be something positive and very exciting in the future."