Three years after helping launch pro women’s hockey in China, Margaret “Digit” Murphy isn’t too concerned about the challenges she and the National Women’s Hockey League face in their bid to expand into Canada.
“This is a layup,” Murphy told The Associated Press in advance of the NWHL formally announcing its plans to establish a team in Toronto on Wednesday.
“Think of the obstacles we had in China. We had to get all these women over to China, in a totally foreign land,” she said referring to spending the 2017-18 season coaching the now defunct-Canadian Women’s Hockey League franchise in Kunlun. “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.”
As the yet-to-be-named expansion team’s president, the 58-year-old Murphy is spearheading the return of women’s professional hockey to Canada. The former Brown coach has already signed five players, and in the process of hiring a general manager and coach, as well as finding a home rink.
The Toronto team will increase the U.S.-based NWHL’s number of franchises to six once the league opens its sixth season in mid-November. And the move north of the border comes a year after the CWHL — which included two teams in the Toronto area — 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.
“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 franchise’s ownership group is led by former Harvard captain Johanna Boynton, who has a stake in the NWHL’s Boston Pride. Tyler Tumminia, who has experience overseeing minor league baseball franchises, was named the team’s president.
“We are driven every day to increase the opportunities available to women’s hockey players of all ages, and that’s what this expansion is about,” Boynton said in the league’s release. “There is so much potential, and Toronto is the logical next step.”
The NWHL’s move north of the border isn’t being entirely well received. Former CWHL players remain skeptical of the NWHL’s financial model, and are still smarting over how their former league abruptly folded.
The CWHL’s demise led to more than 200 of the world’s top players — including members of the U.S. and Canadian national teams — forming the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association.
The PWHPA balked at competing professionally in North America last season, to instead push for the establishment of a single league capable of paying players a fair wage and with a financially stable long-term economic model.
Players spent the past year holding a series of barn-storming weekend events — called The Dream Gap Tour — across North America, and are already making plans to do so again next year.
The PWHPA issued a statement stressing it’s not interested in an “us versus them story,” in response to the Toronto expansion plans. And yet, the association continued questioning the NWHL’s long-term vision.
“Simply put, the opportunities that the NWHL will provide may be good for some players,” the PWHPA said. “But it’s not the opportunities that we want for our players or for future generations of young girls, who will play the game at the highest level.”
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.
All five players signed by Toronto previously played in the CWHL, 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, defensemen Kristen Barbara and Emma Greco and goalie Elaine Chuli.
Murphy, who won two CWHL championships in three seasons coaching the Boston Blades, downplayed any potential rift between the two sides.
“I don’t want to begrudge The Dream Gap Tour. I think that’s awesome,” she said.
“But I think a competitive league is just an `and’ to the Dream Gap Tour and gives other women opportunities,” Murphy added. “A year ago, when the CWHL shut down, they had one of the best hockey products on the market. So I just see this as a continuation of that, and Toronto deserves a women’s franchise.”
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