Does NWHL expansion move the needle in the quest for a unified women's league?

Adding the first Canadian team is a good look for the NWHL, but the PWHPA is unmoved. It still doesn't feel the NWHL meets a high enough standard for elevating the women's game in terms of salary, benefits and exposure.
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In a time when we’re desperate for good news, inside and outside the sporting world, the announcement of a new pro hockey franchise in a major hockey market feels pretty welcome. Whether it changes the landscape of the women’s game in the long term is another matter, however.

The NWHL announced Wednesday that Toronto has been approved for an expansion franchise. It will debut as the league’s sixth team in time for the 2020-21 season, which consists of 20 regular-season games and is scheduled to commence in mid-November. Toronto will be the league’s first Canadian franchise. The team name and color scheme have yet to be determined. Starting Wednesday, fans can submit their ideas for both here.

So who made this franchise happen? The ownership team consists of: Johanna Neilson Boyton, a former Harvard captain, who is the CEO and co-founder of Boynton Brennan Builders; Tyler Tumminia, former senior vice-president of the GoldKlang Group, which owns five minor-league baseball teams; and Digit Murphy, who has decades of experience as one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history. Tumminia will serve as the club chairman. Murphy will be the president and will oversee the hiring of a coach and GM.

“Today is just the start,” Murphy said in a press release issued by the NWHL. “We have plenty of work ahead. Our team in Toronto is led by women, and we are providing opportunities and jobs in the GTA for hockey players, coaches, and staff. This team will proudly represent Toronto and compete for the NWHL championship and will also be dedicated to empowering younger female athletes through community engagement and education. We welcome everyone who wants to be part of a challenging and rewarding venture.”

The announcement included the signings of five players: goaltender Elaine Chuli; defenders Kristen Barbara and Emma Greco; and forwards Shiann Darkangelo and Taylor Woods.

And that’s where things get interesting from a context perspective. All five women played in the now-defunct CWHL in the past. Each of the players aside from Barbara is part of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players' Association, the group consisting of hundreds of players who banded together and sat out the 2019-20 season in protest of women’s hockey having no unified pro league and formed the Dream Gap Tour. That quartet joins three other players from the Dream Gap Tour who have signed with NWHL teams.

“The advancement of a professional women’s hockey league for Canada and the U.S., one that will stand and flourish on its own, is a passion for me and everyone associated with the NWHL,” Boynton said in the press release. “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 all about. There is so much potential, and Toronto is the logical next step. I look forward to working closely with players, staff, sponsors, and fans to give Toronto the team the community deserves.”

So we have ex-CWHL and Dream Gap players signing with the expansion team, not to mention a president who comes from a CWHL past in Murphy, who coached the Boston Blades and Kunlun Red Star. The natural question to ask next is: can this news be viewed as an omen that a unified women’s league is closer to happening? Theoretically, several women have “crossed the floor” to join this team after hundreds of PWHPA players committed to staying out of the NWHL as part of the #ForTheGame initiative.

Well, it appears the idea of a gap being bridged is a reach. The PWHPA issued the following statement Wednesday:

It would be easy to make this an “us versus them” story, but we have no interest in that narrative. Our mission as the PWHPA has not changed, and we are still moving forward with next season – in full force. Simply put, the opportunities that the NWHL will provide may be good for some players, but it’s not the opportunities that we want for our players or future generations of young girls who will play the game at the highest level.

So there are two lenses through which people can few the expansion news. On one hand, we can see Toronto expansion as welcome news for a league that is growing. Per The Athletic’s Hailey Salvian, the NWHL has stated that it just completed its most successful season yet, having “increased its salary cap, initiated a 50-50 revenue split for league-wide sponsorship and media deals and secured a multi-year media rights deal with Twitch, among other things.”

On the other, it doesn’t appear the news moves the needle in the battle for one super-league. Just because a handful of PWHPA players defect doesn’t mean the majority of the organization has changed its stance that the NWHL doesn’t meet the PWHPA’s targets for benefits, salaries and exposure for the women’s game. Wednesday’s statement confirms that, and the PWHPA still houses almost all the sport’s elite players. Case in point: every player at the thrilling 3-on-3 event at the 2020 NHL All-Star Game came from the PWHPA.

So we can celebrate the addition of a Canadian team to the NWHL, but the dream of a unified super-league remains as far away as it did a week ago.

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