The National Women’s Hockey League will come to Canada for the first time, launching an expansion team in Toronto that will begin play in the league’s upcoming sixth season.
The ownership group for the team, which is not being launched with a logo, name, or venue, will be led by Johanna Neilson Boynton. Neilson Boynton, who is the CEO and co-founder of home construction company Boynton Brennan Builders, played four years of hockey at Harvard and has been a long-time supporter of the sport, USA Hockey, and the U.S. Women’s National Team specifically.
Neilson Boynton said that last year she was approached by Boston Pride owner Miles Arnone about investing in a team in the NWHL. After spending time speaking with folks involved in the league as well as with people involved in the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, she made the decision to invest in a team.
“It became clear to me that the way to continue my commitment to growing women’s hockey and providing the opportunity to play in a pro league that was financially sustainable was to invest – not just financially but also invest my time and energy,” Neilson Boynton said.
NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said the league has been “working hard to create opportunities for women to play professional hockey again in Canada since the CWHL folded over a year ago.”
The interest in expanding to Toronto is obvious. Rylan called it “one of the greatest hockey cities in the world,” adding that it is a market “primed for a team and it’s a hotbed of talent.”
Neilson Boynton said that the city is geographically large, and there will be support for a team that is operated “thoughtfully and professionally.”
The NWHL has long looked at Toronto as a potential market for a variety of reasons – Rylan said the league had hoped it had expanded to the city sooner. Following the folding of the CWHL in April 2019, the NWHL had been rumored to be investigating launching an expansion team in Toronto. The Associated Press reported last week that the NWHL had been looking to launch this latest effort in Toronto.
In addition to Neilson Boynton, the team’s chairman will be Tyler Tumminia, who was previously senior vice president of The Goldklang Group overseeing the business operations of several minor league baseball teams. Digit Murphy, an experienced women’s hockey executive and coach, will serve as president.
Rylan said that by adding a team in Toronto, the league expects “this will generate additional interest from brands looking to invest in women and sport across North America.”
Despite a tumultuous 2019 that saw the ownership groups of the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils pull their support of the NWHL as well as several of its highest-profile players boycott the league and instead participate in events hosted by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, the NWHL had one of its most successful seasons yet.
In its first year of a new three-year media rights deal with Twitch, the NWHL saw overall viewership increase 93% from the previous season. The league also had its best year in partnership marketing following a decision to split all revenue from league-wide sponsorship and media deals 50-50 with players. The NWHL does not disclose revenue figures.
The league is hoping for additional national and regional broadcast deals in both Canada and the U.S. in the coming seasons, as well as new sponsorships – all revenue will be split with players regardless if of the country they play in.
Rylan said the league is also moving forward on trying to sell its other four franchises, as all others besides Boston are currently owned and operated by the league.
“We’re working alongside the Sports Advisory Group to identify the right owners for our current clubs, as well,” Rylan said. “There’s interest in a few of our markets but no news to report at this time.”
While the CWHL’s Toronto Furies were one of the top teams in that league in talent and in the standings, the team struggled to gain traction in the city – it averaged under 300 fans per game most nights.
While Neilson Boynton said she could not speak to the Furies and what happened to that team, she noted the explosion in popularity for the Boston Pride this past season under new ownership.
“In Boston this season, we witnessed a growth in the interest and following of women’s sports,” she said. “We saw an increase in ticket sales, merchandise sales, sponsorships, and online sales – to name a few. We hope to achieve the same in Toronto.”
“We expect to build on the community in Toronto, to be a fan-friendly, sports, and entertainment product where our professional athletes are accessible and successful. We want to take our product to another level for hockey fans to enjoy,” she said.