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What the NWHL’s expansion into Toronto means

Pat McCarthy

For just the second time in league history the NWHL is expanding into a new market. Three seasons after the Minnesota Whitecaps joined the league in 2018-19, the NWHL is going north of the border into Toronto. Expanding into Canada has been something that the league has teased since its inaugural season. Now it’s finally happening.

The addition of a sixth team will change more than the playoff structure, which has included a Play-In game for the past two seasons. It presents the league office with a new wave of challenges including travel and insurance. With that being said, this is a massive win for the NWHL following a successful 2019-20 season.

Ontario

The NWHL’s presence in Toronto should fill a void left by the departure of the two CWHL teams that once shared the market in the GTA — the Markham Thunder and the Toronto Furies. Between 2007 and 2012, Ontario was also home to the Burlington Barracudas. Of course, the question now becomes what the league plans to do differently than the CWHL to stay there.

This step over the border into Canada represents more than the NWHL going international. This move represents the league entering a province with an almost unrivaled level of hockey history and passion for the game. Ontario is home to two NHL franchises, one of which is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Forbes estimates the Leafs to be worth $1.5 billion with an operating income of $101 million. Yeah. This is a massive hockey market.

We already know there are legions of women’s hockey fans in Ontario and specifically in the GTA. It’s now just a matter of connecting with them in the way that the league has been able to do in its other five markets.

Canadian Talent

There were 19 Canadian skaters and three Canadian goaltenders in the NWHL last year. Of those 22 players, 17 were signed to full contracts. Needless to say, that number is going to soar in 2020-21.

The IIHF reports that the U.S. has 82,808 registered female players; Canada has 88,732. Of course, only a fraction of those players live in the GTA, but it is the greatest Metropolitan area in the country and the majority of Canada’s population is concentrated along the U.S. border.

In addition to recruiting Canadian players who are finished with their collegiate careers in the States, the NWHL has positioned itself to a significant cluster of USports programs. It might not take long for the Toronto franchise to adopt some of its identity and culture from nearby schools and their alumnae. We’ve seen similar patterns emerge between the NWHL’s U.S. teams and their neighboring NCAA and NCAA D-III programs.

There are 13 OUA (Ontario University Athletics) teams and five teams — soon to be six — in the RESQ (Quebec Student Sports Network). In the past, many players from these programs played their post-collegiate hockey in the CWHL. This new path to playing elite, post-collegiate hockey that comes with a paycheck should draw more than enough talent to fill a 25-player roster.

Interestingly enough, the Beauts played the Brock University Badgers in an exhibition game on Sept. 28, 2019.

Chances are good that we’ll also see a few more former CWHL players join the NWHL. Last season, Erin Hall, Laurel Hill, Meg Delay, and Rose Alleva made their NWHL debuts after the CWHL folded. Many of the most prominent players from Ontario (and Quebec) are affiliated with the PWHPA, but even if all of those players are out of the equation we’re talking about one of the deepest geographical talent pools in the world.

The Toronto franchise is off to a strong start in this regard, signing Shiann Darkangelo, Elaine Chuli, Emma Greco, Kristen Barbara, and Taylor Woods — all of whom played in the CWHL in 2018-19.

It’s also worth mentioning that there were a significant number of Canadian players playing pro hockey in Europe last year. Elite Prospects’ database states that there were 24 Canadians in the SDHL alone and another 19 in the EWHL. That group of players is only a fraction of Canada’s talent pool outside of the national team program and the PWHPA.

Buffalo

The addition of a Toronto team also means that the Beauts just gained a new rival. Many of the best rivals in sports boil down to geographical proximity. There’s nothing quite like playing your neighbor.

There’s also a chance that the new club could dilute some of the talent that helped to fill Buffalo’s roster last year. Buffalo’s proximity to the Canadian border has made it the team with the most Canadian talent since the NWHL’s inception in 2015. In 2019-20, 11 of the 22 Canadian players who appeared in a game did so while wearing a Beauts jersey.

One of Buffalo’s best Canadian players, Taylor Accursi, re-signed with the team on Apr. 2. Beauts fans will want to keep their fingers crossed that Marie-Jo Pelletier, Cassidy MacPherson, and Mikyla Grant-Mentis follow suit to stay in Beauts blue. At the moment, it’s impossible to say whether or not (or to what degree) this will hurt Buffalo. But, in the event that it does, the Beauts’ loss would be overshadowed by the league’s gain.