Amid a global pandemic and economic crisis, the continued closure of the Canadian/U.S. border, and the sports world at large on pause, the National Women's Hockey League has announced its expansion to Toronto, Ontario beginning in the 2020-21 season.
Many of the details surrounding the expansion and its implications remain open questions – including the team's official name, home rink and additional staff.
Here's what we do know: all three executive members of the Ontario-based team named thus far have Massachusetts connections.
The team's ownership group is led by Johanna Neilson Boynton, who also serves as Vice Chair for the Boston Pride. Boynton is CEO and co-founder of Boynton Brennan Builders, a home-building company based in Concord, Massachusetts.
Tyler Tumminia will serve as the team's chairperson. Tumminia has historically been a baseball executive and is co-owner of the Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, based in Massachusetts. Her husband, Ben Cherington, previously served as VP of operations for the Toronto Blue Jays from 2016 to 2019.
Digit Murphy has been named president. Murphy served as head coach of the CWHL's Boston Blades for several seasons before parting ways with the CWHL, but then returned to the league to coach their Kunlun Red Star expansion team in China.
Additional team staff, including the general manager and head coach, will be named at a later date. Murphy will oversee the hiring of these staff members.
"We have plenty of work ahead," Murphy said in a statement. "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."
Teams in the NWHL will play a 20-game schedule in 2020-21 season. That's a slight decrease from the 24 games teams played this past season – a season that is technically still underway, with the Isobel Cup Final on pause. Also notable is that the upcoming season isn't scheduled to begin until mid-November; in contrast, this past season began on October 5.
The changes have been in the works for some time, including the decision to move the season start to mid-November, which seems to make more sense given the shortened season. Playoffs are scheduled to begin in mid-March and will be completed by the end of the month.
Of course, with the U.S./Canadian border closed for nonessential travel until at least May 20, and most American states on some level of lockdown, it's anyone's guess when sports will actually be able to return, and when they do, if fans will even be permitted in the stands. And of course, sports shouldn't be the priority anyways – unnecessary entertainment such as this should be at the bottom of anyone's list of things to get back up and running.
So why announce expansion now, in the midst of a global pandemic that's thrown quite literally everything off course, killed over 25,000 people in the United States and pushed over six million Americans to file for unemployment?
"Although this pandemic is challenging everyone in profound ways today, and we are very mindful of that, our outlook for women's sports remains positive," Boynton said. "We are launching this team now because we believe in the future."
A future that, at least today, seems tentative.
The contract being signed by players at this point is the same as the one from last season; the NWHLPA voted in January to extend the current agreement, and the league accepted. They will vote again in January 2021.
In addition, minimum salaries have been increased for the upcoming season, from $4,000 to $5,000. Team salary caps remain $150,000.
For the time being, five players have signed contracts to play for Toronto's NWHL team in the 2020-21 season. All five have previously played in the CWHL and were members of the PWHPA this past season.
Elaine Chuli becomes just the second goaltender to sign in the NWHL for the upcoming season. Chuli, 25, played for the Vanke Rays in the CWHL in the 2017-18 season, posting a 2.28 GAA and .941 save percentage over 27 games. She then appeared in 15 games with the Toronto Furies in the 2018-19 season, putting up a 3.03 GAA and .899 save percentage. Chuli was the starting goaltender for Team Spooner in the PWHPA's January Secret Women's Hockey Showcase in Toronto.
Shiann Darkangelo re-joins the NWHL after having previously played in the league from 2015 until 2017 with both the Connecticut Whale and Buffalo Beauts. Darkangelo left the NWHL to join the CWHL, where she played for Kunlun Red Star and the Toronto Furies. She has 25 points in 29 NWHL games in her career to date. This past season, she appeared in several games with the PWHPA, including for Team Keller in the Philadelphia Dream Gap Tour stop, on Team Spooner at the January showcase in Toronto, and on Team Knox in September's showcase.
Joining Darkangelo is fellow forward Taylor Woods. Woods played for the CWHL's Brampton/Markham Thunder from 2016-19, amassing six goals and 14 points in 74 games. She appeared in several events with the PWHPA, including the September showcase in Toronto and games in North York, Oakville, and Waterloo.
On defense, the team has signed Emma Greco, who has previous experience in both the NWHL and CWHL. Greco appeared in six games for the Connecticut Whale in the 2017-18 season and skated in 23 games for the Toronto Furies the following season. This past season, she played in the PWHPA's January showcase in Toronto and game in Waterloo.
Joining Greco on the blueline is Kristen Barbara. Barbara spent three seasons with the CWHL's Brampton/Markham franchise from 2016 until 2019. She appeared in 58 games and amassed 19 points. She played for Team Gabel at the January PWHPA event in Waterloo.
Here is a look at the current rosters for the 2020-21 NWHL season, as of April 22. According to the league, all players will once again receive "50 percent of revenue from all league-level, Canadian and U.S. national sponsorship and media deals."
The official announcement of the NWHL's expansion to Toronto doesn't come as a surprise; after all, the league has previously hinted to it several times in the past.
Who could forget the league's possible teasing of expansion to Toronto and Montreal immediately following the first-ever Isobel Cup Final? Or when the league announced expansion to Canadian markets in April 2019, following the shuttering of the CWHL, before nixing those plans a month later?
This time, however, with an official announcement made, players signed and amid the current climate in women's hockey, obviously things appear to be quite different – but there are still plenty of questions in the weeks and months ahead.