NWHL expansion could have impact on Buffalo

New Toronto organization will compete for Buffalo’s player pool

In a momentous day for the sport of hockey, the NWHL has announced international expansion, welcoming a privately-owned team in the city of Toronto. Previously home to the Toronto Furies of the CWHL, the move marks the second expansion for the NWHL in as many seasons, and has been part of a plan that the league foreshadowed in 2016 at the culmination of its inaugural season.

The news comes from The Ice Garden, where team president Digit Murphy stated, “Hockey is a small world, you can’t build barriers, you have to build bridges…. It’s too small of a pond to not work together.” This is in reference to the current divisive climate in women’s hockey, and Murphy’s own concerns when the league launched in 2015.

This is huge news for the hockey world — fantastic news for the sport, really. To be in a position of growth is great, and to be franchising to private owners is even better. Fans and players have gotten firsthand experience with the results of private ownership. It means more sponsorship and marketing opportunities, access to improved facilities, and superior amenities. Unfortunately for the Buffalo Beauts, it means more competition in the player pool. For its first five seasons, Buffalo has had the luxury of attracting some of Ontario’s most dynamic players. That may no longer be the case.

The plight of the professional women’s hockey player is well-written; fans are familiar with the fact that athletes often need to make decisions based on circumstances off-the-ice. Work, home, traveling distance - all of these factors come into play when making a decision regarding which team to sign for. Whereas players may have qualified for expedited passage at the border, federal regulations have eliminated this opportunity, which is something else players may consider. After coming home from a weekend in Minnesota, having to wait in line at the border could increase travel time. This factor alone may drive Canadian players to stay north of the border.

Luckily for Buffalo, Ancaster native Taylor Accursi is locked in for the next season. Accursi was the team’s leading scorer last year, and the impassioned forward has been a consistent contributor throughout her career. Second on the team, however, is Canadian Mary-Jo Pelletier. The diminutive defender was a leader for the Beauts in her rookie year, and an attractive prospect for a team in Toronto. Her absence on the blueline, and the scoresheet would leave a huge hole.

It would not be surprising to see Brooke Stacey sign in Toronto. The tenured forward won a championship with the Markham Thunder in 2018. While it was great to see her on the ice again in Buffalo, it would not be a reach to see her stay in Canada if she has the opportunity. Similarly, Sarah Casorso joined the Beauts midseason. One reason she had stated for deciding to retire prior to the season was her work at her daily job in Ontario. Surely, the chance to stay in Canada will be attractive if it comes up

The Beauts signed Lea-Kristine Demers when her NCAA season ended, shoring up the team’s goaltending. She played two games in the regular season, and finished with a .935 save percentage. The sample size is small, but there is little question she made a difference in her limited starts. Demers could be an easy signing for Toronto.

Toronto also has an X-Factor that could have an affect on Buffalo’s roster. Digit Murphy is one of the most storied figures in women’s hockey, and her involvement with Toronto could easily draw some of the world’s elite talent. Last summer, Murphy put together a roster of huge names in women’s hockey for an exhibition in Albany, NY. Leading up to the events, The Ice Garden spoke with Murphy, who made it known she has a special relationship with her former players. “With an audible wink, she noted that all of the players representing America have played for her before. ‘It’s like a reunion! Every team I’ve coached has had fun. We like to be around each other. That’s the secret. I am over-the-moon excited. Even Sarah Murray - the opponent’s coach - we all know each other. We can’t wait to hang out with each other.’”

Beauts general manager Mandy Cronin and coach Pete Perram may have their work cut out for them this offseason. The team finished fourth in the standings and were sunk in the playoffs by the last-place team, missing the championship for the first time in their history. Improvements were already going to need to be made to the team, and now they’ll have to compete with a new organization 90 minutes to the north.