The Toronto Six embark on expansion year 2.0 on Saturday when they’re in Buffalo to face the Beauts.
The Six’s second season in the Premier Hockey Federation, previously the NWHL, will feature the fans, home games and travel that their first year lacked because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re going to actually get some more normalcy here this season, so definitely looking forward to that aspect,” Six defender Lindsay Eastwood said on a video conference call this week.
What was the NWHL for six seasons was rebranded the Premier Hockey Federation for its seventh.
The PHF plans expansion to Montreal, but Toronto is currently the lone Canadian club in the six-team league alongside the Beauts, Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps.
The league announced in April it would double the salary cap for each team this season to US$300,000, which is an average of $15,000 a player on a 20-woman roster.
Also new this season is the PHF’s live streaming agreement in the United States with ESPN+ that includes all 60 regular-season games and Isobel Cup playoffs.
Each team will play 20 games – 10 home and 10 away – over a 19-week regular season.
After opening on the road in Buffalo, the Six host the Whale in a two-game set Nov. 20-21 at Canlan Sports-York.
“We haven’t had a real season with games on the weekends and a full season yet so it’ll be awesome, and especially to get fans in the stands. Get people at our games,” Eastwood said.
“We haven’t played at home in Toronto yet. We haven’t brought the PHF to Canada yet.”
Nine players, including league MVP Mikyla Grant-Mentis and goaltenders Elaine Chuli and Samantha Ridgewell, return from the team that fell 6-2 to the eventual Isobel Cup champion Pride in last season’s semi-finals.
Forward Shiann Darkangelo of Royal Oak, Mich, is team captain for a second season. Emma Woods of Burford, Ont., and Taylor Woods of Morden, Man., are alternate captains.
The team’s coach in its first season, Digit Murphy, stepped out of that job, but continues as Six president and director of player personnel.
Mark Joslin of Richmond Hill, Ont., is the head coach. His assistant is Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James.
The Six played its expansion season in a bubble in Lake Placid, N.Y., in front of no spectators at Herb Brooks Arena.
Toronto went 4-1-1 and clinched the top seed in the Isobel Cup playoffs, which were suspended Feb. 3 on the eve of the semi-finals because of COVID-19 cases among players.
Instead of crowning a champion after 24 games over 14 days, the season halted after 15 games.
The Cup was eventually rescheduled for March in Brighton, Mass, where the host Boston Pride prevailed.
“It was a weird year last year with practices and all the circumstances that we had to kind of fight through to get to the games,” Emma Woods said.
“This year, it’ll be a little more of a routine, you know, a little more time spent together off the ice, kind of get to know each other and build those relationships and come together as a family.”
The defending champion Pride doubled the visiting Six in a preseason game Saturday.
“Once we get more practice time in, we’re going to be very system oriented,” Joslin said. “We showed a bunch of that this past weekend against to a very, very good hockey team in the Boston Pride, and well coached.
“I think system orientation and chemistry, I think those are two identities that are going to make us one of the top teams in this league.”
Toronto will play an outdoor game Feb. 21 against the Beauts at Buffalo’s Riverworks.
“I’ll make sure I wear two pairs of socks that day if it’s cold out, but no, it’ll be really cool,” Eastwood said. “It’d be cool to get everyone in the community involved as well as because we’re trying to get as many eyes on this sport as we can.”
Players on the Canadian and U.S. women’s teams don’t participate in the PHF.
They’ve aligned themselves with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) that began when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded in 2019 after a dozen years.
Their goal is a sustainable league that pays a living wage and offers the same competitive supports male pros get.
The North American national team players are currently centralized in their respective countries preparation for February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, but the PWHPA is continuing with its showcase events this winter.
The first is Nov. 12-14 in Truro, N.S.