Tuesday evening espnW reported the identity of one of the nameless investors in the NWHL: Joel Leonoff, father of Connecticut Whale starting goaltender Jaimie Leonoff.
By the article’s account, Joel Leonoff was introduced to Dani Rylan via Connecticut Whale captain and Yale Bulldogs women’s hockey assistant coach, Jessica Koizumi, when he attended a Yale game in support of his daughter. He was both interested in Rylan’s business model and in helping his daughter work towards a spot on the Olympic team and signed on with the league.
The league launched with an operating budget of $2.5 million for the season, a salary cap of $275,000 per team and stated at the beginning of the season that they would break even if they managed to sell 1,000 tickets to every game this season.
Joel Leonoff declined to enumerate how much capital he has invested in the league and told espnW that he did not know who the league’s other investors are.
“I thought it was very noble to try to create a league where women who are finishing their college careers have the ability to make a little bit of money, help finance their lives to a certain degree, and play in a professional environment that’s competitive, keeps them in shape, ready to play, and maybe move on to an Olympic opportunity,” he told espnW. “I think it’s just the right time for that. I was supportive and happy to hear of her plan.”
While Leonoff could have joined the CWHL with little issue, as she’s a Canadian citizen, Koizumi convinced her to join the NWHL and Koizumi’s own team.
“The biggest thing is the money,” Jaimie Leonoff said. “There’s money in this league, and that’s a big factor for me.”
This information becoming public –– rather, this relationship existing at all –– is certainly a smudge on the NWHL’s face. While financial data of a private company is not something that fans should expect to see and be able to scrutinize to their satisfaction, once that data is leaked, there is no turning back. Having the father of a starting goaltender as a major investor of the fledgling league will certainly raise a few eyebrows.
The NWHL has had issues with conflicts of interest in the past, such as allowing Commissioner Dani Rylan to sit in on Player Safety Committee meetings that dealt with New York Riveters players, the team which Rylan operates as general manager.
The situation would look much worse if Jaimie Leonoff weren’t such a terrific goaltender. She was a good presence in net for the Yale Bulldogs, earning the team’s MVP award three years in a row but wasn’t considered National Team caliber. After graduating Leonoff spent the offseason working with a goaltending coach who put her through her paces and came out the other side a stronger goaltender who is more positionally sound.
She ranks among the league’s leaders in save percentage with 0.931, with a goals-against average of 2.84. Leonoff is second only to the Boston Pride’s Brittany Ott in wins, earning seven over nine games played. Her play has caught the eye of other league leaders; Hilary Knight selected Leonoff for her team at the NWHL All-Star Game in January.
Her play is not in question: Leonoff deserves the starting spot on the Whale and has worked hard to get it. Despite starting more games than the other two goalies, Nicole Stock and Shenae Lundberg, she hasn’t been immune to the occassional “yank”.
The optics aren’t good and the potential for abuse of power is there, however, a closer look at Leonoff’s performance places the issue of favoritism in doubt.
It would also be myopic to presume that no league or franchise has been funded by or employed people who had a vested interest in seeing the game grow. The hockey community is small and full of people who have fingers in many pies.
When Trina Crosby, mother to Sidney and Taylor Crosby, joined the board of the CWHL in 2013 to ensure her daughter had a place to play after college, it was applauded. It seems that this is not terribly different, despite the capital involved; Joel Leonoff is yet another parent looking out for the best interests of his daughter. In this case, he’s also putting his money where his mouth is.
However, the NWHL seems unprepared to answer questions on how they’ve managed to avoid treating Leonoff differently, instead returning no comment. Certainly, concerns about favoritism will have to be addressed.
Furthering the issue, as indicated by goaltender Shenae Lundberg in an interview with Today’s Slapshot, is net minder Chelsea Laden’s request for a trade, which saw the two swap teams.
Laden was benched for a large chunk of the season due to a broken finger, earned stopping pucks in practice, but would have had to fight Leonoff in order to get the starting job on the Whale. The league returned no comment on the issue, nor did Erika Lawler, the head of the NWHLPA, who was asked for comment when the trade occurred.
As fans learn more and more about the NWHL and their business plans, the league will need to to make sure they have answers at the ready or endure continued speculation, like that raised by espnW.