Father Of Connecticut Whale Goalie Among NWHL's Mystery Investors

Team Pfalzer, captained by Buffalo's Emily Pfalzer, and Team Knight, led by Boston's Hilary Knight, at the inaugural NWHL All-Star Game. Photo courtesy NWHL

It began with an introduction and a conversation.

Joel Leonoff, a Canadian entrepreneur and business executive, was in New Haven, Connecticut, watching his daughter Jaimie play hockey for Yale in February 2015 when he met Dani Rylan, a young entrepreneur trying to launch a professional women's hockey league.

They were introduced by Bulldogs assistant coach Jessica Koizumi, a former U.S. national team player. She knew Rylan from Boston -- Rylan played at Northeastern University, while Koizumi skated for the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women's Hockey League. Koizumi was tired of commuting from New Haven to Boston for games, and, upon learning Rylan sought investors, she suggested Leonoff. He had been a hockey player himself until college and coached Jaimie in youth leagues.

Rylan's business plan -- a four-team league based in the Northeastern U.S. -- intrigued Leonoff. So did helping his daughter pursue an Olympic dream. So Leonoff became one of the initial investors in the fledgling National Women's Hockey League.

The league was established last year, and since then, its financing structure has largely been a mystery. It funds salaries and travel for its roughly 88 players, with each team having a salary cap of $270,000. Rylan, 28, has never identified her investors, and she speaks about league finances only in general terms. The NWHL began with an estimated $2.5 million operating budget, according to league officials.

"I give [Rylan] a lot of credit," Leonoff said in Jan. 30 telephone interview from Nashville, where he attended the NHL All-Star Game. "She's a dynamic young woman, and she has some real vision and a desire to do something that I think is quite exceptional.

"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 said. "I think it's just the right time for that. I was supportive and happy to hear of her plan."

Leonoff declined to reveal the size of his investment and said he doesn't know who else is involved in the funding.

Leonoff is chief executive officer of Paysafe Group Plc, a global online-payment and gaming company. He's an accountant with an entrepreneurial bend and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from McGill University. He spent almost two decades as an executive with various technology and financial firms in Canada and the U.K. In 2001, he was honored as one of the Toronto Globe and Mail's Top 40 Canadians under 40 years old, based on leadership, innovation and community involvement.

"I'm supporting my daughter more than anything," he said. "This is a cause that's important to my daughter, and as a result it's important to me and my family. So we're happy to try to help in whatever way we can."

Jaimie Leonoff starts regularly as goaltender for the Connecticut Whale -- the NWHL's best team -- and was Yale's Most Valuable Player for her last three seasons. She's the among the league's leaders in save percentage (.931) and ranks second to Boston Pride's Brittany Ott in wins (seven in nine appearances). Her goals-against average is 2.84. She was one of four goalies chosen for the All-Star Game last month.

One of the purposes of the NWHL, like the CWHL, is to provide an avenue for college graduates to continue playing and contend for Olympic team rosters.

Ten current and former members of the U.S. national team have jumped to the NWHL from the CWHL, which pays bonuses, but not salaries. Koizumi is one -- she plays with Leonoff on the Whale. Most Canadians opt for the CWHL, but Koizumi successfully recruited her to the NWHL.

"The biggest thing is the money," Jaimie Leonoff said. "There's money in this league, and that's a big factor for me."

During the NWHL's All-Star Weekend in Buffalo last month, Rylan laid out an encouraging financial picture for the league in a Jan. 23 press conference. Attendance and expenditures met preseason expectations, while merchandising exceeded them, she said. Jersey orders overwhelmed the NWHL website when they were put on sale at the start of the season, and Rylan lamented the league could have easily exceeded the 1,000 jerseys sold had they correctly anticipated the demand.

Dunkin' Donuts signed on as the NWHL's first corporate sponsor in December, and the league reached viewing deals with ESPN3 and the New England Sports Network. Rylan said attracting more corporate sponsors will be a focus of hers in the future.

"We were just wrapping our 2015 numbers, and our [chief financial officer] and I were incredibly shocked about how on-point we are with our budget," Rylan said. "We're doing a lot better than we thought we would be doing. So we're excited about hitting our numbers."

Before the season, Rylan spoke optimistically about adding teams in the Midwest, perhaps as soon as next season. But at the All-Star Game, Rylan committed only to the four founding franchises -- Buffalo, New York, Boston and Connecticut -- for the 2016-17 season. A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Whitecaps, the most likely team to join the league, said they are still talking to Rylan but expect to remain independent next season.

Funding air travel remains a sticking point.

"A huge part of our business model this year is being regionalized," Rylan said at the press conference. "It's a busing league, it keeps our costs down, and it's keeping us sustainable. Before we make a big jump to a plane, we have to make sure we're set on the business side. When it makes sense, we'll think about West, or even north of the border."

Many NWHL players believe merging with the CWHL is inevitable.

"Will it be best for women's hockey to bring all the talent under one umbrella and one league? Yes," Rylan said. "What does that look like, and when does that roll out? Those are the biggest question marks we have right now."

Rylan has never identified her investors because, she said, they preferred to remain anonymous. Leonoff said he's also not interested in publicity.

"I don't like to publicize anything I get involved with," he said. "I'm just a private person who likes to do things quietly. I support the league in whatever way I can. And I'm a big fan."