BUFFALO — Kim Pegula's desire to grow women's professional hockey will no longer involve a relationship with North America's remaining professional league.
The owner of the Buffalo Beauts announced Wednesday she's relinquishing control of the team in a move that could further jeopardize the future of the National Women's Hockey League as it struggles to keep its five franchises afloat and without the support of the world's top players.
"Our main goal has always been fostering the growth of women's hockey across all ages," Pegula said in a statement. "We thank our Beauts players, staff, and fans for their support this past season. We will continue to look for ways to successfully grow the women's game."
Pegula did not cite reasons behind her decision, but it comes on the heels of the league still dealing with the fallout from last week's decision made by more than 200 players pledging not to play professionally in North America next season.
The group of players featured a vast majority of the Beauts roster, including U.S. national team defenseman Emily Pfalzer and Canadian national team goalie Shannon Szabados.
Pegula informed NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan of her decision last week, and the terms of the team's handover back to the league were determined during a conference call Tuesday, two people with direct knowledge of the discussions told The Associated Press. The people spoke to The AP on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
The NWHL will re-assume control of the franchise, but will have to renegotiate facility fees if the league intends to continue playing at the Pegula-owned HarborCenter. The league also will have to resume paying players' salaries and team travel costs, which will put an estimated $200,000 dent in the NWHL's budget.
Rylan thanked Pegula Sports for running the Beauts, before the league issued a separate statement saying the NWHL was pleased to regain operating control.
"The fans of Western New York are among the most dedicated in the world, and we have had four exceptional seasons of winning hockey and large crowds in Buffalo," the league said.
Questions remain over how easily the NWHL can move forward after losing one of its most influential backers. Pegula and her husband Terry also own the NHL's Sabres and NFL's Bills, and became the NWHL's first private owners upon purchasing the Beauts in December 2017.
Their departure comes at a time the NWHL was raising the possibility of expanding into Toronto and Montreal after the Canadian Women's Hockey League shut down as of May 1, citing financial woes.
The CWHL's demise along with questions regarding the NWHL's long-term viability led to the players' pledge in a bid to start over and establish a single economically sustainable professional league.
Szabados grew emotional in saying she realized the possibility of a better future by how well the Pegulas treated the Beauts last year.
"As silly as it may sound, we received things that some of the teams don't get like tape," she told The AP by phone.
On a larger scale, Beauts players had access to strength and conditioning coaches, were treated to pre- and postgame meals, and Szabados even enjoyed sessions with a goalie coach.
"Every single Beauts player was on the same page because we lived what that is. And it's because we want what we had last year for every team," Szabados said, before her voice began to crack. "We literally lived a dream last year, and that's what we want for every player on every team."
The Beauts were among the NWHL's first four teams and have advanced to the Isobel Cup championship game in each of the league's four seasons, winning it in 2017.
Aware of the uncertainty in Buffalo, Jack Brodt, co-coach and founder of the NWHL champion Minnesota Whitecaps, on Monday told The AP he was concerned about the league's status.
"It doesn't look too good right now," Brodt said while emphasizing he was speaking from a personal perspective and not for the league.
As for the Whitecaps' status, Brodt is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"With the players not willing to play and so forth, I don't know if there's going to be the ability to have a league," he said.
The Whitecaps sold out all their home games, and led the NWHL with an average attendance of 1,200 last season. Buffalo was second at 1,101.
The Whitecaps remain privately controlled after joining the NWHL last year. Though the NWHL announced it reached an agreement in principle to purchase the Whitecaps, Brodt said the agreement was never signed.
The NWHL's three other teams are operated by the league, including the Metropolitan Riveters, who have a "strategic alliance" in place with the New Jersey Devils.
The league's other two teams are based in Boston and Connecticut.