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The Legacy of This U.S. Women’s Hockey Team Is Already Secure

America heads into its showdown against Canada with an Olympic gold medal on the line. A win would only add to the résumé of a group of women who will be remembered for something more: changing the very future of their sport, and sparking a movement for gender equity.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On February 17, 1998, 10-year-old Meghan Duggan of Danvers, Massachusetts, was allowed to stay home from school. She watched Gretchen Ulion score the first-ever goal in an Olympic women’s ice hockey gold-medal game. She raced around the house when Team USA beat Team Canada, 3-1, to capture gold at the Nagano Winter Games.

At 11, Duggan met Ulion at a school event. “She put her medal around my neck and I put her jersey on, and from that moment forward I knew I was going to make it to the Olympics and play for Team USA,” Duggan said.

Duggan, now 30, is at her third Olympics and captain of the United States women’s ice hockey team. That 1998 game—which secured the U.S.’s only women’s hockey gold medal—holds special significance to her. It’s one of the reasons she was so appalled in August 2013 when USA Hockey revealed the jerseys for the 2014 Sochi Games. As an homage to gold-medal-winning teams of the past, the years 1960 (when the men’s team won its first gold) and 1980 (when the men’s team delivered the Miracle on Ice) were printed on both the American men’s and women’s uniforms. The year 1998, which would have celebrated the women’s historic victory, was left off entirely.

“It was heartbreaking, honestly,” Duggan told ESPN. “We put our lives into this team. But to USA Hockey, we were not even thought of. We were so disappointed. It was a slap in the face and another sign of disrespect.”

At the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, the U.S. women’s hockey team intends to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the Nagano triumph with another gold medal. Although the team has clinched gold in eight of the past 10 women’s world championships and medaled in every subsequent Olympics, it hasn’t wrested gold from Canada since that inaugural competition, falling in the final in 2002, 2010, and most painfully in 2014, when it allowed Canada to come back from a 2-0 deficit with less than four minutes left in regulation. The Americans defeated Finland 5-0 in this week’s semifinal to set up a showdown against their archrival that will be broadcast Wednesday night and should be one of the most compelling matchups of the games.

But more than just a medal hangs in the balance for this year’s team. Eleven months ago, these women staged a historic boycott against USA Hockey to get better pay, better promotion, and better programming for women’s hockey. Perhaps more than any other American athletes competing in the 2018 Olympics, these women feel the import of winning, not just for the glory, but for the very future of their sport.

The question is whether USA Hockey—the governing body for organized ice hockey in the United States—will capitalize on the moment, or whether it will repeat the past and treat this team’s hard work as an afterthought.

Meghan Duggan
Meghan Duggan
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The U.S. women’s team returned home in 2014 to a quiet welcome, even by silver-medalist standards. “There was, to my knowledge, no marketing plan in place whether we won or lost the Olympic Games,” Team USA forward Hilary Knight told The New York Times about the Sochi matches. “To not access those different markets and gain that traction is a missed opportunity. That was really frustrating.”

It also furthered a maddening trend. For years, players felt that U.S. women’s hockey was being systematically ignored, lacking promotion, resources, and support from USA Hockey.

On March 15, 2017, the team released a statement that it would not play in the upcoming International Ice Hockey Federation world championships due to stalled negotiations with USA Hockey. The women were the reigning champs in the event, the preliminary round was two weeks away, and the gold-medal tournament was set to take place in Plymouth, Michigan—home ice. They had been pushing for reform for 14 months at the point, though, and with no end in sight, they decided to pull out an ultimatum.

One of their issues was payment. Prior to the boycott, the U.S. women’s team received a monthly stipend of $1,000 for the six months leading up to a given Olympics. During any non-Olympic years—in which players still competed throughout the year and at the world championships—there was no monetary support provided outside of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s training stipends for athletes. Unlike the U.S. men’s team, which prior to this Olympics cycle featured players who earned million-dollar salaries in the NHL, the women’s players often made ends meet by working full- or part-time jobs, or by relying on parental or spousal support. (Salaries offered by the fledgling NWHL, which has had payment issues of its own, are so low that they are supplemental more than sustaining.) On top of that, the women’s team lacked the same travel accommodations and insurance as the men’s team. They flew coach; the men flew business. Their travel per diem was $15 each day; the men’s was $50.

“It sounds straightforward, but you’ve got to be on the ice to practice the sport,” says Dee Spagnuolo, a lawyer at Ballard Spahr who was part of the pro-bono team representing the players during the boycott. “Finding places and finding ice time and practice space is incredibly expensive.” Besides the expense, players had to schedule training and practice on their own and between their other jobs. Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, a forward for the U.S. women’s team, squeezed in training around a full-time job as a trainer and coach. “That’s not ideal, being an elite athlete and working 12 hours,” she told ThinkProgress last March. “In fact, the more I talk about it in these interviews, the crazier it seems.”

Another issue was promotion. Ironically, the boycott gave the women’s team more national (and international) attention than USA Hockey ever had. “It’s been a struggle for [the women’s] non-Olympic games to be on television,” says Meg Linehan, who covered the women’s team from 2014 to 2017 and now works in communications for the National Women’s Soccer League. “If they made it to NHL Network, that was a miracle, and it was usually a Canadian broadcast.”

The games were barely promoted locally. Knight has said that when she was interviewed by Michigan press at the time of the boycott, some didn’t even realize that the women’s ice hockey world championship was about to happen in their backyard. “USA Hockey is leaving money on the table for the organization by ignoring players,” Spagnuolo says. “People want to watch these players.”

Producing lucrative sponsorships for players has also lagged. Agent Brant Feldman told USA Today that in 2014, when he represented women’s team captain Julie Chu, none of the four-time Olympian’s eight endorsement deals were with a USA Hockey sponsor. (Feldman now represents Duggan, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, and Monique Lamoureux-Morando.) And lastly, the team demanded better support for girls’ hockey. USA Hockey funds and organizes the USA Hockey National Development Team, a robust program that trains, houses, and educates U-17 and U-18 male players for a future in professional hockey. The budget is $3.5 million annually (plus large grants from the NHL, which benefits from the program), and the teams plays 60 games per year. There is no parallel development program for young women.

“The infrastructure is there for boys who want to play hockey to turn into adult players, and there are multiple paths,” Linehan says. “The infrastructure for women is a work in progress. It’s never been invested in.”

Fighting for the future of women’s hockey was key to the boycott’s success. Legal representation also helped, as did public support from the NHL, NFL, NBA, and MLB players associations. But the ultimate reason the boycott succeeded was because USA Hockey couldn’t find a replacement team.

“If the first 23 replacements the federation called had said yes, our boycott would’ve been dead right then in the water,” Duggan told reporter Johnette Howard after the two sides reached an agreement. Instead, Duggan had called potential recruits, parents, and coaches to explain that the boycott was about more than money—the equity these women were fighting for was as much for next team as it was for the current players.

“During negotiations, they prioritized requests and demands that were in the best interest of the sport over pulling in more dollars for themselves,” Spagnuolo says. “They took a long-term view and wanted to know that when they retired from the sport, that they left their mark for the next generation.”

USA Hockey reached out to college players, U18 players, and even adult beer leagues in its attempt to locate possible replacements. According to Howard, USA Hockey found only six players willing to register. On March 28, the team and USA Hockey put out a joint statement announcing they had come to an agreement. The women squared off against Canada in less than 72 hours. They won 2-0, defeated Canada again in the final a week later, and became world champions once more.

“I thought their bravery was so stunning, and the example they were setting by using labor to push through the politics of anti-sexism was historic,” says The Nation’s Dave Zirin, who covered the boycott. “Sometimes I think about how tempting that must have been for both the young people and the older athletes to actually play for USA Hockey and they all refused. That’s just a remarkable display of solidarity to me.”

The U.S. women’s example resonated far and wide. Days after the women’s hockey agreement was reached, the Irish women’s national soccer team threatened to boycott an upcoming match because of poor pay and travel conditions. That October, the Danish women’s soccer team sat out of a World Cup qualifying match over pay disputes with the Danish Football Association. The movement even impacted the ultimate frisbee world; a group of players from the American Ultimate Disc League organized a boycott over gender equity in December, with a statement reading, “I believe that women and men should have equal representation at the highest, most visible levels of our sport—including professional play.”

Hilary Knight
Hilary Knight
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

For the first time in these Olympics, the U.S. women’s hockey team will receive performance bonuses from USA Hockey in addition to that of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Players will split a pool of championship money once they medal. And when they return to the States, they’ll see whether USA Hockey goes about implementing all of the measures for which they pushed. (The Ringer reached out to USA Hockey and was told comments would be possible only after the Olympic Games.)

“Everything we fought for in the past, everything we continue to fight for, is to grow the game and to enhance the sport in the United States,” forward Kendall Coyne told Sports Illustrated in February. “There’s no better way to do that than winning a gold medal. Just the impact that will have on our sport and the community as a whole could be pretty surreal.”

The Olympics are the biggest national spotlight for women’s ice hockey. The 2014 Sochi showdown between the U.S. and Canada attracted 4.9 million viewers in the United States alone. This year’s game should draw even more attention and an opportunity, win or lose, to propel the team—and interest in women’s hockey at large—beyond Olympic years.

“Part of why the Olympics broadcast is important is that it’s American broadcasters telling an American story about an American team,” Linehan says. “It gets a new audience interested. The question is, how do you sustain that after?”

A key component of the March 2017 agreement that ended the boycott was the formation of a Women’s High Performance Advisory Group to “meet regularly to assist USA Hockey in efforts to advance girls’ and women’s hockey in all areas, including programming, marketing, promotion and fundraising.” ESPN reported that a staff position would be created to fundraise for the girls’ developmental programming. And while the staff and volunteers for USA Hockey’s Girls and Women program work tirelessly to nurture the expansion of hockey across the country, fully transforming a culture and championing the growth of girls’ hockey—think of the explosion of interest in U.S. women’s soccer after the 1999 World Cup—requires an influx of capital and an organizational commitment to invest and take risks.

As is this case with most sports, systemic and meaningful gender inclusivity is hard to come by when leadership lacks adequate female representation. In the most recent U.S. Olympic Committee Diversity and Inclusion report for U.S. hockey, the organization missed its gender benchmark goals in almost every field. (It scored worse when it came to race, as it employed zero people of color in 2015.) Things aren’t great on the international level, either. A 2016 study found that female representation on National Olympic Committees is 16.6 percent, and female representation on International Sports Federations is close to 18 percent.

USA Hockey says that its goal is to provide “the foundation for the sport of ice hockey in America” and to help young people “become leaders, even Olympic heroes.” What happens now—after the boycott, and on the heels of the 2018 Olympics—is the organization’s chance to prove that those goals apply to all young people, not just those who might be bound for the NHL.

“I don’t think this team gets enough credit in terms of what they’ve put into the sport,” Linehan says. “Meghan Duggan called every single player down to the U18s to ensure the boycott succeeded. She was coaching a college team in upstate New York and playing for the [NWHL] Buffalo Beauts and would drive back and forth in snowstorms to play. There’s been a lot of dedication to the sport on their behalf, and I think the federation owes them some dedication back.”

Among the millions who will watch the gold-medal game in America on Wednesday night will be 10-year-old girls whose parents allow them to stay up late, who will run around the house should Team USA reign supreme. This U.S. team is well aware of what’s at stake when it takes the ice against Canada in South Korea. But the future of women’s hockey isn’t the players’ burden to bear. They already fought for that.