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Leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the country’s best female hockey players called suburban Boston home. Members of the U.S. women’s national team trained in Bedford and lived with billet families nearby.
When I visited the players and their hosts, there was a throwback quality to the arrangement, a certain Norman Rockwell wholesomeness to Olympians at the family dinner table and in bedrooms down the hall. But while the players appreciated the hospitality, they didn’t like the economic realities that made billet families an essential part of their Olympic preparations.
I remember forward Hilary Knight telling me how national team players probably didn’t make the minimum wage. I knew she wanted to say more, but with the Olympic Games around the corner, it was tough to criticize USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body.
No more coach class to international tournaments when the men fly business class. No more $15 per diem on the road. It’s now $50.
Fast forward to 2017. Earlier this month, Knight and other members of the U.S. women’s national team reached their breaking point. If the women didn’t get a better deal from USA Hockey, the players planned to boycott the World Championships kicking off today in Plymouth, Michigan. They stared down the U.S. hockey powers-that-be with a fierceness and determination born of years of second-class citizenry. Tuesday night, they won.
Tonight, the U.S. faces team Team Canada at the World Championships. And the women do so with a new, four-year deal that guarantees a major raise plus insurance and travel accommodations equal to what the men receive. No more coach class to international tournaments when the men fly business class. No more $15 per diem on the road. It’s now $50.
The players were, perhaps, emboldened by women’s marches across the country and angered by pay inequities inside and outside of sports. During negotiations, the biggest names in the women's game asked for more than a wage increase; they asked for solidarity and greater respect for the women’s game. They got that, too.
That solidarity and respect may be the most significant takeaways from all the deal-making. More and more, female athletes are realizing the power they possess. They don’t need to be grateful for getting the opportunity to compete. They shouldn’t think twice about wanting more; they should demand it. Now, the seven-time World Championship gold medalists have shown the mettle they possess — and the support they have — off the ice.
Consider the solidarity. The desire to make the sport better for future generations resonated with female hockey players of all ages. If they didn’t act together now, the players knew they’d be dealing the same frustrations they’ve had for years. And if the U.S. women’s national team didn’t rally the support of female hockey players at all levels, their bid for parity wouldn’t have succeeded. The united front gave the national team leverage.
With the World Championships looming and the women intent on a boycott, USA Hockey asked junior players, pro league players, college players and rec league players to play as replacements.
And they did so loudly, defiantly and fearlessly, talking — and tweeting — about how USA Hockey’s recruitment of potential replacement players was desperate and embarrassing. Many responded with the same tweet: "Today I will do what others won't do so tomorrow I can do what others can't. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC #BeBoldForChange."
They were bold. Considering the control USA Hockey exerts over developmental and national team opportunities, they were incredibly brave, too.
It wasn’t long before support for the U.S. women’s team came from athletes and players’ unions connected to the National Women’s Hockey League, NHL, NBA, WNBA, NFL, Major League Baseball and the U.S. women’s soccer team. There was even word around the NHL that American players might refuse to compete in the men’s World Championships in May. In addition, 20 U.S. senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey from Massachusetts, wrote a letter in support of the players.
It was one thing for the women to talk about working every bit as hard as the men; it was another when the men said so, too. And it left USA Hockey standing very much alone.
That groundswell, particularly from male athletes and their representatives, was crucial to winning the PR battle with USA Hockey. It was one thing for the women to talk about working every bit as hard as the men; it was another when the men said so, too. And it left USA Hockey standing very much alone.
Now, about that respect. The new deal created a Women’s High Performance Advisory Board, which will be comprised of current and former national team players. The women expect to have their voices heard. They also expect to have input into what should be done to develop women’s hockey and its players. That includes better marketing and promotion. The sport can’t thrive when it only garners attention every four years, when the Winter Olympics come around, or when national team players threaten to boycott the World Championships. If not for the planned boycott, I’m sure most people wouldn’t have known the women’s World Championships started today.
Looking back, I wonder if the national team’s experiences in suburban Boston had some impact, too. When the country’s top players trained and lived in the area nearly four years ago, some stayed with families who had girls who wanted to make the Olympic hockey team someday. Now, those girls will benefit from the new deal.
This segment aired on March 31, 2017.
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