By Melissa KramerFor the first time in history, the U.S. women’s national ice hockey team won the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship (IIHF) World Championship gold medal on home soil, in front of a sold out crowd of 3,500 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan on April 7.
Team USA forward Kendall Coyne dished the puck back to Hilary Knight who ripped a blistering top-shelf wrist shot over the right shoulder of Team Canada goaltender Shannon Szabados and into the back of the twine, giving Team USA a 3-2 overtime win. The exuberant roster of women emptied out onto the ice in pure joy, some even tripping over the bench on their excursion, in an attempt to throw their gloves and helmet off as fast as possible to celebrate.
But this was not the only aspect of Team USA’s journey to universal glory that changed the course of the narrative for the game of women’s hockey forever. With a fourth consecutive world championship title, and seventh in eight years, taking home the gold medal had an added victory to Team USA this year.
On March 15, the team threatened a boycott, and told USA Hockey that they would not step foot on the ice without a new contract. The new contract would cover all four years of each Olympic cycle, not just pay $6,000 every four years from USA Hockey —amounting to a measly $1,000 a month for the six months before every Olympic period. Additionally, USA Hockey was spending $3.5 million a year on elite boys’ programs, without comparable support for women.
After the tribulations of negotiating for a “livable wage” and adequate financial support, the team and the governing body reached a historic agreement on March 29, just 48 hours before the opening puck drop of the tournament, leaving the team with a small window to prepare as a collective group.
As reported by Johnette Howard of espnW, the new, four-year deal increases the salaries of the United States Women National Team players to about $70,000 a year. It also allows players the opportunity to earn performance bonuses based on their results at the world championships and the Olympics. Furthermore, the women’s team will travel business-class, just as their male counterparts do with the same insurance provisions.
“It’s extremely exciting for us,” Team USA Captain Meghan Duggan said. “Obviously when you put your mind to something and you work really hard at something and you don’t stop until you accomplish it, I think that’s an incredible feeling. It’s great for our team, it’s great for women’s hockey and women’s sports, and we’re certainly proud to be a part of it.”
Despite holding out for the potential boycott and missing necessary training camp time, Team USA trained individually on their own time, leaving them with only two practices to come together in the proceeding 48 hours before taking on their first opponent. It was the responsibility of each player to come prepared on their own, rather than having around 10 days to get into shape.
“That’s what was unbelievable, that everybody was on their own training and we came together and it was seamless,” Team USA forward Amanda Kessel said.
To Duggan, winning the gold after a trying time was “awesome.”
“I think it was the best icing on the cake we could have asked for,” Duggan said. “Obviously, it’s been an emotional last three weeks for us, lots of ups and downs with the negotiations and everything. But when we got to the tournament we knew we had one goal in mind, and that was to win a gold medal. So to come together and play as well as we did, and win that gold medal on Friday night [April 7] was pretty special.”The support from not only those around but the nation and world, but directly from the confines of the dressing room, was the factor that bonded Team USA together during an uncertain and arduous quest for fair pay. Through long days on the phone and crafting email messages to USA Hockey, Coyne deemed it an “emotional roller coaster.”
“Thinking about how united and strong our team became throughout the entire process, it gives me chills,” Duggan added. “It’s an incredible group of women, that I really think that the only reason we were able to be successful throughout the negotiations was because of our unity. Carrying over that energy and that momentum into the tournament certainly helped catapult us, I think.”
As a result of their salaries compared to the six-figure checks men in the NHL receive and grueling training schedules, players are unable to work full-time jobs. The next generation of women who lace up the skates and beyond, will now have the opportunity for a more financially-stable future, similar to Kessel.
“It made me think about my career more and if I want to keep playing for many years, that it’s something that I’m able to do now,” Kessel said. “Because realistically before, it was tough to survive.”
Coyne said the new contract was “so much more” than fighting for compensation, which will have a tremendous impact and growth on the game, a change she is looking forward to seeing the most going forward.
Not only emotional hardships, but physical were overcome. For Kessel, winning the gold participating in her first world championships since 2014 after battling nagging post-concussion syndrome was “unbelievable.”
“It’s still hard to believe, it’s something that I didn’t know if it would happen again,” Kessel said. “It was just something that I had in my mind. I wanted to play in the 2018 Olympics ever since we lost in 2014. So I just had my mind set on that.”
The next focus for Team USA is preparing for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, with Olympic team selection camp upcoming in two and a half weeks, and the first order of business for the three women—securing a spot on the roster.
Those such as Kessel and Duggan will not be playing for their respective NWHL teams, the New York Riveters and the Boston Pride during the season. Instead, all Team USA women who play in the NWHL will not be suiting up for a game in the 2017-18 campaign and will be centralized.
The national team will play together starting in September, and move to one location to train together for four months in a residency program before the Olympics begin.
Just as they have proven on the ice, the team is always hungry to improve in any way they can.
“What we’ve been saying all along is just be better,” Duggan said. “Push. Push the limits, and really try to move the needle and fight for what you believe in and what’s right. Women are incredibly powerful. What we just went through as a team just goes to show that if you really stand up for what you believe in, you can make great strides.”