It's an eventful time for women's hockey. Both of the North American professional women's leagues have had their championships, as has the NCAA. And in culmination, the Women's World Championships will begin at the end of this month in Plymouth, Michigan. But, although the event is hosted by USA Hockey, the U.S. National Women's Team may sit this one out.
Not because the team is inferior, that's for sure. According to ESPN, it's been the jewel of the U.S. Olympic program. Ranked number one in the world, the team has won seven world championships, including the last three, and have medalled at every Olympic games since the women's game was first included in 1998, when they won gold.
Rather, they are essentially striking for better pay and for the respect which is long overdue. They'd rather play than sit on the sidelines, of course, but as two-time Olympic silver-medalist, six-time World Champion gold medalist Hilary Knight says, "[the decision not to play] just came about because USA Hockey didn't take our group seriously...we train every single day to represent our country with already limited programming in terms of games. It's something that we look forward to. It's a huge deal. To have to sacrifice that means a lot."
Why do they feel they need to make this sacrifice? Because for fourteen months, the women of the U.S. National Team have tried to negotiate with USA Hockey's leadership for fair wages and a commitment to supporting girls' and women's programs in the sport, but have nothing to show for it.
Being on the Women's National Team is a financial hardship. Members of the senior women's team receive $1000 per month for six months leading up to the Olympic games - for a grand total of $6000 every fourth year. During the other 3 1/2 years they receive nothing. Many of them remain on their parents' insurance and cellphone plans, and most work second or third jobs, all while training year-round for Olympic and World Championship participation and coping with constant financial insecurity and stress.
Men's National Team players play in the NHL, earning multi-million-dollar salaries, enjoying insurance and medical care provided by the league and teams, and, during the Olympics, perks such as luxury travel and lodging negotiated by the NHL. The women aren't asking for financial rewards even approaching these.
"We're not asking for millions of dollars. We're not even asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Monique Lamoureux-Morando, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and five-time World Championship gold-medalist, "I work as a strength and conditioning coach, and then I also run hockey camps...so I have second and third sources of income that I rely on as well. To be able to train full time and not have to worry about paying bills would certainly be nice."
But even more disturbing than the lack of financial compensation for the women, is the lack of respect for girls and women by USA Hockey in every facet of their operation. Here's a partial list of the slights that have been circulating in the media since the women's team announced their strike:
- For the Olympic jersey unveil in 2014, the Men's National Team was invited, but none of the women were. And while gold medals previously won by U.S. National Teams were listed inside the collars of the jerseys, the women's gold medal win in 1998 was omitted.
- The Women's Under-18 team has won five World Championships since they started competing in 2008, but they have never received a Championship ring, even though the U18 boys "get rings...a couple of months after they win," says Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who, like her sister Monique, is a two-time Olympic silver medalist and five-time World Championship gold-medalist. "If the senior women's team gets a ring - if we do - it's a couple years late. It just goes to show, oh sorry, we forgot about you, here's your ring from two years ago."
- To no avail, the women have repeatedly requested that USA Hockey schedule them to play more than the current nine games per year in Olympic years. Meanwhile, the teenage boys' national development teams play at least 60 games per year and often train in residence in the posh new training center in Plymouth, MI.
- The women consistently endure travel and lodging accommodations that are inferior to the men's and boy's. They remember waking up with spider bites during a residential training camp in Blaine, MN. Players who lived in the area actually brought their own bedding in an attempt at self-defense!
- Teammates have watched as their goaltenders were forced to wear their (unmatching) college gear for tournaments, while the boys U18 goalies were kitted out with entirely new equipment for their events.
- And the final blow: USA Hockey currently spends $3.5 million annually on their development program for boys. They do not have a comparable program for girls.
USA Hockey has refused to promote the women's team, and refused to promote the sport among girls. Unlike the federations that control women's gymnastics, soccer, and figure-skating, over the years USA Hockey has actively discouraged victory tours by the women's team after successful tournaments. (Read U.S. women's soccer pioneer Julie Foudy's thoughts on this here. "There are a number of times we travel to different areas and people don't even know that the U.S. National Team, the U.S. Women's Olympic Team, is there, because nothing was made of it," says Knight.
The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act requires sports' governing bodies - in this case, USA Hockey - to "provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis," as is the case in hockey. USA Hockey has clearly failed in this regard.
The women of the US National Team have finally said, enough is enough. They're going on strike. Not just for themselves, but for the younger women and girls who love the game and want to play - or who might want to, if they only knew it was an option for them. As team captain and two-time Olympic silver medalist, six-time World Championship gold-medalist Meghan Duggan says, "all of us consider it a privilege to put on a Team USA jersey. None of us wanted this day to come but we feel that we owe it to women players who came first in our sport, we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to women in future generations."
The final final blow, in my opinion, is that USA Hockey, when faced with the players' de-facto strike, actually threatened to field a different team for the upcoming World Championship tournament. The players essentially dared them to do it, asserting that the women's and girls' programs were united down to the lower levels, and that none of them would play, even if asked. Captain Meghan Duggan reportedly made around 100 phone calls to women around the country to thank them for their support. "Everyone knows this is the right thing to do," said Duggan.
Information for this post came from:
It's Time for USA Hockey to Wake Up and Support the Women's Team (by Julie Foudy)
Update: Yesterday the Women's National Team and their lawyers had a lengthy meeting with USA Hockey. There is hope that they will reach an agreement and that the team will play in the World Championships, scheduled to begin on March 31. See U.S. Women's Hockey Team Sees 'A Lot of Progress' Toward a Deal, via the New York Times.