“Crushed and heartbroken.”
Those are the words Hilary Knight used to describe her feelings after losing a second straight Olympic final to Canada in 2014. This one was even worse than the first time around. The U.S. led 2-0 with four minutes left and ended up losing in overtime.
Knight, who is arguably the world’s best female hockey player, considered stepping away from the sport after the heart-wrenching loss in Sochi. Knight spent the next six months looking at her options. She even considered playing in a men’s league in Sweden, but every morning, she woke up with one reoccuring thought: revenge against Canada. Ultimately, Knight returned to play for U.S. women’s hockey. However, three years after Sochi, she found herself making another life-changing decision. One that could mean the end of her career with USA Hockey.
In March, Knight along with her teammates vowed to sit out the world championship unless they were making meaningful progress in their negotiations with USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body. After 14 months of contract negotiations that went nowhere, the team decided enough was enough.
They boycotted the tournament — demanding more support by the league, and a livable wage. The financial stipend the women’s senior team receives covers only the last six months in the four-year cycle leading up to each Winter Olympic Games — that amounts to a total of only $6,000 per player.
Despite the low level of compensation, the U.S. women’s ice hockey team has been one of the most dominant teams in international competition for the last two decades — winning seven world titles.
Knight and her teammates were willing to risk everything for equitable treatment, including the Olympic dream.
“It’s easy to say you’d be up to put your spot on the line and potentially not play for the next generation, but to actually do that and grow through that challenge and embark on that challenge together has made us that much stronger as a group,” Knight said.
A deal was struck just three days before the start of the World Championship games. After tense negotiations, the U.S. women’s team emerged victorious in more ways than one. They went on to play in the World Championship with Knight scoring the winning goal in overtime against Canada in the finals.
Forward Kendall Coyne, who tied for the tournament lead with 12 points and five goals, said the negotiations off the ice provided additional motivation on the ice.
“It was educating people that this wasn’t an equal pay case, this is a case about equitable support,” Coyne said. “I think one of the biggest takeaways from the boycott was that women started to recognize women’s hockey— people were intrigued by our world championship, they were intrigued to see what kind of a team we were because obviously we were strong-will off the ice, but they wanted to see how strong we were on the ice.”
Preparing for PyeongChang
In the months since the boycott, the team has been competing in “The Time is Now” tour as they prepare for PyeongChang. The tour name was inspired by the 20 year stretch U.S. women’s hockey has gone without winning an Olympic gold medal.
After wrapping up “The Time is Now” tour in December, the team, who is ranked No.1 in the world, can take away many positives, but they also have some things to work on before they try to reclaim Olympic gold.
U.S. lost to Canada in their last four meetings of their eight-game, pre-Olympic series that concluded last month. In the lead-up to PyeongChang, they’re each other’s best measuring stick. Since women’s hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998, the two countries have dominated the sport — combining to win all five gold medals and have faced each other in all but one Olympic final. Canada has won four straight Olympic golds and beat the U.S. in the final of the last two Olympic games.
However, the U.S. women clearly understand what it takes to topple Canada. USA has won three consecutive world championships since the 2014 Olympics, beating Canada for gold each time. In those championships, the Americans outscored opponents 88-18.
“The rivalry between U.S. and Canada is one of the most beautiful rivalries in sport,” Knight said. “We tend to bring out the best and the worst in each other at the same time.”
Twenty-three players have been in residency in Wesley Chapel, Fla., since September preparing for PyeongChang. It’s the same residency approach USA Hockey took with teams that competed in Sochi and Vancouver in 2010. However, the team is under a new head coach — Robb Stauber, who is a former NHL goalie. Stauber and associate head coach Brett Strot, who took over the team in January 2017, have aimed to create a more creative, free-flowing style of play.
The all-encompassing Olympic preparation doesn’t occur once every four years, it’s a day-to-day grind throughout the cycle.
“The hardest thing is to understand the sweat equity that goes into that moment that people are seeing,” Knight explained. “Essentially, to be an Olympian, it’s not every four years, it’s every day.
“Every single decision that we make, needs to positively impact our team, so when you have 23 women doing that, it is a strong atmosphere.”
The team gearing up to compete against Canada in the Olympics includes 13 first-time Olympians, including five college players. However, the team is built on a core group of eight veterans who have played more than 100 international games with the team. 10 are holdovers from the 2014 team that brought home silver from Sochi. The team’s veterans include one of the top lines in women’s hockey, made up of Knight, Coyne and Brianna Decker.
“The mental preparation is obviously just as important as the physical if not more important,” Coyne said. “This team, a lot of the players know what it’s like to lose, they know that feeling and it’s putting that feeling aside and looking to the players that haven’t lost before and using their energy that they bring every day.”
When the Olympic roster was announced earlier this month, there were a few surprises. Forward Alex Carpenter, considered one of the best players in the world, and Megan Bozek, a top defender, were not selected for PyeongChang. Both were part of the U.S. team that won silver at the 2014 Sochi Games. However, the goaltender Nicole Hensley has confidence that they have the right players in place.
“We know that the people we have in the locker room is the team to get it done,” Hensley said. “We’ve been working so hard and so well together over the course of this residency period.”
One thing this team doesn’t lack is a sense of unity — which some players feel gives them the extra edge.
“We’re so united in everything we do,” Hensley said. “I think everything we’ve done off the ice with the boycott and standing together — that just brought us even closer than we already were, which is only going to help us on the ice.
Hensley, Alex Rigsby, Maddie Rooney have all proved their capabilities in net. Rigsby brings the most experience of the three goaltenders. Hensley stood tall at the 2017 Worlds and Rooney had an impressive performance in the U.S.’s third straight Four Nations title in November.
An Unfinished Fight
Their boycott is a storyline that will follow this team for years to come, but the women on this team say it’s just the beginning of what they hope to accomplish for gender equality.
“Our stand was a stand together, a stand for women’s sports, a stand for women’s hockey and a stand for hockey in the United States,” Coyne said. “Obviously the fight doesn’t stop there, we can continue to fight and realize that this is impacting the next generation of girls.
“That’s our goal — to make this game better for them.”
Their victory on and off the ice during the 2017 World Championship marked a huge moment for the team and the future of the sport. Teams from other countries sought advice from the U.S. women on how they were able to successfully orchestrate the boycott and negotiate a deal.
“All of us are trying to leave a legacy, and leave the sport better than when we entered and when that happened it was great because we realized we were impacting people’s lives in a positive way, sparking change and hopefully empowering people all over the world,” Knight said.
However, their fight for equal pay and support is part of a longstanding and complicated battle that transcends hockey. A fight that’s nowhere near finished.
The U.S. women’s soccer team, who is the reigning World Cup champion, is faced with the same adversities, although they too, produce a consistently elite level of play.
Women’s team sports, as a whole, have long been underpaid and overlooked in media coverage.
“I usually tell people, you look at your favorite professional athlete that you see day-in and day-out throughout the media that gets the coverage that they deserve — we work just as hard,” Coyne said. “We’re not always in the limelight, we’re not getting paid as much as those athletes, but we work just as hard, if not harder, because we have to make ends meet at the end of the day.”
Many of the players admitted they had to hold multiple jobs or lean on family and friends to continue to play.
The team’s reach for more equitable treatment is warranted regardless of their record. However, when stacked against the men — the women have been a much more impressive team.
They’ve won gold or silver in every World Championship since their first season of play in 1990. That’s a track record of 27 years. In comparison, the men’s team has won bronze in four World Championships in those same years.
The women have also had better showings at the Olympics. The team has medaled in every winter Olympics since their first appearance in 1998, whereas the men’s team has only medaled in two Olympics in that span. In fact, the women have won gold or silver in every major tournament with the exception of the 2006 Winter Olympics, where they captured bronze.
The U.S. women’s hockey team has been a notable team for quite some time, but their lack of exposure isn’t anything new.
Women’s hockey has largely been ignored by the mainstream sports media since its inception. And it’s not the only women’s sport that doesn’t see air time. According to the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, women’s athletics receive only about 4 percent of all sports media coverage.
“Girls can’t dream of what they can’t see,” said goaltender Nicole Hensley. “So, for girls to grow up and believe they can be not just an amazing athlete, but stand out in any field of work, they have to be able to see it.”
This U.S. women’s team is determined to give everyone something to see in PyeongChang and long after.
“How do we become that dinner time conversation that everyone’s talking about — and really, we’re only that conversation every four years so, how do we bridge that gap,” Knight said.
“I think that’s what I’m most excited about — is to see the way women’s hockey is going to unfold, because it’s not only a very exciting time in our sport specifically, but when we’re on the world stage as women in sport, it’s a great time to be a female.”
Regardless of their finish at the Olympics, this team has given America something to be proud of.