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U.S. women's team taking a stand for its future with potential World Championship boycott

The U.S. women's hockey team wants to earn a living wage, but a potential boycott of the World Championships in two weeks is also about the future of its game.

Forgive them if it feels like it's been a long day. It’s been an even longer year and a half.

Members of the U.S. women’s hockey team spent their Wednesdays answering questions about its possible boycott of the 2017 IIHF Women’s world Championship they announced earlier in the day. The move was the culmination of a 14-month negotiation with USA Hockey over fair wages and support that the players felt had stalled.

“It just came about because USA Hockey didn’t take our group seriously,” says Hilary Knight. “It’s unfortunate because we train every single day to represent our country, and the World Championships, 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.”

That sacrifice means not playing in the tournament starting March 31, in which the U.S. has won at least silver since its inception in 1990, and not defending its 2016 gold medal. The Women’s World Championships aren’t the only place the Americans have starred, medalling in every Olympic Games  since 1998 when women’s hockey was added.

A big portion of the day’s chatter focused on the meager payments—the women receive $1,000 a month for a six-month training period every four years. For many of the players, this means having to hold at least one job while simultaneously training at elite levels.

U.S. women's hockey boycotting world championship to protest unfair pay

“We're not asking for millions of dollars, we're not even asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Monique Lamoureux-Morando, a defender who has skated with the team in 18 tournaments with the senior team since 2009. “I work as a strength and conditioning coach, and then I also run hockey camps with two of our brothers and my twin sister, we have our own LLC that we run. 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.”

For its part, however, USA Hockey responded to the players, stating that its "role is not to employ athletes and we will not do so." The afternoon press release also noted that players could earn up to $85,000 in cash over the Olympic training and performance period, and number that rang hollow to those who pull on the jersey, with Lamoureux-Morando calling the figure “extremely dishonest and very misleading.”

For one, players pointed out, that number is predicated on winning gold at the Games. Second, the money doesn’t come from USA Hockey.

“Of that $85,000, about $20,000 would be from USA Hockey,” Lamoureux-Morando says, “and it still doesn't address that they don't pay us the other 3 1/2 years out of a four-year cycle. That's been the biggest thing, being under contract and getting compensated fairly when we're expected to train full-time when we're not with the National Team.”

“We dedicate our entire lives to this program,” team captain Meghan Duggan says. “USA Hockey dictates where I live, what I eat and how often I sleep and where I report on certain days, my schedule and daily activities, we devote our lives to this program and really what we're asking for is USA Hockey to comply with the law and Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act that requires them to provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women in their program.”

It’s another place where the U.S. National Team members feel that USA Hockey has failed them.

Section §220524 (6) of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which helped to establish the U.S. Olympic Committee, states that a sport’s governing body shall “provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis.”

As part of their press release through law firm Ballard Spahr LLP announcing the potential boycott, it was noted that USA Hockey spends approximately $3.5 million on the boys National Team Development Program and its 60-game season. There is no program for girls, and the women’s team plays just nine games in non-Olympic years. 

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There is also a PR and marketing element the women say is missing from their game, and it’s a habitual issue.

“There are a number of times when we travel to different areas and people don’t even know that the U.S. National Team is there, the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team is there, because nothing was made of it,” Knight says. “I think another example would be our 2014 Olympic jersey unveil. None of the women were invited, but the entire men’s team was. In addition to that, the gold medal counts were supposed to be on the inside collar of the jersey, and they left out the 1998 women’s Olympic gold medals in that as well. There are a lot of little injustices that have happened along the way that add up and have compounded to a bigger factor.”

“Another thing is, our Under-18 team has won five World Championships since it started in ‘08,” says Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, an 18-time member of the roster and Monique’s twin. “And not one of those girls have gotten a World Championship ring. That might be something small, but it's significant when these things are consistent. The boys’ hockey teams, they get rings every time there’s a championship, a couple of months after they win. 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.

“That's just the culture of how it is and it's not right and it's 2017 and it needs to change.”

It’s not the first time the women’s team has aimed for equality. In 2000, the team hired lawyers; it found itself locked out of training facilities. USA Hockey went so far as to say it will ice a team for the World Championships, despite the entire roster pool and U-18 teams being part of the boycott, a notion that Knight shruggs off.

“Good luck,” she says with a laugh. “If I’m Hockey Canada or the Russian Hockey Team or Team Finland or whoever it may be, I’m upset. I’m angry. I want to play the No. 1. And I think that’s what’s really cool about the sport of hockey is these rivalries are so well-respected. You want your opponents to be at their very best. And putting together a team that’s going to be last minute, people who haven’t been training at the same level we’ve been training at, don’t have the same chemistry, don’t have the same skill sets, I say good luck. And it’s going to be a travesty for the hockey fans, for the friends and the families and the opponents who have to play a team that didn’t qualify to be there.”

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Don’t take that to mean the women don’t want to play—it’s just the opposite. Spurring them on is the overwhelming support they received in the hours after announcing their boycott. Former Canadian National Team member Cassie Campbell lent her voice to the fight, as did several current and former members of the U.S. Women’s soccer team, which has experienced its own fight for equality recently.

“The support that we've gotten, not just from Americans,” Duggan says. “It’s been from the U.S., Canada, I’ve talked to some Europeans, it transcends just our team. It’s not just a women's hockey thing, it's a women's sports. It's not just a USA Hockey thing; I think it's an IIHF problem, too. There's a global issue with hockey, with sports, and it needs to change.”

For the U.S. women, it’s been a long day, a longer year, and a reminder of just how far is left to go.

“It’s been a long time and I feel like we’re finally getting everything out in the open,” Knight says. “We’ve dealt with a lot behind closed doors. Now, I think we’re really going to change the way this is done and change the world.”