NEW YORK—The back of Foley’s New York Pub is cool, with dark wooden floors, dark wooden tables and dark wooden walls covered in sports memorabilia of all kinds. The back right corner is home to dozens of autographed baseballs—many by players whose professional careers never once included a baseball—and Tuesday it was the temporary home of USA Hockey gold medalists Meghan Duggan, Kendall Coyne and Amanda Kessel.
Fresh off a historic contract for women hockey players and a sweep of the IIHF Women’s World Championships, Kessel, Duggan and Coyne sat at different tables in the midtown Manhattan restaurant and sipped cold water between interviews as journalists flushed from the warm spring day outside milling around, waiting their turns.
They took a break from the endless questioning to pop across the street to the Empire State building to soak in the sights and snap a few selfies, a reward-slash-PR opportunity after hours of interviews.
The topic du jour: their wins, both on and off the ice.
Team USA came into Women’s Worlds with only two practices under its belt, thanks to a boycott by players that threatened the team’s participation in the tournament at all. USA Hockey at first reached out to replacement players down the pipeline, all the way from U22 to U16, as well as women in the NCAA and even a few retired prospects who are currently playing in beer or rec leagues, before agreeing to come to the table with the U.S. women’s national team. Captain and forward Meghan Duggan led the charge on several fronts, including contacting all the players that USA Hockey was targeting as replacements.
Duggan grinned when asked if she had the unlimited minutes plan. “Someone said ‘imagine if we were doing this seven or ten years ago, when you had to pay for minutes?’ I was on the phone for," she paused, "...two weeks straight.”
All told, Duggan estimated she talked to around 500 people, from players to parents to coaches; her teammates would offer to bring her lunch while she dialed prospect after prospect, parent after parent so she could maintain her fitness. Players hoped USA Hockey would cave and after two tense weeks, the organization did.
Players won huge concessions from USA Hockey including an annual salary, a committee dedicated to development of the girls’ program, travel accommodations equal to those of the men’s team and more.
“It’s been an incredible last four weeks,” Duggan said. “I can’t say enough how proud I am. Everyone sticking together throughout the negotiation and accomplishing what we did on the ice, and then turning around and focusing and committing to completing that end goal of winning a gold medal on home soil and making history again. My heart is so full from that.”
The victory did not come easily, often weighing on players’ minds.
“I wasn’t worried,” Coyne said, stressing the last word, searching for her next. “I had all the confidence in the world in our group, confidence in the community and the players that said no to them. That helped strengthen our negotiation. I wouldn’t say ‘worried’ is the best word…I’d say confident. But there were good days and bad days.”
Players leveraged public opinion with a series of carefully-selected interviews and a social media campaign aimed at getting their story out. They also owed a lot to timing; coming on the heels of the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s declaration of mistreatment and even a lawsuit levied against U.S. Soccer gave the USA Hockey stars a few basic steps to follow; ones they developed further.
In the days after the USWNT won its contract dispute with USA Hockey, the Ireland National Women’s Soccer Team and University of North Dakota women’s hockey team have followed the same template, calling press conferences, speaking as one on social media and so forth.
“I think [we] showed a lot of people that regardless of sport or sex, stand up for what you believe in,” Duggan said. “Be better. Stand united and you can make things happen. Whether that’s in sport or not, I would love to be a model for that.”
Negotiations between the two sides wrapped up on Wednesday, two days before the U.S.’s first game of the tournament. The game was to be against its main rival, Team Canada. To add to the pressure, it was scheduled to be aired live on the NHL network, one of only two such games in the tournament.
“We had to perform,” Duggan said. “There was no time to stress about the fact that we didn’t have enough pre-camp or practices. We just had to trust in ourselves. When we got to the arenas it was focus time.”
Kessel, a star forward on her first series back with Team USA after suffering severe post-concussion issues after the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, felt the pressure. Her participation in the boycott itself was remarkable due to the amount of time she’d been away from the team; to then decrease the chance of playing at Worlds could have meant saying goodbye to the 2018 Olympics. Although Kessel was relieved it didn’t work out that way—and thrilled at the new contract with increased visibility and a salary she can actually live on—once the boycott was over, she knew she had to prove herself a contributor again.
“I put a lot of pressure and expectations on myself,” Kessel said. “I hadn’t been around on the national team in a long time so I needed to prove myself again. I was really happy with how I played and how the week went.”
The players blew through a five-game tournament, at times winning games 11-0 (Germany), other times eking out a win 3-2 (Canada). They came off the ice with gold hanging from their necks, exhilarated by their multiple wins and the bright future they saw for their sport.
“It was amazing,” Kessel said when asked about the feeling the players had as they played their way through the series. “There were just no doubts in our mind, the entire tournament. Especially after our first period [in our first game]. We came out and we literally played so well. From then on, what we had done, everything was just solidified: the confidence, the trust in each other, how we could just come together without even really being together [before the games began].”
It was a storybook ending for the players: a win off the ice that would stretch forward to impact not just their own team but those of future generations, followed by a series of wins on the ice that would go down in the record books. There could be nothing better.
‘I think it’s a great time to be a female athlete,” Duggan said. “I’m proud to be pushing women’s sports forward and particularly women’s hockey.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing women’s sports continue to grow and grow and grow,” Duggan added. “There’s no ceiling, there’s no limits. Everyone involved should continue to push.”
Before they get to that push, Duggan and her teammates are content to lean back in a dark pub in the middle of midtown Manhattan, sipping through straws as their victories wash over them.