In many ways, there has never been a better time to be a member of the U.S. women’s national hockey team.
Two years after the players threatened to boycott the world championship tournament over pay equity, USA Hockey, the national governing body, is paying them more than ever, about $71,000 each annually.
On the ice, the American women have continued to exceed the achievements of the men’s national team and won their second Olympic gold medal in a stirring final against Canada.
Members of the team have skated in the skills competition at National Hockey League All-Star weekend and served as analysts for NHL television broadcasts. Participation in the sport among girls and women is skyrocketing.
January 25 2019:
The day you are told that "you skate like a girl" became the biggest compliment a hockey player can get because Olympic Gold Medalist for the USA Women’s Hockey team Kendall Coyne absolutely crushed the Fastest Skater competition at the NHL All-Star skills. pic.twitter.com/MvBIo6jwMs
— Tony Graell (@TonyGraell) January 26, 2019
But halfway through the labor contract with USA Hockey signed in March 2017, as the national team begins its pursuit of a fifth straight world championship in Finland this week, its players wonder whether the future of their sport is as bright as the present. Those concerns grew after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, one of two professional leagues in North America, announced Sunday it would fold in May.
Although the American players negotiated gains in salary and travel and medical benefits two years ago, the “groundbreaking support” for girls and women’s hockey promised by USA Hockey in the contract has been slow to develop. The Women’s High-Performance Advisory Group created in the deal has been largely invisible. Minimal promotion for the team and a lack of organizational diversity in USA Hockey also raise concerns from players and female alumni that little has changed.
“People are drooling for women’s hockey,” forward Kendall Coyne Schofield said in an interview late last year. “But the product we deliver isn’t being shown. There’s been a lot of lost opportunities, a lot of opportunities that haven’t been capitalized on.”
Those opportunities included high-profile media appearances before the Olympics like a national magazine feature, a major network documentary series and other live television offers, which USA Hockey declined, according to three people with direct knowledge of those projects. After the Olympics, some players were unaware that they were eligible for four-figure bonuses offered by Hershey’s for winning the gold medal.
USA Hockey’s executive director Pat Kelleher was not made available for an interview to discuss the women’s national team.
After the Olympics, the women’s team embarked on a weeklong national media tour, but players were frustrated that there were no plans for a post-Olympic exhibition tour. In an interview late last year, forward Hilary Knight lamented that the team disappeared when its popularity was at its highest.
Because of the talent disparity between North American teams and the rest of the world, there are not many viable opponents for the Americans, and Canada’s cooperation is necessary. Last month, the two nations finally staged a three-game exhibition series, with one game in the United States. An announced crowd of 9,048 fans attended the game in Detroit, which was also broadcast live on NHL Network.
But other avenues to increase exposure do not need Canadian co-signs, like merchandising. Nike, the official apparel supplier of USA Hockey and a company that champions equality in advertisements, does not sell jerseys of American women’s players or products specifically featuring female players. Neither does USA Hockey’s online store.
Coyne Schofield, one of the players who has been featured by the NHL since the Olympics, is inundated with inquiries from parents about where they can buy apparel with her name. She has memorized a response with detailed instructions on how to purchase customized men’s items, even down to the six-week shipping time frame. That’s how Knight obtained replicas of her jersey for her family.
“That alone is so degrading,” said Coyne Schofield. “There’s no reason why anybody shouldn’t be able to go on usahockey.com and buy a Hilary Knight jersey, my jersey. Right now women’s hockey is not accessible to consumers. It needs to be accessible in every fashion.”
Nike, which recently unveiled soccer kits for the 2019 Women’s World Cup that for the first time were specifically designed for women’s teams, did not respond to requests to discuss its women’s hockey apparel.
As with the jerseys, the American players handle much of their promotion themselves. Despite repeated requests from athletes, USA Hockey has not created social medial channels dedicated solely to the women’s team, like U.S. Soccer has. Olympians like Coyne Schofield and Monique Lamoureux-Morando worked as analysts on NHL Network and NBCSN. The players have lobbied the NHL for more support for women’s hockey, particularly for its professionals, whose salaries range from $2,000 to $10,000.
The Women’s High Performance Advisory Group was supposed to be a conduit of influence for the players. Over the past two years, USA Hockey declined repeated requests to discuss the group.
The New York Times confirmed the participation of at least five women in the group, including hockey executives and members of the 2018 Olympic team. Multiple people with knowledge of meetings said the group was stagnant in its first year and only recently began having meaningful conversations. One player said she was unsure if she was allowed to talk about the group.
In March, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced the formation of its own Female Hockey Advisory Committee with the goal “to accelerate the growth” of hockey for girls and women in North America, and named 11 members, all women. They include Michele Amidon, a former director for women’s hockey at USA Hockey, and several former members of the U.S. national women’s team.
But women’s representation remains lacking in USA Hockey’s leadership.
Of all U.S. Winter Olympic sports, USA Hockey has the lowest percentage of women on its board of directors (17.58 percent) and is the worst at reaching its benchmark for women hires, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Olympic Committee.
There are full-fledged councils within USA Hockey devoted to youth, adult and junior hockey, but none specifically for girls and women. Decisions related to girls’ and women’s hockey are administered by the youth council, which is led by a man and where only four of the 25 members are women. There are also no women on the organization’s marketing council.
Proponents for U.S. women’s hockey have long struggled to have their voices heard. Lynn Olson became the first woman hired to work for USA Hockey’s girls and women’s section back in 1988, but it served only as an advisory panel to the board of directors.
During her tenure, which ended in 2013, Olson described USA Hockey as being run like a “good old boys club.” She was sometimes denied funds to hold meetings for her panel, so she put up her own money. Olson also said she tried to make the section a full-fledged council, which would provide more influence, writing up legislation that never passed.
Olson noted that more women wanted to be involved in USA Hockey, but had a hard time getting elected to positions of power. “You need to change the minds of males in the room,” she said.
Veteran leaders of the hockey team expressed faith that the culture could change under Kelleher, who was named USA Hockey’s executive director in April 2017. In recent months, he met with players in Maine, Chicago and Michigan.
“We hadn’t had that in the past,” Coyne Schofield said. “For me, it was a huge first impression.”
The U.S. national women’s soccer team, an inspiration for the hockey team in its fight for equality, was so frustrated with the lack of progress on a number of issues that the players recently filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against its governing body, U.S. Soccer.
Knight said she did not yet foresee a repeat of the fraught 2017 negotiations that led to the boycott threat and a fracture between USA Hockey and the women’s team that is still being repaired.
USA Hockey seems to be aware of the need for more gender balance. Don Gould, chairman of the girls and women’s section, said at the federation’s annual meeting that the organizational culture must evolve to advance opportunities for girls and women, socially and in sport.
“This objective cannot be realized without first creating an environment that values them equally at every level,” Gould said. “Whether we work on the bench or in the boardroom, this is our first obligation.”
But nine of 10 members of USA Hockey’s committee that nominates candidates to become officers of the organization are men.
“There are great people at the top that care about women’s hockey, but you absolutely don’t have the numbers to have a real change,” said Angela Ruggiero, one of the most accomplished U.S. hockey players and a former member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission. “We have an extremely long way to go.”