American women have taken on a fight for future generations

In boycotting the World Championship in Michigan, two groups of players have put their own fortunes on the line in the hopes of securing a better tomorrow

Tick. Tick. Tick. The deadline is looming. With the World Championship just days away, negotiations between USA Hockey and its women’s team continue. The women we ordinarily expect to play for the team – household hockey names such as Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel and Brianna Decker – have been boycotting the tournament for weeks now in an attempt to get, in their minds, more equitable treatment from a national body that has long favored the boys and men.

A lot of good articles have been written about the controversy and the reaction from the sporting world has been pretty universal. The USA women have found allies in the NHLPA and other major men’s sports unions, NHL coaches such as Philadelphia’s Dave Hakstol and there has even been talk that NHL players are considering their own boycott of the men’s worlds if things don’t get resolved for the women.

But I can’t get my mind off the true heroes in all of this. There’s actually two groups of heroes for me, in fact.

The first group is the current pool of women who are spearheading the boycott. As we are all well aware, the financial ceiling for a women’s hockey player is much lower than that of an elite man. It’s awesome that the NWHL has been paying women to play pro hockey for the past year and a half, but we all know that those salaries – modest to begin with – were slashed this season in order to keep the league afloat.

And because the rival CWHL in Canada still hosts many elite players itself, there really is no definitive club team championship for the women’s game right now. The Isobel Cup and the Clarkson Cup are both great, but there is only one Stanley Cup; not two. So the World Championship takes on greater significance on the women’s side – it’s truly best-on-best and almost always comes down to Canada and the USA for gold. The same goes for the Olympics, every four years.

Which is a long way of saying that I don’t believe the boycott was something these athletes rushed into. The World Championship is so important, that the NWHL shortened its season this year so as to not interfere with the worlds (similarly, Canada’s Olympic players have taken off entire CWHL seasons to prepare for that tournament). This is the pinnacle of the women’s season in non-Olympic years, which these athletes are well aware of. And, of course, this year’s tournament is being held in Plymouth, Michigan. Not only is it on American soil, but Plymouth is home to the USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program – which has produced the likes of Patrick Kane, Ryan Suter and Auston Matthews. There is no women’s NTDP, by the way.

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So the Knights, Kessels and Deckers of the world have taken a stand. They did so after what has been characterized as about 15 months of negotiations behind the scene, but the public boycott has gone very well. It’s fascinating to think of how important the advent of social media has been in this fight, since past pioneers of women’s hockey certainly didn’t have anything like Twitter to use in their battles for equality. The USA women have thrust their swords into the turf so that those who come after them may have an easier path. It sounds absurd, but perhaps one day the best women’s hockey players in the world won’t have to commute for hours or hold down second jobs as they train to win gold for their country.

The second group of heroes here are the young women who were asked to be replacements, or “scabs” in union parlance. As has been widely reported, USA Hockey has been on the search for other players to fill in at the worlds, should negotiations with the current national team fall through entirely. To me, there’s an incredible heroism in NCAA and high school players turning down this offer. Players such as Natalie Snodgrass, Cayla Barnes, Amy Menke and Mak Langei are just a few of those names and they had the most to lose in their decision.

Can you imagine what it’s like to play at an elite level, working towards a dream of winning gold for your country…and then be put in a position where you have to turn it down, because the morality of the situation would be wrong for you? What if the opportunity never comes again? What if USA Hockey holds a grudge?

These young women no doubt had to weigh those issues before they turned down the replacement job and for them to stand up for what they believe is right is inspiring.

The word “hero” gets way overused in sports, because we’re all so passionate. Block a shot in the playoffs? Hero. Score in triple-overtime to win the championship? Hero. Stop 59 saves for the victory? Hero.

Well, no. All of that is impressive, but it’s your job and you’re doing it for yourself and your immediate teammates. The women involved in this boycott are doing it for not only themselves, but all the future players whom they want to see succeed under equitable circumstances. They realize that the fight is bigger than this one tournament. They know that personal sacrifice may be necessary for the benefit of others. That, to me, is heroism.