U.S. women continue to prove athletes will no longer just shut up and play

The U.S. Women’s National Team fought back against USA Hockey, proving once again that athletes can stand up to those in power to create change.

This is a conversation for another day, but it is definitely going to take some time for the stink to come off USA Hockey over the treatment of the players in the national women’s program. Yes, a deal was reached that will see the best women represent their country in the upcoming World Women’s Championship starting this weekend, but there will have to be a thorough deconstruction at some point over how this matter was taken to the limit and how badly those who run USA Hockey have looked in the process.

The deal itself is a four-year pact between USA Hockey and the women’s national team which could collectively be worth $3.7 million-$4 million with each athlete taking home a guaranteed $2,000 per month with the opportunity to earn up to $71,000 in non-Olympic years. This season, the women’s national team could collectively earn anywhere from $850,000-$950,000 depending on their performance the rest of the year, including at the upcoming World Championship in Plymouth, Mich., and $950,000-$1 million in the years that follow. In Olympic years, there will also be the potential for the women’s team to earn an additional bonus for medalling — $37,500 for gold, $22,5000 for silver and $15,000 for bronze. However, those bonuses would be awarded by the U.S. Olympic Committee, not USA Hockey.

In addition, the women will receive the same travel and accommodation amenities as their male counterparts, which will include business class travel. Per a release from USA Hockey, the agreement will also see the creation of a Women’s High Performance Advisory Group. The group, which will include current and former national team players, will “meet regularly to assist USA Hockey in efforts to advance girls’ and women’s hockey in all areas, including programming, marketing, promotion and fundraising.”

But there’s no way it should have ever come to this, considering that this is a cauldron that has been brewing for years now over how equitably to treat a team that has been far more successful on the Olympic and world stages than its male counterparts have been. The fact that USA Hockey had to be shamed into this agreement after reaching out to replacement players is indeed a source of embarrassment and alarm for the body that governs hockey in the United States.

However, there is some good to come from this embarrassing imbroglio. And it is a further affirmation that the athletes who are providing the product are once again bravely standing up for what they believe in. They are no longer willing to blindly provide a product for fans’ entertainment and feel privileged to be exploited in doing so. And that’s a good thing. Remember when Eric Lindros was a petulant child who wanted everything his own way and wasn’t willing to play nice in the sandbox with the powerful people who controlled the game? Yeah, well he’s in the Hall of Fame these days.

The worm has most certainly turned, and you can see it in all facets of the game. The most obvious is this one, where some of the best women hockey players in the world grew tired of being treated like second-class citizens, both in terms of finances and their place in the hockey pecking order. And they bravely put their careers on the line for what they believed in, risking the prospect of being blacklisted for spurning and embarrassing their country on the eve of hosting a major world event. Good for them. Perhaps now bodies such as USA Hockey will begin to take more seriously the concerns of their athletes.

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We also see it in the fact that a small group of former junior hockey players could be on the cusp of changing the way major junior hockey is run in Canada. It’s still to be determined whether the lawsuit requesting minimum wage will turn into a class-action lawsuit, but the litigants have already forced the power brokers in junior hockey to peel the curtain back on their finances far more than they’ve ever been comfortable doing. Even if junior hockey is ultimately successful in continuing to pay its players – they refuse to call them employees for obvious reasons – poverty wages, there is now the realization that when it comes to junior hockey, the system is a lot more Walmart than it is Mom and Pop.

Last year, the junior players in Flint stood up for what they thought was right and the Ontario League, to its credit, listened and took steps to improve the situation for the players. There’s no way that happens unless those courageous teenagers stood up to their oppressors. And the best ones in junior hockey, led by Lindros two decades ago, are no longer content to allow men who own teams dictate where they’re going to play as teenagers. The most talented ones leverage the options that are open to them to ensure they go to an organization of their choosing.

So the NHL has been warned. As it continues to hold out for a better deal to go to the Olympics, it continues to jeopardize its participation and poison the waters. The owners have no interest in going, but that particular stance is at cross-purposes with the players, many of whom have been indoctrinated into a culture that includes Olympic hockey participation. So if the NHL ultimately decides to stay home in 2018 instead of going to Pyeongchang, it should not be surprised if some of its players go rogue and decide to represent their countries anyway.

We’re seeing this all over. There is no amateur athletic culture quite like the American one where institutional athletics supply entertainment to the masses for profit. But the student-athletes who are providing the content are beginning to see that even with a free education, they’re getting the raw end of the deal. It’s the same way junior hockey players are looking around at all the people in the stands wearing the home team’s colors and wondering where all that money ends up.

And a group of courageous American women have now taken that a step further and made the biggest gains for a group of hockey players since the NHL Players’ Association was established. Those who occupy the places of power in hockey have been warned. The rank-and-file will no longer just shut up and play.

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