It’s impossible to quantify exactly how much Team USA’s incredible solidarity last season led to its first gold medal in 20 years, but any group that can back up its demands with that kind of performance deserves every one of the kudos thrown its way.
As the Americans celebrated the end of a stunning run of bad fortune in the Olympics with their 3-2 shootout win over Canada in the gold medal game, it might have been easy to forget that less than a year ago, the U.S. women’s program was in disarray. The team threatened en masse to boycott the World Women’s Championship over the enormous inequity between not only the men’s and women’s teams in their own country, but a huge gap between the benefits compared to their rivals from Canada.
And this wasn’t just about money. What these remarkably brave women wanted was equality. While the millionaires who play in The League That Shall Not Be Named™ were trashing their rooms like a bunch of drunken frat boys in Nagano, the women’s team was busy winning the first-ever gold medal in women’s hockey, an accomplishment that was forgotten when USA Hockey put out its original men’s’ and women’s’ sweaters for the 2014 Games. Those sweaters, both the men’s’ and the women’s’, paid homage to the male winners in 1960 and 1980, while completely ignoring the women’s accomplishment in 1998. The marketing opportunities were not there. The money was abysmal. And a program that had won seven gold medals and 10 silvers in 17 World Championships to that point was always swimming upstream, while a men’s program that hasn’t won a true World Championship since 1933 or a silver medal since 1956 was treated like kings.
So if you’re an American girl who has aspirations of playing hockey for your country someday and Meghan Duggan or Hilary Knight or Amanda Kessel or one of the Lamoureux twins makes an appearance at your school or your local rink with her gold medal – because you just know they’re going to do that kind of thing – you might want to take a moment to thank them for the legacy they left on and off the ice.
When you are putting a team together for an intense event such as the Olympics, building cohesion is paramount. That’s a big reason why both USA and Canada spend the better part of the year before the Olympics keeping their best women players together. And it would be difficult to imagine that the stance these players took, and the fact that they were successful in staring down their own governing body to get the much-deserved equity they sought, did not factor in as a major contribution to the esprit de corps this team displayed.
And what might be overlooked in all of this is that their stance not only forced these women to take a stance that might affect their careers, the fact they were successful in getting what they were seeking put that much more pressure on them to win a gold medal. If you’re willing to go to the mat against your employer for a better lot in life, you want to back it up by proving that your stance was right. At the very least, it gave the players one fewer thing to worry about as they made their preparations for Pyeongchang. And the more a team can eliminate distractions and focus on the task at hand, the better chance it has at winning. And when a team can go about its daily business without feeling resentful and bitter or thinking it is being taken advantage of, well, that takes an enormous amount of tension out of the room.
The Americans have won each of the past four World Championships and eight of the past 10 over Canada. You could certainly argue that the Americans were the better team in both the round-robin game and the gold medal game, so in many ways it was a just result. For a group of players who had been on the tearful end of the equation in previous Olympics, it was a case of good things happening to good people.
There will be many, many more clashes between these two superpowers, since the improvement of the other countries in women’s hockey is coming in such tiny increments while the rich – in this case Canada and USA – continue to get richer. The day will come when a team such as Finland or Sweden will play one of these teams and it won’t take a monumental upset to achieve victory. For the most part, that day is not here yet and, unfortunately for the game on the global level, it certainly doesn’t look as though it’s going to emerge anytime soon. This will continue to be a very long and arduous process.
But this is a day for the Americans to celebrate. Many of these players had already cemented their legacies with their stance a year ago. It’s only fitting that they will now be remembered for more than their bravery and principles. And perhaps now they’ll finally get the treatment and recognition they deserve.
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