I remember the day I met Cammi Granato, a former star on the U.S. women's hockey team. We were at a Women's Sports Foundation dinner in 1996, and she came over to introduce herself. She had watched the U.S. women's soccer team win gold at the Atlanta Olympics and was hopeful the U.S. women's hockey team could do the same. She was shy and humble even though she was already considered one of the best female hockey players ever to take the ice.
Two years later, I remember cheering on Granato and the U.S. team as they won gold at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. It was the first time women's hockey had been in the Olympics, and the U.S. women had captured the ultimate prize. There was palpable excitement for what was next with the women's hockey program, and there were young girls all over the United States excited by the possibility of scoring goals like Cammi or Karyn Bye, and defending like Angela Ruggiero.
But instead of capitalizing on this crowning moment and mobilizing girls all over the country to lace up their skates, USA Hockey did what it does best: It ignored the women. Even when Granato and her teammates pushed USA Hockey to support more girls playing ice hockey in this country -- the very thing a national governing body is charged with doing -- it resisted. It pushed back. It said, Be happy with what you have and stop complaining.
I know this because my U.S. teammates and I were fighting the same fight with U.S. Soccer at the time. And both the U.S. soccer team and the U.S. hockey team were in constant communication about how to enact positive change within our federations.
Our U.S. soccer team would go on to sign a contract in 2000 that, I would argue, changed the course of soccer for girls and women in this country. It forced the U.S. Soccer Federation to start paying attention to the women's team and the women's side of the program. It had to start treating the U.S. women's team more equitably, which meant promoting our games better, spending more money on marketing the women's team and, equally as important, spending more money on developing and supporting young girls. Thanks to the contract, U.S. Soccer had no choice but to pay attention. We could no longer, legally, be an afterthought.
At the time, we were sharing our stories of success with Granato and the U.S. hockey women in hopes they could also advance the sport for the next generation. But it was clear from the beginning that USA Hockey was not pleased with its more vocal women's players.
In 2000, when the hockey players told USA Hockey that they had hired the lawyers who represented the U.S. soccer players, USA Hockey locked out the players and prevented them from training unless they told the lawyers to stand down. Many players and hockey insiders also contend that USA Hockey and head coach Ben Smith cut Granato from the team in 2005 for continuing to question their support. They threatened to do the same to other players who spoke up about the inequity in USA Hockey's funding, and sadly, it worked.
That is, until now.
These U.S. women's hockey players have had enough.
The team announced Wednesday that it will not participate in the world championship beginning March 31 in Plymouth, Michigan, unless progress is made on its current negotiation with USA Hockey, citing more than a year of stalled discussions.
"We train all day, every day, all year, to represent our country at the Olympics and the world championships," says U.S. captain Meghan Duggan. "We train for these moments. We don't want to miss them. And it is hard to believe that in 2017 we still have to fight for equitable treatment and support as women. But we do. We think about players that have come before us, like Cammi Granato, who fought for us and were unsuccessful. We know we have no choice but to speak up about the unfair treatment. That is the only way things will change."
Even though it is USA Hockey's legal obligation as the governing body to develop opportunities for both boys and girls, according to the U.S women it spends more than $3.5 million per year to support boys participating in its national team development program. That $3.5 million goes to support a schedule of more than 60 games a season for teenage boys, with no comparable development opportunities for girls.
Yet, USA Hockey's website claims: USA Hockey's primary emphasis is on the support and development of grassroots hockey programs.
As we saw with Granato's group almost two decades ago, this is not a new battle. The women's team has repeatedly asked for more programming at all levels for girls. The women's team has also tried for many years to get USA Hockey to increase support and awareness for women's hockey, in general. The requests are met with blank stares. And with only nine games scheduled in non-Olympic years, garnering attention in the media is challenging.
"For years we have asked for more games on our schedule. And more games in bigger NHL venues, as we know we can sell them out," Duggan says. "USA Hockey's response was, 'Why don't you play in smaller venues so you can pack them. What if people don't come to the bigger venue?' We would say to them, 'And what if they DO?'"
(For the record, this was the same argument -- almost to the word -- that U.S. Soccer made to us back in the '90s. And guess what? The fans came.)
To give you another picture of how USA Hockey operates, I take you back to the uniform-unveiling news conference before the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. This was the unveiling of the Nike uniform to be worn by both the men and the women in Sochi. Although the women's team was touted as a gold-medal contender, USA Hockey invited only the men's team to the uniform unveiling, and according to the women, they had to learn about it by watching it on TV.
But that wasn't the only snub. The inside of the Olympic jersey listed all of the years in which the United States won Olympic gold. Not listed on the inside of that jersey was 1998 -- the year the women won gold in Nagano. Duggan recalls the emotion of that moment. "It was heartbreaking, honestly. We put our lives into this team. But to USA Hockey, we were not even thought of. We were so disappointed. It was a slap in the face and another sign of disrespect."
The crazy thing to me is the fact that these women have oozed marketability. They are some of the smartest, kindest, hardest-working women I have ever met, and yet, half of the current team work second and third jobs just so they can continue to afford to play on the national team and represent their country.
"Out of a four-year cycle, USA Hockey pays for only six months out of an entire four years. They pay us $1,000 per month in those six months. So, for the other 42 months we don't get paid at all by USA Hockey," says Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, a two-time Olympic silver medalist. "It is a full-time job, and to not get paid is a financial burden and stress on the players, obviously. That is the conversation my husband and I are having right now. Is playing going to be more stress than we can handle? Sadly it becomes a decision between chasing your dream or giving in to the reality of the financial burden."
These women are also some of the most patriotic I have ever met. They bleed red, white and blue. And, oh yeah, they are damn good. The U.S. women's hockey team has medaled in every Olympics since its inclusion in 1998. It has been remarkably successful at the world championships as well, appearing in all 17 gold-medal games and winning seven times. It is the reigning world champion, but most of America wouldn't know it. Imagine, just imagine, what it could be and whom it could inspire with the proper support.
The utterly incomprehensible thing is how this behavior and clear discrimination by USA Hockey has been allowed to carry on for so long. As we learned with soccer, there comes a time when the fight is no longer about what you endure but more about what the next generation should not have to endure.
"When I think about the women who paved the way for our team -- and when I see girls at rinks around the country who are dedicated to pursuing big dreams and look to us to lead by example -- it's well overdue for us to speak up about unfair treatment, even if it means sacrificing an opportunity to represent our country," said assistant captain Monique Lamoureux-Morando in a news release Wednesday. "We owe the next generation more than that. We owe it to ourselves to stand up for what is right."
And USA Hockey owes it to these women and the next generation to finally wake up.