Inside the boycott that could save women’s hockey

How the USWNT’s boycott of the world championships manifested, and where it goes from here.

United States players Jocelyne Lamoureux (17), Kelli Stack (16), Anne Schleper (15), Brianna Decker (14) and Julie Chu (13) stand during the national anthems before a Four Nations Cup women’s hockey game against Sweden on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Lake Placid, N.Y. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Groll
United States players Jocelyne Lamoureux (17), Kelli Stack (16), Anne Schleper (15), Brianna Decker (14) and Julie Chu (13) stand during the national anthems before a Four Nations Cup women’s hockey game against Sweden on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Lake Placid, N.Y. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Groll

It’s been just two days since the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team released a statement on Twitter announcing its boycott of the upcoming world championships because of stalled negotiations with USA Hockey over fair wages and equitable support.

In those two days, the women have presented an unrelenting, clear, and cohesive front through social media, interviews, and in public appearances. They did not back down when USA Hockey put out a misleading press release, six hours after the boycott was announced, erroneously insinuating that they had increased the compensation for the players by $79,000. And they did not budge on Thursday, when USA Hockey provided the players with an arbitrary 5:00 p.m. ET deadline on Thursday, saying if the players didn’t end the boycott, the organization would start to reach out to scabs.

They didn’t back down because they steadfastly believe that they deserve more than $6,000 every four years from the sport’s governing body — and that the future of women’s hockey is on shaky ground as long as USA Hockey keeps investing $3.5 million in elite boys’ programs while giving next to nothing to comparable girls’ programs.

By threatening to boycott the second-most prestigious women’s hockey competition in the world, USWNT players are putting everything on the line.

But they’re willing to take that risk because they know this is a story much longer than two years in the making. This is a fight that has been raging behind the scenes for 20 years. It’s a fight not for millions of dollars, but for living wages and a secure future for the sport they love. It’s a fight that’s being waged by women who know that this is bigger than them.

And it’s a fight that could not only save women’s hockey in the short-term, but ultimately provide a foundation for the sport to thrive in the future.

A boycott 17 years in the making

The first thing it’s important to understand is that the USWNT did not want it to come to this.

“This is the worst case scenario,” USWNT veteran Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson told ThinkProgress on Thursday in reference to the boycott. “We were hoping to make strides the last couple of years. The goal is not to make it to worlds and then have this happen; the goal was progress.”

Technically, this negotiation has been going on for 14 months. But the seeds were sown long before that.

Women’s hockey debuted in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, and the USWNT marked the occasion with a gold medal. After that triumph, women’s hockey was riding a surge of popularity, and its players wanted to capitalize on it.

In 2000, after watching their soccer counterparts secure a landmark contract that, in the words of soccer legend Julie Foudy, “changed the course of soccer for girls and women in this country,” the U.S. women’s hockey team hired the soccer team’s lawyers, hoping to secure a similarly impactful outcome.

But in response, USA Hockey locked out the women, refusing to allow them to train until the lawyers went away. And since then, USA Hockey has continued to treat women’s hockey with a dismissive, just-be-grateful-we-allow-you-to-play-at-all attitude.

Brant Feldman — an agent for many USWNT hockey players over the years, including current stars Meghan Duggan, Lamoureux-Davidson, and her twin sister, Monique Lamoureux-Morano — told ThinkProgress that he was part of negotiations with USA Hockey prior to the 2006, 2010, and 2014 Olympic cycles. He said USA Hockey never showed any willingness to budge on the contract that paid its players $6,000 over a four-year period.

According to Feldman, the organization told him during negotiations in 2009 that “women’s hockey is a money loser” for USA Hockey. That was the end of the conversation.

So, ahead of the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Feldman knew the team needed to change its approach. He got the contact information for John B. Langel and Dee Spagnuolo of the law firm Ballard Spahr from U.S. women’s soccer star Heather O’Reilly, who trains with Duggan. In December 2015, Ballard Spahr — which represented the U.S. women’s soccer team from 1998 to 2014 — agreed to represent the women’s hockey team pro bono, and negotiations between the USWNT and USA Hockey began in earnest.

For the past 14 months, all of the players have been actively involved in the process, listening in on the phone calls, attending meetings in person, and keeping the whole crew updated with endless text message group chats and e-mails. But in 14 months of negotiations, USA Hockey barely budged.

This week, with a world championship on home soil coming up a few weeks away, the National Women’s Hockey League playoffs and the women’s hockey NCAA Final Four both happening this weekend, the USWNT knew that it would never have any more leverage than it does right this second.

“There’s not one person that listens to that and says that it’s fair.”

The only thing the team had to do was to make sure everyone was on board; thankfully, due to all of the work USWNT leaders had put in over the last 14 months educating not only their teammates, but also every junior and college player who had ever been invited to a USA Hockey camp — over 100 women and girls in total — unity wasn’t hard to come by.

“Once everyone understands what we do day-to-day, and understands what they provide the men and the boys vs. what they’ll provide us, they understand,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “There’s not one person that listens to that and says that it’s fair.”

Understanding the demands

Lamoureux-Davidson is 27 years old. She has won two silver Olympic medals with the USWNT and five gold medals from world championships. She is, by any measure, one of the best hockey players in the world. And yet her day does not look like you would imagine an elite athlete’s to look like.

Like more than half of her teammates, she has a full-time day job, working as a strength and conditioning coach and a trainer for the University of North Dakota hockey team. She wakes up at 4:20 a.m. every morning and gets a couple of hours of work done before meeting her sister to train in the pool and on the ice. After they skate, around 10:00, she starts training the college hockey team. When they’re warmed up and on the ice she tries to grab lunch, then in the afternoon she either works with an individual client or trains the student-athletes. She doesn’t get a chance to wind down until she gets home around 4:00 p.m. She is in bed by 8:30 each night.

“That’s not ideal, being an elite athlete and working 12 hours,” she said. “In fact, the more I talk about it in these interviews, the crazier it seems.”

Lamoureux-Davidson knows she’s one of the lucky ones, too. She has an equipment sponsor that helps her out, and a husband to contribute to household expenses. Many of her teammates still have to live at home with their parents, or work two or three extra jobs. Other teammates have had to stop elite hockey because they just simply couldn’t balance paying the bills and the training it requires. That is not a decision that the best athletes in the world should be forced to make in the prime of their careers.

The USWNT players aren’t asking for equal pay with their male counterparts in the same way that the women’s soccer team is — they know that’s still a long way off. But they are asking for a contract that will allow them to build to the point where that might be a possibility.

They’re asking for living wages throughout the four years of each Olympic cycle. USA Hockey has offered in negotiations to increase compensation during the six months before each Olympics, but not over the remaining three-and-a-half years, and USWNT players say that is unacceptable. After all, USA Hockey expects them to show up to a camp or a tournament approximately every six weeks, year-round, and they expect them to show up in tip-top shape each time.

“We should be treated like professionals. Their press release said they support girls and women’s hockey, that hockey is for everyone, but that’s not the way they act.”

But their asks goes beyond sustainable living. They want proof — through support for their current team and investment in future teams — that USA Hockey cares about the future of women’s hockey.

They want to travel the way the men’s team does (which is, well, not in coach). They want USA Hockey to pay for them to bring a guest to big tournaments like they do for the men. They want more equipment — right now, many players have to ration three $250 sticks and one pair of $600 skates throughout the year. When college players are selected as goalies for the USWNT, they often aren’t even given Team USA gear at first — they have to play tournaments with their college gear. Once again, these are the best hockey players in the world who have to do this.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “We should be treated like professionals. Their press release said they support girls and women’s hockey, that hockey is for everyone, but that’s not the way they act.”

USA Hockey is not a fledgling organization. It has a revenue of nearly $43 million per year, most of which comes not from ticket sales or television deals, but from membership dues — a number that would naturally increase if more women are drawn in to the sport. The executive director, Dave Ogrean, made over $440,000 in 2014.

So the organization’s decisions aren’t just a violation of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which requires national governing sports bodies to “provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis.” They also seem to be bad business.

“Growth in women’s hockey is good for USA Hockey,” Lamoureux-Davidson said.

The waiting game

Over the past couple of days, the USWNT has received support from everyone from their women’s soccer counterparts to Billie Jean King, U.S. senators, and male hockey players.

And yet, while USA Hockey finally said on Thursday night that it would return to the negotiation table, any deal that would satisfy the team enough to spur them to report to camp next week and skate at the world championships still seems a long way off.

The USWNT players are still hoping for the best; they want to take the ice in Plymouth. After all, that represents the one reward they are currently guaranteed to receive for all of their hard work — a chance to represent their country on the biggest stages of the sport; a chance to compete against the best.

But they’re no longer willing just to take whatever they can get. They’re demanding what they know they’re worth.

This boycott might cost some players the chance to live out their dream, particularly the younger players that USA Hockey would turn to without its stars. But right now, with even the college and U-18 players on board, USA Hockey is going to have to dig pretty deep into its roster to find anyone willing to cross the proverbial picket line.

“We feel bad that there’s a couple of girls who might miss out on their world championship,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “But what we’re doing is for the future of the program, and I think that perspective makes it a lot easier.”

In the past two days, this story has garnered headlines everywhere from CNN to Teen Vogue. In a world where women’s marches are drawing millions, and in a month dedicated to women internationally, this fight is about much more than just hockey.

“You have to step outside yourself and realize that this is bigger than any one tournament.”

“I think in this climate, I think America would love to see something positive come out of this” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “This fight resonates well beyond women’s hockey; it resonates with women’s sports, and even beyond. This is a global fight too, it’s not just here in the U.S.”

There might not be a U.S. team to take the ice at the world championships in a couple of weeks, which would be devastating. But a decade from now, girls who dream of winning an Olympic gold on the ice, and college graduates who are have earned the right to be on the USWNT and who are able to make hockey their full-time job, might look back at this boycott as the most important movement in women’s hockey. And because of that, the risk is worth taking.

“You have to step outside yourself and realize that this is bigger than any one tournament,” Lamoureux-Davidson said.