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USA women’s hockey had their biggest win before the puck even dropped in Pyeongchang

It all started with a boycott.

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 22, 2018: American players pose as they celebrate winning the women's final ice hockey match against Canada as part of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Hockey Centre with a 2-3 score. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images)
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 22, 2018: American players pose as they celebrate winning the women's final ice hockey match against Canada as part of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Hockey Centre with a 2-3 score. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images)

On Thursday in Pyeongchang, the U.S. women’s national hockey team earned a victory 20 years in the making when it beat Canada in an overtime shootout to win the Olympic gold medal.

The physical, electric, instant-classic of a game was capped off by a jaw-dropping shootout goal by Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who employed a move that she dubbed “Oops, I Did It Again” to sneak the puck past Canada’s goalie. It was another epic installment of one of the best rivalries in sports, and a monumental victory for a U.S. team that has defeated Canada to capture seven of the last 10 world championships, but hasn’t topped its northern neighbors in the Olympics since 1998.

But as impressive as Team USA was in South Korea, and as important as their victory is sure to be for the future of women’s hockey in the United States, it still pales in comparison to the magnitude of the victory the team achieved last year, when it secured a new contract with USA Hockey that guaranteed the players a living wage, equal accommodations to the men, and increased funding dedicated to marketing and growing the sport stateside.

That win didn’t just set up this triumph in Pyeongchang, it ensured that women’s hockey in the United States will have an opportunity to thrive for decades to come. And these players risked everything in order to make it happen, by boycotting the 2017 world championships until a deal was reached.

At the time, the USWNT players were only earning $6,000 every four years from USA Hockey — $1,000 per month during the six months leading up to the Olympics, and nothing during the rest of the four-year Olympic cycle, despite the fact that the national team members are expected to regularly participate in training camps and compete in tournaments even in non-Olympic years. They were travelling in coach for competitions, staying in subpar hotels, and generally dealing with accommodations that were far inferior to that of the men’s national team. They were rationing hockey sticks, helmets, pads, and skates because USA Hockey provided them with limited equipment, and players grew frustrated with the fact that while USA Hockey was investing millions into elite boys’ programs, they spent next-to-nothing in comparable girls’ hockey programs.

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They had been trying to renegotiate their contract with USA Hockey since 2000, but Brant Feldman — an agent for USWNT stars Meghan Duggan, Lamoureux-Davidson, and her twin sister, Monique Lamoureux-Morano — told ThinkProgress last year that USA Hockey was never willing to budge in negotiations, always ending discussions by simply saying “women’s hockey is a money loser” for the organization.

So, two weeks before the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Plymouth, Michigan, the USWNT announced their boycott on social media with the #BeBoldForChange campaign. They stayed together and held strong as USA Hockey issued threatening deadlines and misleading press releases, and didn’t budge, even as the date for the world championship training camp came and went. Nobody in the U.S. women’s hockey orbit flinched, even as USA Hockey started to reach out to junior and college hockey players, to see if they would take the ice for the world championships. The picket line held strong. And 13 days later, on the eve of the world championships, the women got what they wanted.

The new contract ensured that USWNT players would earn salaries of around $70,000 a year, in addition to performance bonuses and a training stipend. It gave the women the same travel arrangements, insurance, and per diems as the men’s team. And it established a committee fully dedicated to the promotion and organization of the women’s game. They went on to take the ice in Plymouth and capture the gold (over Canada in the final, of course), but the championship was almost an afterthought.

While it’s tempting to see the fight for equality off the ice and the fight for gold medals on the ice separately, the truth is, the women relied on the same bravery, strength, communication, relentlessness, and unity in both battles.

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“I think we’re a very strong and empowered group of women. We want to change the world for the better. In our locker room, this is the strongest team atmosphere that I’ve been a part of,” USWNT veteran Hilary Knight told Vice Sports before the Olympics.

No matter what happened in Pyeongchang, this team had already secured its place in hockey history thanks to last year’s hard-fought win. On Thursday, they simply painted it gold.