BEIJING — Two months before the 2022 Winter Olympics, where the United States women’s hockey team will defend its gold medal against perennial rival Canada on Thursday afternoon, forward Hilary Knight sat down in the players’ lounge of their Twin Cities training complex and flourished her hand to show all the little wins that had taken far too long to achieve.
“Look around,” Knight said. “Just everything—this team has advocated and built that. Which is crazy. And you don’t want to be the older player at the table, like, ‘We didn’t have this back in my day,’ right? Because that message isn’t helpful. But at the same time, it’s saying, look, these resources were fought for off the backs of former players. And it would be amiss if we didn’t have this couch you can sit on or that food over there. All of these things roll into one.”
In many senses, it is a far cry from the absurdly inequitable landscape that led Knight and her teammates to boycott the 2017 IIHF world championships, an inspiring display of solidarity that resulted in a new contract with USA Hockey containing many basic signs of support—such as suitably comfy lounge seating, adequately nutritious training table meals and increased per diem—that elite male players everywhere take for granted. “People forget that we’re almost volunteers,” Knight says, “because it’s really hard to juggle it all and to find a way to make ends meet while representing your country on the world stage.”
And yet, with the NHL thus far insisting that a sustainable professional women’s league should spring up without its financial help, the onus largely remains on Knight and the 100-plus fellow members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association to lead the charge themselves. Formed when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded after the 2018–19 season, the PWHPA has since enjoyed remarkable success in establishing its Dream Gap Tour despite limited resources—not to mention free time for such involved planning.
“I remember scrambling, trying to figure out where we’re going to get insurance from, how much we’re going to sell tickets for, what venues we’re going to play in,” Knight says. “These are all things that go into one successful hockey game. So we’ve come a really long way, but we sort of had to learn as we built it. It’s never been done before, so I think that’s what’s really cool and disruptive about what we’re doing. And I think it’s something, 20 years from now, I’ll look back to all the struggles and everything we’ve overcome and I’ll be extremely proud.”
Here the power of Team USA’s shootout triumph over Canada in the 2018 final was undeniable. Forward Brianna Decker recalls countless young girls approaching her at hockey camps to share how they stayed up late to watch. “It’s awesome that we can see that impact,” Decker says. Knight, meanwhile, made cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” alongside Leslie Jones, a personal “bucket list item” that doubled as an unprecedented marketing opportunity. “The growth of the game definitely exploded after that victory,” Knight says. “And to be able to continue that momentum is something that we see as our responsibility and don’t take lightly.”
Then came the pandemic, shuttering hockey rinks across the continent and denting the PHWPA’s ambitions. “We had Plan A or Plan C, and now we’re going to Plan Z,” Knight says. Yet it forged on for a second season with five teams, earning a $1 million sponsorship from the deodorant company Secret and teaming up with individual NHL clubs to stage exhibition games at Madison Square Garden, Chicago’s United Center and Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome, among other venues.
“It just shows the level of buy-in from the partners, and also from the players,” Knight says, “because it truly is built on the backs of us. And we were able to carve out a better future.”
What that future looks like exactly remains to be determined. The Premier Hockey Federation, which originated as the National Women’s Hockey League before rebranding last September amid internal tumult, recently received a $25 million investment that will more than double its salary cap and help bankroll two expansion franchises—notable strides in the right direction. But the PWHPA continues to exist as a separate entity, with three days of Dream Gap Tour games and youth hockey clinics coming up at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility in northern Virginia next month.
Regardless, the work is far from over: U.S. forward Abby Roque points to the fact that the IIHF allows men’s teams to roster 25 players at the Olympics, compared to just 23 for the women, as “just another little thing that isn’t equal. … We’ve tried to bring it up before, at different events, and we’ve basically been told to let it go.”
And while emerging countries like the Czech Republic have surprised insiders at the 2022 Games—the first Olympics to field a 10-team women’s hockey tournament, as opposed to the previous eight—players are quick to note that even more resources from those national federations would go a long way toward shrinking the talent gap between them and the U.S. and Canada, who have combined to win every gold since the sport joined the Olympic program in 1998. “When people see how successful the U.S. is, there’s really no secret,” American captain Kendall Coyne Schofield says. “You need the proper support and the proper resources and the proper coaching to get to this level.”
But that is only just the start of changing the outdated notion that women’s hockey is merely a once-every-quadrennial experience. Given that the players continue to be the ones at the forefront of this push, as opposed to the deep-pocketed powers that be, Coyne Schofield doesn’t hesitate to share how she believe things need to change after Beijing—regardless of whether the U.S. or Canada comes out on top in their latest golden border battle (11:10 p.m. ET Wednesday).
“I think because we know what we deserve, and we’re not settling for anything less than that,” Coyne Schofield says. “We need to continue to use our voices together to ensure a better future for women in hockey. I think we’ve seen the gaps, we’ve seen the holes, and we’ve seen the areas that need improvement, and it’s not just at this level but the grassroots level as well.
“Yeah, at times it can be exhausting when the players are constantly the ones pushing the envelope, fighting for what we deserve, but at the same time we’re not going to stop until it’s expected, until we’re not having to question everything that we know we deserve.”
And what is that, exactly?
“I’d like to see women make a living playing this game,” continues Coyne Schofield, speaking to a small group of reporters at Wukesong Sports Centre after a recent practice. “Simply put, if they want to grow up and become a professional hockey player and that’s their job, they should be afforded that opportunity if they’re good enough to do so—just like all the men we see walk through this mixed zone night in and night out.”
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