The U.S. women’s national ice hockey team has been one of the country’s most reliable winners over the past two decades, never having left an Olympic Games without a medal, usually silver or gold, while also winning seven of the last nine world championships.
But no matter how successful this team of girls-next-door-on-skates has been, its most historic moment arrived Wednesday, when the entire team laudably announced it will boycott the upcoming world championships in Plymouth, Mich., over the ridiculously low wages and lack of support it continues to receive from its national governing body, USA Hockey.
This simple act of defiance — so bold, so natural and so right — is an urgent call for change within the U.S. Olympic world in the 21st century, for respect for women in a sport led by men and for the acknowledgment of a job well done by a nation that craves winning more than almost anything else.
It’s a timely call to action that was immediately praised by, among others, 1980 U.S. "Miracle on Ice" team captain Mike Eruzione, who told the team on Twitter, “You have my support.”
Good luck to the women's US hockey program as they hopefully can come to an agreement with USA hockey. You have my support— MIKE ERUZIONE (@MERUZIONE) March 15, 2017
But it was entirely lost on Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey’s executive director, who, instead of sensing the public-relations nightmare that looms for him and his organization, stunningly doubled down in his fight against the women’s team.
Asked by USA TODAY Sports’ Kevin Allen if there would still be a U.S. team in the upcoming world championships if the boycott continues, Ogrean replied, "We have had that conversation on an ongoing basis for the last couple of weeks, and asking my staff as early as this morning if we have a Plan B, and I was given a succinct, positive one-word answer: ‘Yes.' "
What an utterly disastrous decision this would be for Ogrean, for USA Hockey and for the U.S. Olympic Committee. A move to bring in a team of “replacement” players would roil not just U.S. Olympic hockey, it would send shock waves through nearly every Olympic sport, especially the many sports in which U.S. women dominate at the Games.
A national governing body declaring war on its star athletes? Oh my. This would instantly become one of the U.S. Olympic movement’s darkest hours.
If Ogrean, a highly-regarded veteran of Olympic sports governance who is retiring in August, somehow cannot see the ugly ramifications of such a fight, the USOC needs to step in immediately and help him understand.
Just how badly are the U.S. women’s hockey players treated? USA Hockey pays members of the team just $1,000 per month for the six months prior to the Olympic Games.
That’s a salary of $6,000. For four years.
That’s the case even as these players must stay in shape and compete in other events, including the annual world championships, until the arrival of the next Olympic Games.
USOC funding can reach an extra $2,000 per month for top players, but many members of the team make as little as $750 per month. The USOC also pays a one-time bonus to all athletes winning medals at the Olympics, with the most going to gold medalists. In Sochi, the U.S. women could have made $25,000 each if they won gold. Instead they won silver, good for $15,000.
What this means is that quite a few of the players you watched come so close to winning the gold medal against Canada in 2014 rely on their parents to help make ends meet. Meanwhile, USA Hockey is spending most of its $4 million developmental budget on boys in their late teens.
“I think in the back of my mind, I knew that we were going to come to this point because with the history of the program and how we’ve been treated, I don’t think they’ve ever really taken us seriously,” U.S. Olympic veteran Hilary Knight said over the phone. “It’s sort of been, the girls are lucky to have a place to play. Well, it’s 2017 and that’s such an old mentality to have nowadays. Not only are we trying to change it for ourselves, but for the younger generations that are coming up as well.”