Sticking to Sports: The Four Nations and the state of U.S. women's hockey

by Sam Stockton | 11/12/18 2:10am

Sticking to Sports: The Four Nations and the state of U.S. women’s hockey

Heading into the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship, an event hosted by the United States in Plymouth, Michigan, the future of U.S. women’s hockey appeared uncertain. In protest of the failure of USA Hockey to adequately compensate and support its female athletes, the women of Team USA announced their intention to sit out the tournament. The team had not exactly struggled going into the tournament, having won three straight world championships and a silver medal in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, yet their support from USA Hockey remained negligible.

At the time, USA Hockey spent about $3.5 million each year on its men’s under-20 development team. Meanwhile, the women had no equivalent development program, and the organization spent just $1 million annually to support the women’s national team. While the world junior men’s team seemed to boast a limitless supply of sticks, members of the women team sometimes had to buy their own. Player compensation also reflected an utter disregard for USA Hockey’s women athletes. The organization did not pay the women a thing in non-Olympic years, and players received just $6,000 in years leading up to the Olympics.

While both the National Women’s Hockey League and Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the two premier professional women’s hockey leagues, recently began paying players, neither league has the income to offer players much more than a part-time job’s wage. As such, funding proves more important for the women of USA Hockey than for the men, as the men’s national team is generally comprised of millionaire National Hockey League players, who are perfectly able to afford to spend the whole calendar year training and playing. The U.S. women decided they would not play until they were compensated with a living wage that allowed them to dedicate themselves to their sport and reflected their on-ice achievements. Fortunately for the sport of hockey, USA Hockey, with funding coming in part from the NHL and the United States Olympic Committee, offered the players a new compensation plan. A settlement between the two sides allotted about $71,000 per player per season. The USOC would provide a pool of around $850,000, which would be divvied up via a tiered system in which star players like Hilary Knight would earn around $21,000 and lesser-known players would make closer to $14,000. The NHL offered a flat rate of $25,000 per player, and USA Hockey would come up with the rest. The team also gained performance bonuses for Olympic gold.

When the U.S. women took to the ice for the 2017 World Championships, they returned to their dominant form, going undefeated in their pool before routing Germany 11-0 in the semifinals. In a finals match-up with Canada, Knight scored the OT winner to give the U.S. a 3-2 victory and gold medal. About 10 months later, 20-year-old American netminder Maddie Rooney stonewalled Canada’s Meghan Agosta in the final round of the shootout, and the U.S. women won their second ever Olympic gold, ending a run of four consecutive Canadian Olympic golds.

Flash forward to Saturday night in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The U.S. women met up, as they always seem to, with Canada in the gold-medal game of the 4 Nations Cup. The Four Nations is certainly not the most prestigious event of the hockey calendar, but any event featuring the U.S. and Canada is sure to bring fireworks.

In their first performance since their PyeongChang gold medal, the U.S. women marched with relative ease to the final. In their opening act, the team hammered Finland by a score of 5-1, with all five U.S. goals coming in the second period. Then, a late Sydney Brodt tally lifted the team to a win over Canada before another 5-1 win, this time over Sweden, propelled the U.S. to the gold-medal game.

In a repeat of the 2018 Olympic final, Knight put the U.S. on the board before the game was 90 seconds old, and despite a response from Canada’s Laura Fortino a few minutes later, the U.S. would head into the first intermission with a lead on the strength of a Melissa Samoskevich marker. In the second, Brianna Decker made it 3-1, then Knight added a fourth, and the U.S. would cruise to a 5-2 victory.

We have entered a golden age in American women’s hockey. Heading into this spring’s 2019 IIHF Worlds in Finland, the U.S. has won four straight world titles in addition to their 2018 Olympic gold. Saturday’s victory marked the team’s fourth straight 4 Nations as well. Canada has not beaten the U.S. in a tournament final since the 2014 Four Nations in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Of course, none of this is to say that the fight for equality in hockey is over. As Knight explained in an October interview with ESPN, the American women have had three goals since their 2017 boycott: visibility, programming and funding. While the team has certainly seen improvement on these fronts, thanks in no small part to their exemplary international performances in recent years, they continue to struggle for improved funding and support.

Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, scorer of the go-ahead goal in the gold-medal shootout against Canada in 2018 on a spectacular backhand-forehand deke, challenged USA Hockey to improve its development program for women. She also encouraged the organization to hire more people specifically focused on developing women’s hockey, something it has never really done in the past.

With fan interest burgeoning and the team producing unprecedented on-ice results, the time for USA Hockey to move forward in the world of women’s hockey is now. The organization must implement a radically more robust development program to capitalize upon and maintain the success brought about by the women currently playing. While fans should certainly revel in the team’s present success, assuring that it will continue requires a greater commitment to the athletes who have performed so admirably in the American sweater. As the American women take over their sport, the challenge remains at the feet of USA Hockey; the players did their part, and now the organization must reward them for their effort.