Who Do You Pay For: USA Hockey and the Undervaluing of Women Athletes

For years, the US national team players have shown up for USA Hockey. Until now.

The following is a guest editorial from Beth Boyle Machlan, a regular contributor at Blueshirt Banter and an expert on women’s hockey and the New York Riveters.

On December 31, 2015, the puck dropped on what many hoped would become a new tradition: the Women’s Winter Classic. After endless wangling, wheedling, wheeling, and dealing, the NWHL’s Boston Pride and the CWHL’s Les Canadiennes faced off in Foxboro, before the Habs/Bruins alumni game. The crowd was sparse and the ice was atrocious; then, less than ten minutes into the 30 allotted for the game, a catastrophe occurred.

The injury to Boston’s huge-hearted Denna Laing became the primary story of that game, overshadowing – understandably – an earlier narrative, in which evil behemoth USA Hockey refused to allow the Pride players who were also members of the U.S. Women’s National Team to miss an evaluation camp (not a game, mind you), even to play on a huge public stage that might meet the organization’s stated goal: “to grow the game.” The players were reminded that their primary obligation was to USA Hockey; if they failed to show up at camp, they would lose their spots on the national team.

So they showed up.

Thanks to the USWNT’s recent decision to boycott the Women’s World Championships, due to start in 16 days on the home turf of Plymouth, Michigan, we now know what USA Hockey thinks this all-or-nothing allegiance is worth: $6000. For four years of planning their lives around staying in Olympian shape, traveling to and participating in mandatory camps, and achieving excellence in a difficult, dangerous game, these women get $125 a month. Meanwhile, $3.5 million is spent on the development of boys and young men, many of whom have lucrative NHL contracts in their future.

Those of us who follow women’s hockey are weary of the uninformed yet unavoidable opinions of those who claim that, since nobody watches women’s hockey, no one should pay them to play it. This is especially untrue of USA v. Canada, the game with the highest viewership at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and a rivalry that rewards the hockey fans lucky enough to see it, every single time. People said the same thing about women’s soccer, until the crowds got so huge that the lie simply couldn’t last.

But if you’re intent on maintaining that impression: try this. Turn on an NHL game, and visualize the web of scouts, trainers, agents, coaches, doctors, masseurs, therapists, equipment suppliers, chefs, drivers, pilots, and PR people that extends from the ice into every aspect of the players’ lives.

Now, take it all away. Take the paychecks, too. Instead, give them … oh, I don’t know … $125 a month? How do you think they’ll play, under those circumstances?

The thing is, we’ll never find out. Yes, the men do a lot more for their money. Hey, most of them even earn it. However, the women are offering to do more, too. Play more, make more promotional appearances. They’re not asking to be paid more for less; they’re asking more for more. They’re also asking to be acknowledged, valued, for what they already are: the best in the world.

USA Hockey issued a statement that their role “is not to employ athletes, and we will not do so.” They gave the women until 5 pm today to agree to play, or they will explore other options. And they may end up with exactly who they paid for.

No one.