The Americans Beating Canada Was the Best Outcome for Women's Hockey
Sorry, Canada, but Team USA's gold medal victory will help the game grow even more.
Photo by David E. Klutho-USA TODAY Sports
The US women's national team fought for equal treatment and for something bigger than themselves. Then they won gold at the Olympics, and still, the reward was greater than that of pride, and won't hang on a wall or sit in a safe. It's not even for them, in the long run.
The reward is opportunity for the next group of women and girls.
With an emphatic shootout victory over Canada on Thursday morning, the ending of a 20-year Olympic gold medal drought, the American team won a contest but more importantly will inspire growth in the sport dominated at the international event by Canadians, for whom hockey is a birthright.
Hockey expands outward for the better when Canada doesn't win every Olympic gold. The country has over 87,000 registered female hockey players while the US, despite having 10 times the population, has just over 73,000. The gold won in Nagano by the Americans went a long way toward getting young girls to pick up sticks and so too will this medal.
"What this group has been able to accomplish is way beyond sport," forward Gigi Marvin said after the thrilling victory. "And that's never going to fade. Like my little niece, when she wakes up tomorrow, it's going to affect her more than it will me what we did last March. We can find such joy in how we were able to help others who will come after us."
It didn't come without a fight.
The USWNT threatened to boycott the 2017 world championships, a tournament they went on to win, unless the governing body of USA Hockey conceded that the support afforded to the men's teams was disproportionate to that of the women's. USA Hockey reached out to players outside the national program to play as replacements in the tournament, an irresponsible and short-sighted move, but those players refused. They shared the vision that their peers held, that this kind of victory was not for them but for the next crop of skaters.
Growth is not always seen linearly, however, but often in zigs and zags.
American Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who scored the already-iconic zig-zagging shootout winner, is formerly of the University of North Dakota which had its women's hockey program permanently axed in 2017, just 24 hours after the national team secured its revamped contract with USA Hockey. The program was one of the best in the country and many alumni won medals internationally.
Lamoureux's goal has already been immortalized as a piece of art.
The women, after all, consistently outperform the men's program, having won a medal at every Olympics since the sport's debut in 1998 while winning four of the previous six world championships. Still, their names are tied to male counterparts and family members on national television broadcasts while The Associated Press, in a preview article before the gold medal game, said the Americans had played "their way back into the only women's hockey game that matters."
That so-called game made ratings history on NBC.
Meanwhile, women's hockey will also surely grow after the gains by other nations this Olympics. The Russian team finished an all-time best fourth despite just over 2,000 registered players in the country, Japan beat a European team for the first time ever at the Games, and Switzerland's and Finland's goaltenders (Florence Schelling, Noora Räty) share the all-time Olympics record for most career victories (10).
And while other nations are not quite ready to consistently challenge for gold, when a country to whom ice hockey is not native can change the results and perceptions in a sport, it goes a long way to growing the game beyond its northern borders.
It only takes a kind of shared vision that looks beyond just winning a hockey tournament.
That helps, though, too.