#GrowingTheGame: The Case for Girl’s Hockey Development

The USWNT won the gold medal at the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship (Photo credit: Excelle Sports)

On March 28th, the U.S. Women’s National Team announced that they’d struck a deal with USA Hockey to end their boycott of the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championships. The boycott received national attention from journalists, other professional athletes and even U.S. senators largely because of the discussion we’ve been having for years about professional women’s sports and, in a larger sense, the wage gap between men and women in the United States. Sure, the fact that women on the national team were being grossly underpaid was a huge deal, and though USA Hockey and the team members have agreed to keep the specific financial terms of the deal between them, there’s reason to believe that things are changing for better.

However, one aspect of this boycott that’s been largely ignored is USA Hockey’s embarrassingly poor commitment to girl’s hockey. Perhaps someday soon, women will be able to pursue professional sports as a paying career to the same degree that men can, but there’s simply no way that can happen without heavily investing in development for girl’s sports.

This boycott was never just about specific salary figures or vague conversations about how we value female labor. The USWNT was determined to shine a light on the tireless and inarguably effective efforts of women in hockey to grow their game from the ground up — as well as the fact that much of the hockey world still needs to be convinced to even care.

When members of the USWNT first announced the boycott, one of their three primary goals outlined in their statement was to “move forward with a shared goal of promoting and growing girls and women in our sport.” Essentially this means more funding for development training programs as well as marketing the current teams in order to reach potential new fans.

This is no way an unreasonable ask. In 2016, the organization spent $3.5 million to construct an addition to its National Team Development Program facilities in Plymouth, MA, which trains 16- and 17-year-old male players who often go on to be successful in college hockey programs and the NHL as well as USA Hockey’s under-18 team. There is no equivalent development program for female players. According to The New York Times, the NHL provides $9 million per year to USA Hockey to help fund the development program. It’s clear that the money is there. Comparatively, the North American women’s leagues struggle to find ways to even pay their own players. While the CWHL has confirmed that the league is on track to pay its players in the 2017–18 season, it hasn’t been able to offer a salary for the past ten years. The NWHL, which was established as a league determined to pay its players from the very first season, has had to cut salaries in half in order to make it through its second season. Neither league is in the position to provide this kind of developmental funding to the extent that USA Hockey easily could.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the negotiations was the announcement of the formation of a Women’s High Performance Advisory Group. Reports indicate that the group will be made up of both former and current players from the U.S. Women’s National team as well as some staff members from USA Hockey. The group will aid USA hockey in its marketing and promotional efforts for women and girl’s hockey as well as fundraising. One of the primary goals of the advisory group will be supporting the growth of women’s hockey at a grassroots level. The Ice Garden reports that Team Canada already has a similar advisory board that handles contract negotiations and communications with the staff of Hockey Canada. The team has expressed its hope that the advisory board will help USA Hockey take steps in the right direction toward creating a development program, but this win truly was hard-fought.

The national team’s organizing efforts during the boycott were impressive, and not just because of the determination with which these women resisted USA Hockey’s early halfhearted attempts to end the boycott, which included at least one attempt to recruit a high-school-aged player that the organization ironically wouldn’t have otherwise paid to develop. In many ways their effort reflects the skilled use of synchronized social media that women’s hockey leagues have been using for years to organically build their fanbase.

The USWNT drew national attention for their hashtag “#BeBoldForChange♀,” which has since transcended the boycott itself to cover a range of feminist issues gaining traction online. However, the players themselves displayed the strength of their organizing efforts by drafting inspirational messaging that individual players shared on social media. Notably, women who were approached by USA Hockey to join the national team publicly rejected the offer by sharing the same identical tweet: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” This messaging may have indeed come from team captain Meghan Duggan herself, who personally called many of those who USA Hockey approached and later retweeted many of the rejections on her Twitter account.

One of the most widely-used messages was “She said she wanted to be just like me, I told her, ‘be better. Taking a stand today for their tomorrow,” which was shared alongside photographs of players engaging with their young female fans. The phrase was even co-opted by female athletes from other U.S. women’s national teams, including soccer player Abby Wambach and basketball player Brittney Griner, who wished to show their support.

The messaging itself is impeccably on-brand for women’s hockey, which has tirelessly committed itself to engaging with youth hockey and laying a foundation for future generations in a way that the NHL has largely failed to do until recently. The NWHL has dedicatedly used the hashtag “#GrowTheGame” many, many (many!) times to emphasize its belief in building a strong community for future players (or should I say, #FutureDraftPicks).

The most interesting part of all is that their efforts seem to be working. USA Hockey’s membership statistics indicate that between the 2014–15 and 2015–16 seasons, over 3,000 women and girls registered with USA Hockey, which helped the number of registered players break 70,000 for the first time ever and grew the women’s program by nearly 5%. (During that same time period, the men’s program grew by only 1.3%.) The organization anticipates the numbers will have further increased this season, likely stemming from the publicity that the NWHL has generated for the sport. Hockey Canada’s statistics show a staggering 10% increase in registered female hockey players in 2008–09, which correlates with the conclusion of the CWHL’s first full season. It’s easy to see the impact that just seeing women succeed as professional athletes has toward inspiring young girls to join the sport.

Of course, inspiration isn’t always enough. Those within the world of hockey have never made the claim that it’s particularly accessible; intangible problems in hockey culture as well as the financial reality of pursuing hockey often hold young girls back. According to a 2014 study from Solutions Research Group, hockey is the second most expensive sport for youths, with an average annual cost of $1,666 per child. There’s also a demonstrated opportunity gap for development for girls as they grow older, which is only getting smaller as colleges like the University of North Dakota cut their NCAA women’s hockey programs. Certainly hockey’s difficult reputation as a sport that’s largely white, male and upper-middle-class isn’t helping either. In order to try to fight this, which the NHL has has attempted to combat by dedicating the month of February to its Hockey is for Everyone initiative. The program sought to make hockey more inclusive of fans of varying races, genders and abilities — but is it really working? Just this week the Detroit Red Wings were criticized for sharing a photo of fans who’d brought a flag bearing the phrase “Saturdays Are For The Boys” made popular by sports and lifestyle blog Barstool Sports, which felt out of touch with league-wide efforts to engage more female fans.

The conclusion I’ve arrived at is that as admirable and heartening as the continued efforts of women in hockey are to provide for their successors, without equity in terms of training and resources, we can’t expect women’s hockey to grow much further. Professional sports teams are demonstratively business, and development is expensive. It’s time for USA Hockey to step up and start funding development programs for its female athletes of all ages. If the women’s national team can bring home countless gold and silver medals on a shoestring budget, just imagine what they could do if they were funded like the boys (who, let’s face it, have a pretty disappointing record in international competitions). Perhaps the USWNT will claim their second Olympic gold medal in Pyeongchang next year, or maybe they’ll be bringing home their eight from the World Championships this month. (Note: as I was writing this, the NHL announced it won’t be letting its players participate in the 2018 Olympics, so if USA Hockey is hoping for gold, it makes more sense than ever to invest in our women.) In any case, the team is truly on a historic run right now, and the responsibility of defending developmental women’s hockey programs shouldn’t entirely rest on their shoulders, if only because we’ll need to leave some room for their medals.