At 3:00 am, the chant reverberated through my home. As a family with seven hockey playing kids, five of whom are girls, we have been closely following the USA women’s ice hockey team. As the game progressed and Canada took the lead into the third period, we were riveted to the screen. When Monique Lamoureux scored to tie the game, our living room erupted. And then came OT, with the Americans pouring on the pressure as Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados stoned them time after time. I don’t know the exact time-on-ice for Buffalo native Emily Pfalzer (sister of UB Law alum Matt Pfalzer ’16 and prospective sister-in-law of Emily Florczak UB Law ’18), but it seemed as if she played the entire overtime period. We marveled at the incredible stamina of the USA women in particular as they played both ends of the ice ferociously, backchecking, forechecking, and pinching in on D. As the OT drew to a close, one of my daughters remarked facetiously, “I’ll bet they had a 6:00 am practice, too!”
Therein lies the both the legal connection to this post (yes, there is one), and the defining aspect of this USA women’s ice hockey team. It is fitting that they won this one, The Win, on the anniversary of Miracle on Ice. These women created their own success story, and it wasn’t one of luck, but of hard work, commitment and, ultimately, teamwork. Last year about this time, the women’s team banded together to address decades of inequitable treatment by USA Hockey, the National Governing Body of ice hockey in the United States. The numerous concerns they cited included a ridiculously low stipend – $1,000 per month for six months in an Olympic year – and essentially no other compensation during the rest of the four year cycle – while the women were expected to continue a full-time training and competition regimen, forcing them to work second and even third jobs. While the men’s team flew business class and had individual hotel rooms, the women flew coach and bunked together. Everything from staffing, equipment and the availability of free tickets for long-suffering (and often financially supportive) friends and family were substantially inferior when compared to that provided to the men’s team.
After a year of attempting to address these issues, which are violations of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, 36 U.S.C. 2205 (2018), the women’s team drew a line in the sand: they refused to defend their World Championship on home ice in Plymouth, Michigan unless USA Hockey agreed to remedy these dramatic discrepancies in treatment between the sexes. USA Hockey didn’t cave – at least not immediately. Rather, an attempt was made to break the boycott by issuing invitations to younger women ice hockey players at the collegiate and even high school level. Incredibly, to a woman, they refused. USA Hockey was forced to the negotiating table, and finally, three days before the Championships began, the women were successful in obtaining what they sought. A team united, they proceeded to defeat the Canadians 3-2 in overtime to win the World Championship for a fourth consecutive time.
Well before the #MeToo movement began, the USA women’s ice hockey team challenged an entrenched culture which not only allowed disparate treatment, but also fostered disrespect for women athletes and their achievements. As USA Hockey prepared for the Sochi games, the Olympic ice hockey jersey was unveiled with great fanfare – to the men’s team only, while the women found out by watching the event on television. The jersey also listed all of the years the men’s team won gold medals — but did not include the women’s gold in 1998. Therefore, an important part of the settlement reached by the women’s team was a commitment from USA Hockey to devote more time, effort and money to the marketing and development of women’s ice hockey as a sport – an obligation mandated by the Ted Stevens Act.
Ten years ago, a dedicated group of local parents and aspiring young women ice hockey players sought to establish a girls varsity ice hockey league here in Western New York. During that multi-year process, many were astonished to discover the significant resistance in many quarters to simply providing an opportunity for young women to participate in a varsity sport enjoyed by many of their male peers. Notably, at one school board meeting a member inquired with great sincerity, “Why do they want to play, anyway?” The answer can be found in the inspiring story of the 2018 USA Women’s Ice Hockey Team, the members of which are heroes and role models both on and off the ice. Their example empowers girls and young women to have the courage to stand up to discrimination. To paraphrase an old adage, they have shown other young women how to be effective by speaking as one while carrying big sticks.
Maybe some day soon we will see an end to those 6 am practices usually foisted off on the girls teams in addition to concerted efforts to remedy inequity wherever it is encountered. Congratulations to the USA Women on a job well done, and – thank you!!!
Helen A. “Nellie” Drew is an expert in sports law, including professional and amateur sports issues ranging from NCAA compliance and Title IX matters to facility construction, discipline of professional athletes, collective bargaining and franchise issues. Drew formerly served as an officer and in-house counsel to the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League, after previously working as outside counsel to the Sabres and the NHL. Among her more interesting experiences were assisting former USSR superstar Alexander Mogilny in obtaining asylum status in the U.S. and working on multiple NHL expansions, including San Jose, Ottawa, Florida and Tampa Bay.
Drew teaches a variety of courses that incorporate topics such as drug testing in professional sports and professional player contract negotiation and arbitration. She is especially interested in the evolving research and litigation concerning concussions in both amateur and professional sports.