March Was a Great Month for Women’s Hockey

All this month, women from India to Finland to the US have been working for equity and opportunity in hockey.

By Chandrima Chatterjee

In Finland, the first women’s ice hockey tournament in 1987 was unofficially called the “tournament of lipstick.” Since then, the women’s national team has been one of the world’s top programs, led currently by star goaltender, Noora Raty.

In 2014, Raty “retired” from the women’s game to join a small fraternity of women, which includes Canadians Hayley Wickenheiser and Shannon Szabados, who have played in a men’s professional league. But what was perhaps most notable about the decision was her reasoning for it:

I’m done living from hand to mouth and now it’s time to start building wealth and think[ing] about my future. And I’m not the only player having this problem… the majority of female players have the same problem.

A men’s professional league, Raty felt, was the only place she could get real competition, real training, and most importantly, a real salary.

Raty will, however, play for Finland in the upcoming IIHF World Championships in Plymouth, Michigan, but her fight for equity in women’s hockey continues. Her national team coach, Pasi Mustonen, backed her cause just this month in a blog post from March 3rd:

Only a complete change of attitude led by the [men’s] League clubs can significantly enhance the capacity to reach major championship medals… League club makers are mainly men, stuck in their family role perceptions. This Stone Age way of thinking leads to directing all resources to men and boys. And in 2019, when the [IIHF World Championship] games will be played at home, will you care then?

Coach Mustonen’s criticism became prophetic just twelve days later in the United States. On March 15, the U.S. women’s national team announced they would boycott the IIHF World Championships unless they were awarded fair pay from USA Hockey. And like Raty for Finland, U.S. stars would lead the charge, including forward Hilary Knight.

“We don’t have equitable support,” said Knight. “We are lucky we are placing and medaling.”

In an interview with FOX Sports, Knight continued, “the World Championship is on home soil and it means a lot to the players and the organization. They need to come up with a suitable solution for both of us.”

Team USA star forward Hilary Knight. Getty Images.

The boycott worked. USA Hockey announced a new deal with the USWNT on Tuesday evening. Johnette Howard of ESPN reported that in addition to added salary, USA Hockey also promised to address travel and housing arrangements for both players and close family members, a stipulation that had already been afforded to the men’s team.

Knight recalled the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where the USWNT had to sell t-shirts and hold a fundraiser so their parents could travel to watch them play. “A handful of us were hooked up with host families in Concord, Massachusetts, kind, generous people,” said Knight. “They stepped in and organized a fundraiser and raised somewhere close to $60,000-$80,000 to help our parents.”

This was for a team that has won no less than bronze in any major international competition since its inception. The new agreement with USA Hockey had been a long time coming.

Knight is arguably the best women’s hockey player in the world, and she has been one of the game’s biggest champions here in the U.S. After graduating from University of Wisconsin, Knight had an opportunity to play for a men’s team in Europe, but chose to stay and build the women’s program in the US.

Kinght explained to SELF Magazine in October 2015:

Another passion of mine is putting women’s hockey on the map as paid professional work. After college, I had an opportunity to play men’s professional hockey in Europe. But I knew if I did it, I’d leave behind my dream of a professional league for women. So I decided to stay. I needed to.

For the past two years, Knight has been the face of the National Women’s Hockey League, the first-ever paid U.S. women’s professional league. She has also challenged traditional notions of femininity in sports by proudly embracing her muscular, powerful physique, and pushing others do the same.

It’s no coincidence that with Knight helping to lead the USWNT fight for fair representation that USA Hockey, in its agreement, will also be investing in the future of the women’s game. Per Howard’s ESPN story, girls’ development teams had been receiving next to nothing compared to $3.5 million for boys programs. That will soon change with a new foundation position created specifically to help fund girls’ developmental programs.

“Right now, this for us, is about hockey but it’s [also] about women in sport, girls in sport, women and girls in industry,” Knight asserted. “It transcends our sport specifically. I think that is why it speaks so strongly to us. It’s going on in a lot of places. This is going to be better for the younger generation.”

Twenty-seven year old Noor Jahan of India was awarded Best Goaltender of the 2016 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in India’s first-ever international competition. It was perhaps a consolation prize. In 224 minutes played, Jahan had saved 193 shots, more than any other goalie in the tournament. But that came on a whopping 229 shots on goal in four games. India lost all four.

Ice hockey has been popular in the Himalayan region of India for over 60 years. Only limited opportunities existed for girls, however, until a little over a decade ago when, with the help of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, the first Women’s Cup in Ladakh was organized.

For years, the girls had prepared a skating surface on their own during the 8-10 week season that Ladakh weather permitted in order to practice. They would fill buckets of water and pour them onto a football field from 8 PM to 3 AM in groups of four. Donations of skates from Sweden, Canada and the United States helped equip the four participating teams. These tournaments helped produce India’s first women’s national team, made up entirely of women from Ladakh.

In this year’s Challenge Cup in Thailand just two weeks ago, Team India won two games. For a team still very much in its infancy, this was cause for celebration.

The team is funded largely by donations and the General Secretary of the Ice Hockey Association of India. Three thousand donors came forward to raise money for training expenses, accommodations, airfare, visas, team equipment and jerseys this year. Noor and her teammates returned to India celebrated as heroes.

For Jahan and her teammates, there was no financial compensation for this accomplishment. There is no salary to play women’s hockey for India. And Jahan is mindful of the costs.

“Ice hockey is an expensive sport,” she told Sportskeeda in an interview in 2016. “I still remember how before every single match, I had to go and literally beg for equipment. I spent most of my career using second-hand equipment,”

Jahan is getting her PhD now in Art Conservation. She freelances as an oil painting restorer but returns every winter to Ladakh to her first love, hockey. Jahan hopes to someday give back to the women’s game as a coach.

Cover photo by Batul Kapasi.

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