'The same goal': Fierce rivals try to change women's hockey together
When it came time for Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson to seal her place in women's hockey history - to counter the golden overtime goal Marie-Philip Poulin scored in Sochi in 2014 and deliver an Olympic title to the United States - she didn't rush.
Before she bore down on net in the decisive round of the gold-medal shootout at Pyeongchang, Lamoureux-Davidson took looping strides to either side of the ice. Play-by-play announcer Mark Lee, calling the game on Canadian television, described her route as "meandering." Her patience was purposeful. Squaring her skates, Lamoureux-Davidson lifted her left foot and twitched her gloves to fake a wrist shot. Instead, she retained the puck, dragging it from forehand to backhand and back again.
The deke put the finishing touch on an indelible tableau: Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados lunging for her post, too far out to stymie the trickery that won the tournament.
Why revisit this sequence almost 20 months later? Because women's hockey occupies shaky ground in our sporting topography. The standard of play can be magnificent. The U.S. and Canada, giants of the game, have long tended to thrill audiences whenever and wherever they face off. Yet as the 2019-20 season begins, scores of the world's best players aren't signed to any professional team - a choice born out of their collective dissatisfaction with the available options.
These women - nearly all of them American or Canadian - formed the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, uniting to transcend their sport's defining rivalry and advocate for a single strong pro league. About 200 players have joined the movement, including nine representatives who comprise the PWHPA board.
Two of those representatives? Lamoureux-Davidson and Szabados.
"We play for Team USA, Team Canada, Team Finland, but we don't play for them all year round," Lamoureux-Davidson said in a recent phone interview. "We want to play against the best players in the world during the season as well, whether that's with or against them.
"We need everyone at the table. It's an integral part of making this work," she said. "It's not just one country trying to figure this out. It's the best players in the world internationally."
In September, more than a dozen veterans of the U.S. and Canadian national programs convened in Toronto to participate in the first leg of the PWHPA's Dream Gap Tour, a traveling series of exhibition games scheduled to run parallel to the pro season. The tour heads to Hudson, New Hampshire, this weekend and to Chicago on Oct. 19-20, spotlighting the caliber of play in its ranks at an especially fraught moment for women's hockey.
Citing poor compensation and working conditions, the members of Sweden's women's team are boycotting their national federation, which recently responded by canceling the Four Nations Cup tournament it was scheduled to host in November. Closer to home, the Canadian Women's Hockey League folded abruptly last spring, leaving the U.S.-based National Women's Hockey League as the only pro circuit on the continent - and prompting the conversations that led to the creation of the PWHPA.
Jayna Hefford, the Hockey Hall of Famer who helped lead Canada to four Olympic gold medals and who now oversees the PWHPA, said that the Dream Gap Tour represents an unprecedented show of unity in women's sports. Many of the movement's biggest names have spent their adult lives entangled in their game's great rivalry, the bulk of their work with their country's national program oriented around the goal of beating, depending on their passport, either the U.S. or Canada.
Their encounters are usually hard-fought on the scoreboard, and occasionally between whistles. In all five Olympic finals featuring both nations, the margin of victory has been one or two goals. Between 1997 and 2017, seven of the 15 world championship finals in which they met went to overtime. Six years ago, the teams brawled twice in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics. Those skirmishes involved several players who now headline the Dream Gap Tour together, including Lamoureux-Davidson, her twin sister Monique Lamoureux-Morando, fellow Americans Kacey Bellamy and Hilary Knight, and Canada's Melodie Daoust, Brianne Jenner, and Jocelyne Larocque.
If any hard feelings linger, they have been set aside for now in the name of solidarity.
"Obviously, we don't get along on the ice when we play against each other," American center Brianna Decker said. "But off the ice, we're striving for the same thing."
"It's always, 'Canada against U.S., Canada against U.S.,'" Canadian forward Natalie Spooner said. "To show just how powerful this movement is, that we have come together with such a big rivalry between us - it must be something that is so important to all of us."
"We're all playing for the same team here," Jenner said. "We all stand for the same goal."
Primarily, what these women seek is one pro league that can pay several teams' worth of players a living wage. Their ask, they are clear, is not NHL money, but salaries sufficient to make hockey their sole profession - and to prevent them from coming out of a season at a personal financial loss. That's happened in the past, Jenner says, when players have had to foot road-trip costs such as airport parking and meals.
(In the NWHL, which begins play this weekend, some high-end players will be paid $15,000 for the coming six-month season, plus an additional 26% raise that every player is due from a sponsorship and media revenue-split agreement with the league. For road games, they'll get a per diem of $25.)
"The way it's been set up in the past, it's been very, very difficult for girls to be motivated when they get to practice at 9 p.m. at night (after working another job) to push each other to get better," Canadian defenseman Renata Fast said. "The only way we can allow girls to focus on hockey is to provide them with a livable wage."
Lamoureux-Davidson said, "If you're going to call yourself a professional anything - whether that's a real 9-to-5 job or a professional athlete - to be a professional, you have to make a reasonable wage doing so."
The PWHPA's concerns aren't solely related to money. Its members are lobbying for a holistic conception of what constitutes a professional environment - specific elements that a league would guarantee, allowing the athletes to concentrate on playing.
The little things, the players say, are what add up. Instead of cycling through a rotation of facilities, they'd like each team to operate out of one home arena where players could work out, store their equipment, get their skates sharpened, have their laundry done, and practice at a decent hour. They'd like franchises to employ proper support staff, such as strength coaches and trainers - "We train our butts off," Decker said, a commitment that necessitates regular medical attention - and game-day employees who can take care of miscellaneous tasks around the rink.
"We don't want our general manager behind a camera videotaping our games, rolling out the red carpet for the ceremonial puck drop," Canadian forward Sarah Nurse said.
"I don't want players to be running around the rink before games looking for stick tape," said Liz Knox, a retired CWHL goaltender who is on the PWHPA board. "When we talk about things we want in a sustainable league, we want them to show up and just play hockey."
In that sentiment, Americans and Canadians have found common cause. When tennis legend Billie Jean King, a pioneering voice for women's equality in sport, began advising the PWHPA earlier this year, Hefford said she impressed upon the players the importance of speaking with one voice. At the Dream Gap Tour's Toronto stop, Hefford and a few players expressed the same refrain: that in the throes of the U.S.-Canada rivalry, the women involved respect each other, and share a sense of responsibility to improve the state of their game.
Tessa Bonhomme, who played for Canada with Hefford and is now a broadcaster for the Canadian network TSN, recalls an incident that evinced this dynamic during her early days with the national program. The summer before the 2006 Turin Olympics, the U.S. cut its longtime captain Cammi Granato, putting a curt end to her Hall of Fame career. The news "rocked" the Canadian dressing room, Bonhomme said. She remembers her captain, Cassie Campbell, summarizing the Canadian consensus: "This isn't right."
"Everyone felt the exact same way - mainly because, yes, we did believe it was wrong, but also because we wanted to face the best U.S. hockey team that could be out there," Bonhomme said. "For us to be backing a player who was, we felt, wrongfully cut, as Canadians against our biggest rival, I remember thinking, 'This is kind of crazy. But at the same time, I can't help but feel for this and be passionate about this movement.'
"It goes back a long way, and it started with both of those young ladies, Cassie and Cammi, really being at the forefront. Those are probably the two greatest leaders to have ever donned a jersey in the women's game. They really set the precedent there, and I think you can see it bleed through here (with the PWHPA)."
More than a decade later, a new generation of stars has emerged to take up the mantle. Though kickstarting the Dream Gap Tour required contributions from people all over the sport, Decker identified Jenner and American forward Kendall Coyne Schofield as players whose initiative and leadership have been essential these last several months.
Acrimony at the international level hasn't stopped the Americans and Canadians from getting to know each other elsewhere. Decker and Jenner, along with a couple of other Olympians from each of their countries, won last season's CWHL championship together with the Calgary Inferno. The vast majority of Team Canada's national player pool attended U.S. colleges. The rivalry counts not one but two cross-border marriages: Meghan Duggan and Gillian Apps (of the U.S. and Canada, respectively), and Julie Chu and Caroline Ouellette.
On the ice, no other matchup has the capacity of U.S.-Canada to galvanize new viewers. In Toronto, Nurse recalled how Canada's dramatic 3-2 victory in the 2002 Olympic final introduced her to women's hockey at age 7 - "I was sold," she said - and kindled her dream of playing internationally. Later this season, her national team will face the U.S. in a touring five-game showcase series, starting in Hartford, Connecticut, on Dec. 14.
Meanwhile, the Dream Gap Tour continues (and is expected to add more dates), serving as a platform for the players to disseminate their call for lasting change.
"I think it's amazing they take that attitude: 'We're going to dream and we're going to push and we're going to make it happen,'" Granato said in a phone interview. "It does take a special group of people to actually have the guts to do that, to have the passion to do that, to understand the game's bigger than them."
"It was pretty special being in the locker room getting dressed, knowing that you're going out there making history, and you're doing it with people that you've played against and that you've been rivals with for years," U.S. defenseman Kacey Bellamy said after the tour's first games in Toronto.
"Fifty years from now, we're going to look back and say, 'Wow, we started this.'"
The scale of individual sacrifice that will be required to even approach that point has already become apparent. For all of the Olympic veterans at the forefront of the PWHPA, the movement includes several times as many players who reside outside the spotlight, each of whom has forgone a season of their pro career in service to the larger mission.
To Lamoureux-Davidson, perspective is paramount. Even if many active players never sign a contract in the league the PWHPA envisions, she said, their selflessness will have laid the groundwork for that league's existence - and ensured that each player is remembered for much more than a tournament victory or a sublime, historic shootout goal.
"If you're able to step outside of living one season at a time and doing what's best for yourself, then you can see the big picture," Lamoureux-Davidson said.
"At this point, why I am still playing the sport? I just turned 30. I have a young son at home," she continued. "I guess if I had a young daughter, I would want her to have the ability to at least have the same dreams as my son." The same goes for her young nieces, and, for that matter, any girl who might find herself newly entranced by the game.
"It's unfortunate that right now, they simply can't have those same dreams," Lamoureux-Davidson said. "It's on us to make sure that that happens."
Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.
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