When Alana Blahoski first laced up her hockey skates at the age of six, it was her mother who didn’t – initially – want her to play. As she grew older and more skilled, it was the parents of the boys she faced on the ice.
But she persisted and went on to become a college and international star.
Blahoski likes to say, “It’s all about the timing.” So in 1998, the first year the Olympics offered women’s ice hockey, the Minnesota native earned a spot on the US Women’s National Team and captured a gold medal.
“To be part of that was truly a dream come true,” Blahoski reminisced. “When I was a kid I watched the men’s 1980 team win and I decided that I wanted to be an Olympian. That’s what I wanted to do, and when you’re young you don’t think about being male or female you just think, OK, that’s something I can do.”
Women’s Hockey Has Come Far, but Not Far Enough
Fast-forward almost 20 years later, and while it is 20 years later, her contemporaries who are preparing to compete at the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championships and the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang DO have to think about gender.
On the morning of March 15, members of the US Women’s National Team simultaneously released the following statement following stalled negotiations with USA Hockey:
— Amanda Kessel (@AmandaKessel28) March 15, 2017
Blahoski, who was on the 2000 team that dealt with similar discussions that eventually folded, pegged the issues with USA Hockey at the time as “tricky”. Tricky is a good word to use today as well. Following the current roster’s statement, USA Hockey responded with the following:
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) March 15, 2017
Yes, the number of women and girls playing hockey has grown since Blahoski and her teammates won gold almost 20 years ago. But, as numerous media outlets have noted, the funds provided to the programs for boys and men, versus women and girls, are not divided equally. The question of whether it should be as equal since more boys than girls play the sport is floating above everyone’s heads. But the USWNT isn’t just fighting for themselves. As noted, they want more money allocated to growing the game and to hopefully, one day, have at least the same number of boys and the same number of girls playing the sport.
Non-Olympic Years Key Point of Demands
USA Hockey does offer a stipend for six months leading up to Olympic Games; however, the players feel they are not provided proper funds to train for the remaining 3.5 years between Olympics. Not only have they asked for more funds to train physically, as they are expected to stay in shape year-round, they’ve also asked for more games to play in to keep their hockey acumen up to par. Unlike the boy’s junior teams, who play in 60 games a year, the women are only scheduled for 9-10 games a year in addition to World Championships and Four Nations Cups.
So, the players responded:
“I’m not sure what the girls are making now [compared to when I played],” said Blahoski, who was initially unaware of the statement made by the team as the interview took place within an hour of the news breaking. “But it always comes down to how much revenue the team generates – and it’s always compared to the men. I understand that, but I don’t think women should be paid any less when they are doing the same amount of work. That seems to be a common theme even in our society in the US in 2017.”
On Friday, after the WNT stood their ground, USA Hockey issued an update from their side of the table. But once again, USA Hockey did not disclose the numbers in comparison to the men’s program, or to the percentage spent on the women’s program based on their overall expenditures. They also called the athletes’ participation, especially in non-Olympic years, “voluntary.” True, they can choose not to play. But in 2015, the members of the team were told they had to attend a mandatory camp – and not the first-ever women’s Winter Classic at Fenway Park – or risk losing their eligibility to compete at the 2016 World Championships. Plus, USA Hockey produced monetary numbers the WNT continued to dispute.
— Hilary Knight (@HilaryKnight) March 18, 2017
As in most contract negotiation, it appears as if both sides are far apart.
Just by Stepping on the Ice, Blahoski Was a Trailblazer
Since first joining the national team in 1996 at the Three Nations Cup (now known as the Four Nations Cup), Blahoski has been a member of USA Hockey at every possible level. Aside from her Olympic gold medal in Nagano, she served as an assistant coach in Torino, as head coach of USA Hockey’s Women’s Under-22 team in 2008, as an athlete director on USA Hockey’s board of directors and, most recently, as a certified youth hockey coach.
Yet when she started playing hockey in the early ’80s, there were people who didn’t want girls playing hockey, and tried to get them to play ringette.
“They really tried to get girls to not play, and especially not to play with the boys,” said Blahoski, who played college hockey at Providence. “I was the only girl on my boy’s team … I would have fathers from the other team try to get into an altercation with my father saying that I didn’t belong on the ice, that I don’t belong out there.
“You don’t see that nowadays. I can go to a clinic with little boys and not have the first question they ask me is, ‘Oh, are you a figure skater?’ That has changed. The general mentality. You have boys that play with little girls all the time now, and they respect the girls that play … The respect is there and that’s been decades of hard work and prior to me even coming along there were girls that blazed the way for us to even step onto the ice.”
While stepping on the ice today is easier for women and girls – as seen by the more than 70,000 female players who are registered – the women of today’s national team have brought to light how far USA Hockey still needs to go. As Blahoski noted above, the boys have respect for the girls they play with, but it looks like its the “old boys club” at USA Hockey, and other like-minded adults, that may have a problem.
“I think there’s individuals out there, even here in the US, that have no idea we have a women’s national team or women’s Olympic team,” she added. “These are individuals who have children who play hockey, who have little boys that play hockey, and that kind of blows my mind. All you have to do [at a minimum] is just watch the Olympics every four years and you understand that we do have a team.”
2017 IIHF World Championships Fast Approaching
When discussing the 2006 Olympic team, Blahoski stated that it was her belief that the bronze medal finish was due to a lack of leadership. Well, it’s fair to say the 2017 team does not.
— Hilary Knight (@HilaryKnight) March 16, 2017
Heading into the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championships, Team USA was the number one seed and poised to win their fourth consecutive championship. The tournament, scheduled to start March 31, is on home soil in Michigan.
“I think in this economy, in this country, it comes down to profit,” noted Blahoski, a former youth hockey coach, who now coaches individual players in NYC and Europe. “It comes down to revenue. It’s every business. It’s how much money can we make from fashion to sports. So, it’s not a unique phenomenon, but I don’t know what the solution is. I really don’t because if you don’t play … then what happens? Do we stand still? Do we move backward? But how much can you take? How much can you compromise? Because you’re doing just as much, if not more, as your male counterpart.”
Despite USA Hockey’s blind belief that the national team was not serious about their holdout, evident by the ‘5 p.m. Thursday deadline’ to tell them if they were playing, they are.
The players are now telling USA Hockey that, despite winning medals in every Olympic Games in which they’ve participated, they are high-level athletes too. That they deserve the same respect.
They are not only fighting for equality for themselves but for the 100 women and girls in the system who are standing by their side, the players of the NWHL who have refused to suit up in their place and the tens of thousands of women and girls playing across the country.
As Blahoski said, “Let’s give women the chance to play. Let’s grow the game. Let’s grow the respect for the women’s game.”
Formerly ESPN, SNY, and SNY.tv.
4-time Emmy winner, 2-time NY Emmy nominee for short-form writing.