U.S. women's hockey team plans boycott if they don't get funding equity

The budget seems to indicate the women's team is funded at much lower levels than the men's.

The budget seems to indicate the women's team is funded at much lower levels than the men's.

At 5'3 and 135 pounds, Natalie Darwitz was a beast on a hockey rink: A three-time All-American and two-time NCAA national champion at the University of Minnesota, plus a three-time world champion and three-time Olympic medalist as a member of the U.S. Women's National Team.

Darwitz and her teammates earned silver at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. At the time she was a freshmen for the Golden Gophers. She'd medal again four years later in Turin. After the Italy Olympics, the newly-minted college grad faced a dilemma.  

If she wanted to compete in the 2010 Games in Vancouver, four years removed, how would she feed and cloth herself while training as a world-class athlete? 

"When I was younger, it was no big deal because I was in college.… Now if I wanted to play four more years for the next Olympics, it was going to be much harder because I didn't have college anymore," Darwitz says. "What ends up happening is, if you have a fuel, that desire, you'll find a way. But there was no organized [help] from USA Hockey," the sport's governing body.  

Being a member of the national team is a full-time gig. In addition to staying in the kind of shape that's expected, there are times when players must drop everything.

The squad plays in two international tournaments every year. Regular camps also dictate players' work around a passion that doesn't pay the bills. 

"It definitely wasn't easy, but I made it work by staying in Minnesota," says Darwitz. "I worked out on my own. I worked out with some teammates who were in the same boat. I practiced a lot with the Gopher team or hopped on the ice with some boys high school teams. For money, I did private skating lessons in the mornings before kids had school and ran hockey camps."

Seventeen of the 23 players on the current Women's National Team are post-college. They want more help from USA Hockey, and they want it now. Otherwise, they'll boycott a tournament that's scheduled to start March 31.  

In their March 15 statement threatening not to participate, the players stake their claim on "equitable support" and "fair treatment." The release did not mention specifics. As it stands now, the women receive monetary support from USA Hockey for only six months every four years. 

Darwitz applauds the players taking the hard line.  

"They've probably gotten to the point where there's a lot of built up frustration," she says. "The times have changed, but U.S.A. Hockey might not have changed the way they fund and help and promote the game.…

"What you're seeing is more out-of-college players continue to play and when that happens, they're saying, 'Hey, this is actually really difficult. I want to continue to follow my dreams and train. I'm having a hard time even paying my bills. How come I'm not getting any support?'"

The numbers support the womens' position.

USA Hockey is a $42 million annual business. About ten percent is invested in the National Team Development Program. The Ann Arbor-based operation, established to cultivate elite male players, has no women's equivalent. How much direct support the women receive is currently the subject of much debate. It's believed to be no more than $2 million annually.

USA Hockey's response has been to dig in. Saying its role isn't "to employ athletes," the organization has intimated it will field a team for the 2017 IIHF World Championships in Michigan with scabs.

"They're right. They're not an employer," Darwitz says. "The players are not asking for a salary. What I think they're saying is allow us to make ends meet.… I think the ladies are looking around and seeing nothing's changed in the last eight, ten years. I think it's fair and the time is right, and if you want a gold medal in the Olympic Games, and we haven't done that since 1998, what can do you differently?"