When it comes to the Olympics, I have never been much for patriotism. Before I knew much about sports, the whole "AMERICA POWER" thing, even if done in jest, was a little too reminiscent of the conservative jingoism I heard from my family members at the dinner table growing up. Besides, I thought, the best part of the Olympics is seeing people succeed at their dreams, no matter where they're from! As far as I was concerned, when it came to the Games, it was all tied up at fun-to-fun!
And then I started learning about the U.S. women's hockey team. Things pretty much went downhill from there.
At this point, I am about two PBRs away from lassoing a bald eagle and flying it to Russia myself in order to demonstrate just how fervently I ride-or-die for that team of weirdoes. A fire has been awakened within me, and its kindling is red, white and blue.
I know you guys are probably sick of me rambling about hockey, but hear me out. The treatment of women's hockey in the U.S. and Canada should be infuriating to anyone who cares about equality, whether or not you have any interest in seeing a bunch of ladies in pads hit a piece of rubber back and forth.
Whereas the dudes on the U.S. men's team, all of whom play for the NHL, make six-figure salaries or more, the non-collegiate players on the women's team don't make a single cent in order to play one of the most popular sports in North America. (The collegiate players, like all NCAA players, are ineligible to be paid, period.)
I'll let that sink in. Though they receive a training stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee and can be sponsored by corporations, the individual players aren't paid anything by the hockey league that employs them. Players on the team even had to raise money from fans so their families could come watch them play in Sochi.
As Karen Crouse recently wrote for the New York Times, "The women’s conundrum is that for the game to increase its profile it needs an infusion of money, but to get that money the game has to increase its profile." In other words, the cycle of continuing misogyny when it comes to women's hockey is killing the chances these athletes -- who work just as hard and perform just as admirably as their male counterparts -- may ever have at lasting success. And that is heartbreaking for everyone involved.
OK, slow your roll, Conway. Who are these people, anyway?
You're right. Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. After all, it's usually easiest to hitch your emotional wagon to a team when you have an idea of just whom, exactly, you're crying over.
The U.S. women's national team is composed of 21 players from all over the country. Though most of them play on their collegiate teams or in the Canadian Women's Hockey League -- the exception being goalie Jessie Vetter, who plays on the "elite amateur" Oregon Outlaws -- they've been practicing together for around a year. Most of them also know each other from previous tournaments, including (you guessed it) the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Obviously, it wouldn't be realistic for me to profile each athlete individually, but I invite you to obsessively Google each one and pick out your own favorites. Personally, I love forward Hilary Knight, class clown and the one of the biggest members of the team, who recently RTed a photo of herself sans trousers on Twitter before scoring a goal in her first shift against Finland on Saturday. (She is also fond of drawing a mustache on her index finger to amuse her teammates, because Hilary Knight is a ridiculous human.)
There's also Amanda Kessel, the Women's College Hockey Association Player of the Year for 2012-2013 (and whose favorite book is apparently 50 Shades of Grey); the Lamoureux twins Monique and Jocelyne, who are the team's "enforcers;" and team captain Meghan Duggan, who's recovered from a major concussion she sustained two years ago to try for a gold medal in her second Olympics.
My personal favorite, though, is probably Julie Chu, who's playing in her fourth Olympic Games at 31. She also has a commitment to teamwork and integrity that makes me cry like a mothertrucker, as evidenced by my reaction to this video:
Seriously, I dare you to watch that video without bawling all over your keyboard and resolving to do right by your friends and family. JULIE CHU!
Anyway, in addition to being damn good hockey players (and, let's face it, megababes), they are all enormous goofballs. Julie Chu supports her teammates with her eyes, Hilary Knight stole the Lamoureuxs' dog and tried to extract a ransom from the twins' mom, Josephine Pucci evidently once got slimed on Nickelodeon, and goalies Jessie Vetter and Bri McLaughlin are fond of trying on cheetah-printed leggings together at Target.
If nothing else, this video sums up the simultaneous hilarity and pressure to succeed the team seems to surround itself with:
Fine, you've convinced me that they're all lovable scamps (and hugely talented). But why should I support them during the Olympics?
Unfortunately, women's hockey is in a bit of a rough patch right now. Because the U.S. and Canada are so good, people are making noise about potentially cutting the event altogether -- never mind that, as Elena from Watch This Hockey pointed out, men's hockey went through a similar display of tilted country success in the first decades of its inclusion in the Games. And that would be devastating for these athletes, most of whom view getting a gold medal for their country as their ultimate professional achievement. As my friend Molly wrote at The Pink Puck, at this point, winning gold is the highest prize for those giving their lives to a sport that can't even afford to pay their athletes.
Look, I don't want to beat a dead horse, here. But like Crouse said in the Times, exposure and funding is a cycle of positive feedback. And the more we as viewers and fans can increase that exposure -- by tuning in at prime time, by getting topics to trend on Twitter, by writing thousand-word think-pieces about our fervent love of the team -- the easier it'll be for women's hockey (and its players) to survive.
This isn't an idle fear, either: after losing to Sweden on February 11, the German women's team lost their entire funding. That's an entire dream hinged on -- and gutted by -- one or two games.
But I don't want to root for the U.S. team!
I'm sorry, do you not have a soul? Look at all those videos I linked! Have you seen Hilary Knight's thighs? Julie Chu has waited more than 12 years for a gold medal, goddammit! Do you want to make Julie Chu cry?!
Nah, I'm just kidding. Despite the aforementioned issue of slanted competition, there are a lot of really fabulous players and teams on the ice this year. Russia has an 11-team women's professional league! Japan has made huge leaps and bounds over the last few years. Finland's goalie, Noora Raty, could very well carry her team to a medal with the strength of her saves.
Oh yeah, and there's Canada, too. I mean, whatever. They make for some great action when they throw down with our brave and loyal Knights of the Blue Line, I guess. Isn't that right, Eagle Sidekick?
Seriously, though, what happens next?
Glad you asked, friend. This morning, the U.S. lost 3-2 to Canada (cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from yours truly), but they've already clinched a spot in the semifinals. If they win there, they'll likely face Canada again in the gold-medal round on February 20. In 1998, the U.S. women won the first chance at gold. It's high time, in my opinion, that they win again.
After the Olympics end, things will admittedly get tougher. Like I said, many of the players spend much of their season with various teams in the CWHL, which does stream some games online. Some schools, including Kessel's, also broadcast games' audio or video. Unfortunately, it'll likely require some ingenuity, given that even NHL hockey is sometimes difficult to access depending on one's region. But I believe in you. At the very least, you can follow the players on their variousTwitteraccounts to keep up with their shenanigans.
In the meantime, we have another week of women's Olympic hockey to bask in, so we should enjoy it while it lasts. (And kick up a hell of a stink if they try to take it away from us.)
Kate is up all night to watch hockey: @katchatters