U.S. women’s national hockey team knows it won more than gold

NEW YORK – Amanda Kessel sensed it. Kendall Coyne, who had the puck before passing it to Hilary Knight, sensed it. The U.S. women’s national team players all felt that almost supernatural sensation in an overtime hockey game, when everyone in the arena knows a goal is about to be scored.

Knight’s goal against Canada in the IIHF world championship final last Friday night in Michigan gave the U.S. women’s national team the gold, and gave Coyne one of her most surreal moments as a player in the aftermath.

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“When I was on the NHL Network, they compared Hilary’s goal to Mario Lemieux’s goal in the Canada Cup against Russia,” said Coyne, of the 1987 classic highlight. “They showed that goal, and showed ours, and I was playing the role of Wayne Gretzky on that goal and Hilary was playing the role of Mario Lemieux.”

Because she’s taller?

“Maybe a little bit,” Coyne said with a smile, “but it was more about the shooting position.”

The NHL Network hosts joked that Coyne was like the Great One on that championship-clinching tally, assisting on Knight’s goal.

“Yeah, but he’s Canadian,” she said on the air.

Well, guess who was watching NHL Network during that interview? Wayne Gretzky, who texted host E.J. Hradek and said, “tell her I have five American children.”

“So that was pretty cool,” said Coyne.

It’s all been pretty cool for the USWNT lately. And surreal. And tense and exhausting. This was, after all, a tournament they nearly didn’t participate in. The players threatened to boycott the tournament unless “significant progress has been made on the year-long negotiations with USA Hockey over fair wages and equitable support.”

The dispute was very public, with the players and USA Hockey negotiating through the media and social media. The dispute was rather ugly, with both sides critical of the others’ claims. But the players had support from fans and the media, which doesn’t always happen in a labor dispute like this.

“I wasn’t surprised at all we had the support. Once our stories are told, it didn’t take long for people to jump on board,” said Coyne.

Kessel agreed, adding that she was impressed so many of the fans who were following the dispute went deep inside the numbers to learn about what was at stake financially.

In the end, the players won a new four-year deal – settled three days before the tournament – that improves compensation, PR and marketing, and investment in the girls’ and women’s programs.

Most importantly, it got the players in the tournament, winning the first women’s worlds gold for USA Hockey on American home ice. “We were close as a team. The previous weeks were a real team-building experience,” said Kessel, joining her teammates at a press event in Foley’s, a New York hockey bar.

Those weeks also made this gold medal weigh a little more heavily around the players’ necks. Every game against Canada is a must-win. Every game with a medal on the line is a must-win. But after all they’d been through in the previous two weeks, this wasn’t a must-win, according to Coyne – this was a ‘can’t-lose-under-any-circumstances.’

“This gold medal is so much more than a 3-2 overtime victory in Plymouth. This shows we fought the good fight in the two weeks leading up to the tournament, and then we fought again to win gold. Just the impact this is going to have on future generations is tremendous,” she said.

“We felt the pressure. We knew we had to win. But we had to show USA Hockey that we deserved what we fought for. They were there. They saw it.”

Now, the hope from the players is that USA Hockey hears it, too.

“That was one of the great pieces that came out of the negotiation: They want to hear from us. And they heard from us. So to keep this from happening again, our voice will be heard and it will be acted upon,” said Coyne.

She said the team’s general manager, Reagan Carey, had previously pushed hard for more equality between the men’s and women’s teams, to no avail.

“It was just a culture where women are an afterthought. The fact that we came forward, and the conversations we had with the higher-ups at USA Hockey, it was eye-opening,” said Coyne.

Now that the deal’s been made between the players and USA Hockey, the focus is entirely on the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. “I think we’re focused on moving forward. We’re happy we settled on an agreement and I think they are as well,” said forward Meghan Duggan.

The USWNT has won three silver medals and a bronze since capturing gold in the 1998 Olympics, which were the first Games to have women’s hockey. In the last two Olympics, they lost heartbreaking games to their archrival Canada with gold on the line.

But there’s a twist to next year’s Olympics: The USWNT may have a larger portion of the spotlight, now that the NHL has announced it won’t be sending its players to South Korea. “That’s not the way we wanted it to happen. But it could,” said Coyne.

After the last weeks, they’ve earned this recognition. Not just for capturing IIHF gold, but for winning so much more off the ice.

“It’s going to change the culture. I’ve been around for 10 years now. I want to see change,” said Coyne.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.