shattering the ice ceiling

words: jesse ruddock

photography: alana paterson

On March 8, International Women’s Day, when women worldwide were called to go on general strike for equal rights, I had one worry: What about women living more or less alone, without a team to work with and trust? It’s potentially dangerous, if not impossible, to strike by yourself. The same concern did not apply to the US women’s national hockey team strike this month. Starting on March 15, in the deep, roiling wake of both the International Women’s Strike and the Women’s March on Washington, this was team business. Twenty-three players stood apart but unified and risked their careers by promising to boycott the IHFF World Championships in Plymouth, Michigan, at the end of the month, if they were not finally paid a living wage and allocated equitable investment in youth hockey programs for girls. This followed fifteen months of contract negotiations with USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body; fifteen months of never languishing and of ultimately never giving in.

The personal risk of the boycott proved real over the past two weeks as USA Hockey frantically worked to sign a fresh-faced team of strikebreakers. USA Hockey Excutive Director Dave Ogrean promised to deliver a team—any old team, it seemed—to the IHFF World Championships. That’s when not only the national team but the entire women’s hockey community delivered a hip-check to injustice: No one would sign up to lace their skates and glide across the picket line. No one would betray their role models for the sake of their own career or pleasure. Failing to recruit top-tier players from NCAA Division I and youth programs—the very programs that stand unfunded compared to boys’ youth programs, which receive more than 3.5 million dollars a year—USA Hockey had no shame moving on to recruit Division III players and at least one post-grad playing in a beer league. Even they didn’t want to play.

Meanwhile, the NHL, NBA, WNBA, NFL, and MLB voiced their support for the real Team USA. In doing so, they united to defend more than just this team and this sport, but all women and men. As Dayna Tortorici called out before the International Women’s Strike, “In degrading women’s labor, we degrade all labor.” And vice versa: In honoring women’s labor, we honor all labor. That’s what happened here in a historic turnaround that even the losers are calling win-win: “This process has, in the end, made us better,” Ogrean conceded in a joint statement released by USA hockey and the players on Tuesday night.

The strike did not break. It didn’t budge, and only three days before the big tournament, a new four-year contract with favorable terms was granted and signed. The women will now receive year-round wages that will allow them to support themselves and their families; a Women’s High Performance Advisory Board will be created to advance girls’ and women’s hockey across the country; and youth development programs for girls will receive much-needed funding.

If you don’t hang out at rinks, it might be hard to guess what all this means. What Team USA has fought for and won might seem small, far away, or vague. Documenting the everyday life of the Junior Women’s Hockey League (JWHL), photographer Alana Paterson makes it intimate and specific. The JWHL is a premier youth league packed with prospects, with teams across North America from Quebec to California. Only 10 years old, the JWHL has placed over 600 of its players in college hockey programs. These young women represent the sport’s very near future. They are who Team USA stopped the clocked for. The kids these days are not just alright; the kids are killing it. This is a place where stereotypes of teenage girls are laid to waste. Camaraderie rules. Sweat is great. And beauty is at one with strength.