It was a hockey game transformed into an anthem.
The winner’s gold glowed in triumph over ignorance.
It happened shortly after 11 p.m. in Los Angeles on Wednesday, well past midnight on the East Coast, so many in this country were not awake to witness it. But those who did see it will not soon forget it, and those who felt it will forever be empowered by it.
It was America’s 2018 Olympic moment, created and grown and ultimately fiercely grabbed by the finest of America’s 2018 women.
I jumped out of my chair when it ended. Did you? I stared at the television in as much awe as admiration. How could you not? This was not the completion of a game, but the continuation of a movement sweeping through this country as surely as these amazing athletes skated through the Gangneung Hockey Centre in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
With a flashing fake and thudding block, the U.S. women’s hockey team, less than a year after winning a boycott-threatening fight for pay and benefits equal to the men, won a 3-2 shootout victory over Canada for its first gold medal in 20 years.
It ended when Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson of the U.S. scored a dazzling, juking goal in the sixth round of the shootout just before Maddie Rooney, a 20-year-old U.S. goaltender, used her giant pads to stop Meghan Agosta’s shot to seal it.
Not all gender-equity battles are fought in courtrooms or in protest marches or in Hollywood. Sometimes they occur on ice rinks 6,000 miles from home with participants cloaked in helmets and pads and screams.
When the U.S. had earned the win, after three previous gold-medal losses to the Canadians including a heartbreaking collapse four years ago in Sochi, the American women threw off those helmets, tossed aside those pads, and skated into each other’s arms in a hug that eventually included the embrace of a nation.
Everyone was talking about it Thursday morning. Hardened sports radio talk shows were marveling at it. Social commentators were discussing it. The champions understood it. The champions reveled in it.
“It’s the greatest moment of our lives,’’ said forward and captain Meghan Duggan. “We worked really hard to put ourselves in position to win this thing. We’ve come a long way. We talked about it, our process, our mission. It’s been very clear since Day 1.’’
That mission was about more than winning hockey games. It was a mission still sadly shared by many American women today, a mission for equality.
Day 1 was the day last March when the U.S. women’s hockey team finally said, “Enough.”
Sixteen days before the world championships, the women announced they would not play until USA Hockey treated them the same as the men.
“US WNT will not play in 2017 World Championship due to stalled negotiations over fair wages and support from USA Hockey,’’ wrote Duggan in a tweet that contained the hashtag #BeBoldForChange.
The disparities listed in their complaint would have been stunning if they still weren’t so common in today’s workplaces. The women received $1,000 a month for the six-month pre-Olympic period, less than one-tenth the men’s reported stipends. When they traveled, the men flew business and the women flew coach. The men received a $50 travel per diem while the women received $15.
It gets worse. When Nike unveiled the USA hockey jerseys before the 2014 Games, the women’s team wasn’t even invited to the ceremony. And while the men’s two gold medals from 1960 and 1980 were honored in small print on the jersey, the women’s 1998 gold medal was excluded.
“We are asking for a living wage and for USA Hockey to fully support its programs for women and girls and stop treating us like an afterthought,’’ said Duggan at the time.
Some thought their complaints would be ignored because, really, except for once every four years, who follows women’s hockey? It turns out, their cause became much bigger than sports in a country on the verge of a gender empowerment movement. In some ways, their protests may have started this movement, its resonance strong and immediate.
Every major sports union backed the boycott. Sixteen U.S. senators spoke out in support. “Be Bold For Change’’ became a celebrated motto. Hilary Knight, one of the team’s veterans, explained their cause in words that spoke for the growing sensitivities of a nation.
“When change doesn’t happen, you have to take it upon yourself and strive for more,’’ Knight told the New York Times. “We have limitless potential. You never put a ceiling on anything. You can’t treat us like an afterthought. We’re going to get what’s fair and do it how it needs to be done.’’
They got it done. Three days before the world championships, they reached an agreement with USA Hockey for pay and benefits equal to the men’s team. Their salaries increased to about $70,000 a year. Travel and insurance benefits were brought to the men’s levels. And for the first time, in a clause that eventually proved rather timely, there would be a $20,000 bonus for an Olympic gold medal.
“Today reflects everyone coming together and compromising in order to reach a resolution before the betterment of the sport,” Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey, said in a statement at the time.
Equality is a compromise? The women shrugged off the stinging words to win that world championship tournament, and never veered from their skate toward greatness.
Seven months ago, Lamoureux-Davidson was given an American flag. She carried it around with her every day until unfurling it Wednesday. That is, after she unfurled her game-winning goal, in which she faked Canada goaltender Shannon Szabados into a heap, much like the NBA’s Stephen Curry driving past a bewildered opponent.
Her move even has a name, after a Britney Spears song. She calls it “Oops!…I Did It Again.’’
“I’ve done that thousands of times around tires just set out on open ice,’’ Lamoureux-Davidson told the BBC. “I’ve butchered it a thousand times, ran into tires, tripped over tires just working on my hands, I’m just glad it worked out this time.’’
The game-winning hero, a North Dakota native whose twin sister, Monique, tied Wednesday’s game to send it to overtime, is now toting another memento.
“I’m digging this necklace I got today,’’ Lamoureux-Davidson told reporters about her gold medal. “I’m not taking it off for a while.’’
When it ended, the U.S. women spoke as if they knew the medal was simply another milepost in a journey that will continue, that must continue.
“I think this performance sort of transcended our sport just because we weren’t receiving the right support of a gold-medal winning team,’’ Knight told reporters afterward. “And this is what a gold-medal team looks like with the right support. We’re taking steps in the right direction, but there’s still a long ways to go.’’
Providing an unreal exclamation point to this surreal occasion, the victory actually occurred on the 38th anniversary of the greatest sporting triumph in American Olympic history, the U.S. men’s hockey upset of Russia.
Do you believe in miracles? Oops, they did it again.