‘Fight for women’s hockey’: Visibility for sport must continue after 2022 Winter Olympics, players say – USA TODAY

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BEIJING — Kendall Coyne Schofield became emotional after the United States women’s hockey team lost the 2022 Winter Olympics gold medal game to Canada. The defeat, however, was not why tears were suddenly welling up in the American captain’s eyes.

“I know there’s a lot of young girls watching back home. I hope,” Coyne Schofield said, her voice cracking.

She continued: “Women’s hockey cannot be silent after these two weeks. They need to be able to see themselves in us. And it can’t be silent. It can’t just not be visible because it’s not the Olympic Games. We need to continue to push for visibility. We need to continue to fight for women’s hockey. Because it’s not good enough. It can’t end after the Olympic Games.”

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Coyne Schofield summarized the paradox that faces women’s hockey. Every four years it assumes a spotlight during the Winter Olympics, and the USA-Canada rivalry is a main attraction for NBC and other rightsholders. But once the medals are handed out, women’s hockey recedes into the shadows for nearly four years, only to be propped up again once it’s time.

The issue, Coyne Schofield’s teammates agree, is visibility.

“Our game is not shown enough,” U.S. forward Amanda Kessel told USA TODAY Sports before the Olympics. “It’s not talked about enough. It’s not covered enough. It’s really hard for people to see us and see all the talent that there is. I think that’s ultimately where all the problems start.”

There is some television coverage in the months leading up to the Games – exhibitions against Canada in October and December were occasionally aired on NHL Network. It’s not enough, Kessel said.

“It’s just so sparse,” Kessel said. “We have a few games on TV (before the Olympics), then in the Olympics, we gain so much traction.”

Afterward, “it just falls off.”

“I think once we can get that consistency of being on TV, that’s when our game will really start to take off,” Kessel said.

Players on both sides of the border formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, and there’s the Premier Hockey Federation (formerly the National Women’s Hockey League), which received $25 million investment from its Board of Governors in January.

But the PHF doesn’t include the world’s best players. The top female players formed the PWHPA in 2019 after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League collapsed earlier that year.

“The best players in North America aren’t in anything that exists other than the PWHPA,” U.S. forward Hilary Knight told USA TODAY Sports prior to Beijing. “And I think those questions wouldn’t be around if we were guys. It would be like ‘OK, the best players are playing there, we’re supporting the PWHPA.’

“Appreciate talent when you see talent. You like the game of hockey, follow who you want, but if you like the landscape and developing and pushing the sport to the next level, I would say look no further than the PWHPA.”

Of the professional players – several are in or entering college – who skated in the Beijing gold medal game, all but two are part of the PWHPA. (Americans Alex Carpenter and Megan Bozek played professionally in China prior to joining the Olympic roster.)

Any on-ice animosity between the cross-border rivals disappears in the endeavor of growing the game.

“We’re really good friends,” Canada goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens said of the Canadian and American players, noting that nearly all played with or against each other in college hockey. “We know what’s most important.”

She added: “As soon as the Olympics are over, we’re probably going to connect and make sure we do what’s best for us and (what we need to do) to grow the game – not only in North America, but across the world.”

This is an additional goal of the PWHPA despite consisting of almost entirely North American talent. Skilled players from Finland, the Czech Republic, Japan and elsewhere could help fill out rosters and bring a global element to the organization.

In turn, Knight hopes, it will force international federations to invest more in their women’s hockey programs, from the grassroots levels up – making the Olympic competition more balanced in future decades.

Resolving other issues – juggling full-time jobs away from the ice, finding practice times and reserving ice space, figuring out who will be the massage therapist or physiologist on hand for training that day – will also accelerate the support and growth of women’s hockey.

“When those things get taken care of,” Knight said, “this game’s going to be so much better for it.”

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.