US Hockey Team
Credit: Photo Illustration.  Photo: Getty Images.

It’s been a victorious year for the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team. At the Pyeongchang Olympics, the team won gold for the first time in 20 years, an honor it’s seen only once before. Even more victorious: This year, USA Hockey will finally pay the players livable wages.

It’s no secret that in the world of elite sports, the wage gap is much wider than it is in the general workforce, where it hovers around 20 percent. For the U.S. women’s hockey team, that reality looked bleak: They received $1,000 monthly stipends for a six-month training period leading up to the Olympics, which, with Olympic bonuses, amounts to about $20,000 every four years. “It’s a full time job,” team captain Megan Duggan tells InStyle. But like many of her colleagues, she had to take on a side-hustle, in her case coaching NCAA hockey, to make ends meet.

It went deeper than the money, though, Duggan says. The men’s team played more games than the women’s. They got more publicity opportunities and better equipment. The men flew business, while the women sat in coach. And in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when USA Hockey held an official jersey unveiling ceremony, the women’s team’s invites got lost in the mail—and the decorative stitchings on the jerseys, which honored Team USA’s gold wins throughout history, failed to include the women’s 1998 victory.

“It was a slap in the face to us, and I think it was a clear example of the cultural changes that needed to take place,” says Duggan. Unfair pay became a regular topic of locker-room talk, and when it became clear that the athletes wanted to take action, they reached out to retired team veterans for their support too. “I made phone calls to what seemed like every female hockey player in the country to rally everyone and explain why we were doing this. It was more than a battle for money. We want more work, more PR opportunities, to not have to decide, ‘Do I need to pick up a job to support my family or can I continue to play hockey?’”

The women lawyered up, asking for salaries of approximately $68,000 alongside demands for fair treatment in other areas. They enlisted the services of Ballard Spahr, the same firm that represented the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team in their game-changing wage-discrimination claim against the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2016. “They’ve been role models to us the whole time,” says Duggan of the soccer players, who were paid $6 million less than their male counterparts the same year that they won the most-viewed soccer match—men’s or women’s—in U.S. history.

Throughout negotiations, what kept the hockey team determined, Duggan says, was unwavering unity. “We communicated with each other, we challenged each other, played devil’s advocate. There were countless times that we said, ‘Does anyone have any questions? It doesn’t matter if you disagree; let’s talk through it.'"

Which made it easier not to falter during their next phase of battle. After 13 tense months, negotiations came to a standstill last spring. The International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship was set to begin in March on the U.S. team’s ice—and the team, ranked no. 1 at the time, announced it would be staging a boycott.

“It was a scary thing for us. It was obviously a very public battle and ultimately it could have led to none of us playing on the national team again,” Duggan says. But the athletes didn't back down. “We knew that if we wanted to see some change, that was something we were gonna have to sacrifice. We always found ways to stick together and support each other and stay united throughout the whole process. And that was, without question, the reason why we were able to accomplish what we did.”

Two days before the championships, an agreement was reached.

Now, Duggan and her teammates aren’t signing jaw-dropping deals, but they won’t need to work side gigs just to get by anymore. One of the team’s most important achievements, Duggan says, was a women’s advisory committee that was formed, “so that we don’t have to get to this point." She gets messages on social media from other women, many of them young, female athletes, saying that, inspired by the team’s victory, they stood up for their own value. Duggan hopes the chain reaction continues—and says it felt pretty damn good to demonstrate their worth by bringing home a gold medal.

VIDEO: Meet Team USA: Meghan Duggan, Alex Rigsby, and Jordan Greenway

Is their fight over? “I think there’s more of a mutual respect and the notion that they’re looking forward to working together and moving forward,” Duggan says of the team’s relationship with U.S.A. hockey. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done—and our team is going to continue to do that.”

By Judith Brumley and Romy Oltuski