Kendall Coyne has been part of a lot of hockey history over the course of her career. But on the last night of March, she added to that history in a very big way. Coyne assisted on Hilary Knight’s overtime goal that gave the United States a 3-2 win over Canada and the gold medal at the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championships in Plymouth, Michigan. It marked the fourth straight world title for the United States and its eighth overall but it marked the first time the Americans captured a world title on home soil.
Coyne recounts the details of the winning goal. “It started off with a great block by Hilary,” she says. “She blocked it and moved the puck to me on the left side. I went down and had speed and I heard her call for the puck. She was in great position and I just passed it back to her. The rest is history I guess.”
Coyne scored five goals in five tournament games and added seven assists for 12 points. She shared leading-scorer honors with American teammate Brianna Decker and tied with Tereza Vanisova of the Czech Republic for the most goals in the tournament (Vaidisova played in six tournament games rather than five).
At age 24, Coyne has been part of five world championship teams and three more that won world titles at the U18 level. She also skated for the U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal in 2014 and says the experience of skating for the national team has never become routine.
“First of all, any time you get the opportunity represent your country it refreshes you,” she says, “and each world championship is unique in its own way so you kind of remember them differently for different reasons.”
Coyne’s hockey career has left her with an abundance of vivid memories. Growing up near Chicago she was introduced to the game as a three-year-old. Her older brother was already playing the game so she would accompany the rest of her family to the rink. Kendall’s first experience on skates, however, was less than auspicious.
“My parents actually put me in figure skates,” she recalls, “because that’s what little girls were doing 21 years ago. I lasted a week in those figure skates and I just cried and said I wanted to do what he did. What’s cool about that is today girls are seeing other girls play and saying ‘I want to do what she does.’” It’s been pretty cool to see the transition of the game but that’s not how I got started and I can’t thank my brother enough.”
As an eight-year-old, Coyne attended Cammi Granato’s hockey camp, an experience that put her on the road to being a world-class athlete. “She pulled out her gold medal from 1998 Nagano (Olympic Games),” Coyle says. “To this day I still look up to her, idolize her, and that was kind of the first moment I realized like ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do.’”
Coyne first played for the U18 national team at 15; she was the youngest player on the roster. “That was kind of when I realized ‘Yeah, I think I can do this,” she says. “That was obviously a huge honor and it was kind of the first time I realized that I think I can make it to the Olympics.”
To this day, Coyne recalls the day she first put on her sweater with the USA on it. “It is a special feeling,” she says. “It’s hard to explain. But it’s the culmination of all the hard work, the sacrifices made by me and my family. You put on that jersey and you get to represent your country. It’s hard to explain but it’s special and it never gets old, that’s for sure.”
Coyne made her world championship debut with the national team in April of 2011 in Switzerland and helped the U.S. win the gold medal.
In 2012 she enrolled at Northeastern and over the next four seasons scored 141 goals for the Huskies. In her final season, she was the recipient of the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in women’s college hockey. All the while she continued to shine for the national team, helping it to gold medals in 2013, ’15 and ’16. In 2014 she led the Olympic team in scoring.
The most recent world championships will likely be remembered for reasons that reverberated far beyond the confines of an ice rink. Until just days before the tournament started, there was a very real possibility that the American team would not compete because of a pay dispute between the players and USA Hockey.
Historically, members of the women’s national team received minimal compensation for their efforts. Members of the Olympic team were compensated at a rate of $1,000 per month during the six-month period prior to the Games. Apart from training stipends provided by the U.S. Olympic Committee (the amounts varied) the players received no additional compensation.
As a result, and with the National Women’s Hockey League struggling financially, some players were forced to juggle their hockey careers and ambitions around the necessity of earning a living. And some were forced to make difficult choices.
“There were players making decisions, ‘Do I play hockey or do I need to retire because I need to buy a house,” Coyne says, or ‘Do I need to start a family?’ ‘Do I buy groceries this week or do I pay for my ice time?”
Talks amongst the players, their attorneys, and USA Hockey spanned some 14 months. In a nutshell, the players wanted to be able to make a living wage playing the sport they loved. In addition to a legitimate full-time salary, their demands included upgraded travel accommodations, similar to what the men’s national team was receiving, along with an expanded game schedule.
“We spoke to them about what we wanted and what we needed” Coyne recalls. “And for 14 months and they kind of dragged their feet. If things were resolved within the last 14 months we wouldn’t have had to boycott. But unfortunately, things were dragged out and the leverage we had was to sit out the world championships and all of us were willing to do that because things needed to change.”
Coyne says the players were unified throughout the process, not just the 23 players on the national team roster but also the players who were approached about being part of a ‘replacement team’ that theoretically would have represented the U.S. in the tournament had the negotiations fallen through.
“The unity is what made this work,” she says, “and it wasn’t the unity among the 23 (rostered) players, it was the unity among the entire nation. They (USA Hockey) reached out to over 500 players and those 500 players had to say ‘No’ to competing in the world championship, so the support that we received from so many people all over the country and world was unbelievable and that’s what made this work.
The situation was stressful for the players, however, who did their best to prepare themselves mentally and physically to compete in the tournament, while knowing all the while they might be deprived of that opportunity.
“There were good days, there were bad days,” Coyne says. “There were days I thought we were playing, there we days I didn’t think we were going to play but ultimately, all of us continued to train and devoted our time to training and skating and eating, sleeping, everything so that we were properly prepared to be the best team in the world. “
Coyne notes that over the course of the negotiations, the players formed their own mutual-support network. “We had each other to lean on,” she says. “We were constantly in communication, we were constantly offering support to each other.
“Some players were making a hundred calls a day. Some players were sending a hundred emails a day. Everyone had a different role. Just being there to assist everyone was what made this successful.”
Coyne says the players were committed to their cause, despite the fact that boycotting the world championships could have jeopardized or in fact ended their hockey careers at the elite level. “Obviously, we were willing to sit out the world championships,” she points out. We weren’t turning back. And as far as thinking ‘Oh they’re going to take other players so we should just cave in,’ we were not caving in. I think the strength of our group showed and ultimately that’s why we were able to agree on what we agreed upon.”
In light of all that occurred in the weeks and months leading up to the tournament, this year’s world championship win was particularly meaningful to the players that achieved it.
“It was an emotional win,” Coyne says, “and it was an emotional feeling right after the game. Obviously, winning a gold medal was unbelievable but then looking up in the crowd and seeing our families and friends. “Winning a gold medal on home soil for the first time, seeing signs and USA Hockey jerseys and (having people) saying ‘Thank you you’re my hero,’ things like that It was just so much to take in. When Hilary scored that goal I think all of us took a deep breath and said ‘We did it. And it was on many different levels that We did it.”
The gold medal game was the latest in the long rivalry between the United States and Canada and as usual, each team raised its own level of play to match the standard set by its opponent. The two nations have played for the gold medal in very women’s world championship ever contested; Canada has won 10 gold medals to eight for the United States.
Coyne says having the two best teams in the world sharing the same sheet of ice is a unique experience.
“As an athlete, that’s the situation you want to be in,” Coyne says. “You want to play against the best and you want to be at your best. To be elite, I think you need to be able to play your best when you play against the best, and so for my teammates and I, those are the games we look forward to the most because every player on both sides brings their best, their A game. So it makes it for a more enjoyable and obviously a more competitive hockey game.”
The United States defeated Canada in the first Olympic gold-medal game in 1998. Since then, Canada has won four straight gold medals. The United States has taken silver in each Olympiad, save for 2006 when the Americans settled for bronze.
And while the two nations are still the two top teams in the sport until it’s proven otherwise, Coyle says the chasm that separates the United States and Canada from the rest of the women’s hockey-playing world is disappearing.
“The gap has been closed,” she says. “And you saw at the last world championships; Finland beat Canada. Germany was the eighth-seeded team going into the tournament and they ended up (finishing fourth) so the gap is definitely closing.
“Finland is a great hockey team, they have one of the best goaltenders in the world (Noora Raty). The gap is definitely closing.”
Prior to the world championships, Coyne spent the 2016-17 season with the Minnesota Whitecaps, an independent professional team. She was drafted by the NWHL’s Boston Pride, but staying in the Midwest allowed her to earn a Master’s degree while still playing hockey and also enabled her to be closer to her fiancée Michael Schofield who plays for the Denver Broncos.
“I think a lot of people had visions of me playing in Boston,” she says, because I went to college there, and the Olympic residency was there so I had a lot of moments in Boston over the past five years but when it came down to it, it made a lot more sense for me to play for Minnesota. I wasn’t losing any money, I was breaking even. I knew the coaches, the people I was playing for.
“The organization is first class and treats me with respect and cares about me as a person. And ultimately I was able to work, get my Masters, see my fiancée more, and bounce around between home and Denver, so it offered the perfect balance for me this past season.”
For all Coyne and her teammates accomplished on the ice at the recent world championships, it is the stand they took for equal pay and gender equity that likely will be remembered longest. She was asked what message she would like to send to women in corporate America that may be dealing with this issue.
“Fight the good fight,” she says. “Don’t give in because you’re a woman. You deserve as much as you deserve, regardless if you’re a man or a woman … We fought for what we believed was right and it was right in the end. If there are women in corporate America that are going through the same situation that we were going through they need to fight. Hopefully one day women won’t have to fight anymore and they’ll be treated (equally) and I think that ultimately that’s the goal.”
Kendall Coyne has been on a long and fruitful journey. It is a journey that seemingly has many miles to go, thanks to her passion for the game of hockey.
“I think the most satisfying part of this entire journey has been the experiences that have come outside of the rink for me,” she says. “I’ve been able to see the world. I’ve been able to inspire a new generation, impact a bunch of young girls. It has brought me so many experiences I would never be able to get if I didn’t play this game.”
If there is a secret to Coyne’s success it is the fact that she loves hockey. It could be argued that love of the game is the key ingredient in the recipe for sustained success in any sport. And that’s the message that she would like to send to any young girl who seeks to emulate her and her teammates the way the eight-year-old Kendall Coyne grew up wanting to emulate Cammi Granato.
“I would tell her to play because she loves it,” Coyne says. It’s hard work but it’s a lot of fun and I hope that they would continue to play this game because they love it.”
“That was something that was big in my career. My parents never made me play. They never told me ‘Hey do you want to play on the national team?, or this or that. They journey that I’ve been on is kind of where it has gone. It was never forced. So I would tell a young girl to play the sport because they love it. And if someone is trying to tell them differently or persuade the in another way because it’s not the popular decision, do what you love and don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
— Kendall Coyne (@KendallCoyne) April 8, 2017