Meghan Duggan: Proudest moment of my career? Fighting for equality in hockey

[Editor’s note: Meghan Duggan, who captained the U.S. women’s hockey team to Olympic gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, announced Tuesday she is retiring. Over a 14-year stint with the national team, Duggan scored 40 goals and 35 assists in 137 games and won seven gold medals at IIHF world championships. She was part of three Olympic teams, winning silver in 2010 and 2014 before the gold in 2018. Duggan expands on her decision in this personal essay.]

One of the biggest moments in my hockey career came in a boardroom. It was March 2017, and for the previous 15 months, my teammates and I had been negotiating with USA Hockey for equitable support and treatment for girls and women in the program. We were getting nowhere.

It’s not easy to stand up to an establishment. Past players and mentors, such as the legendary Cammi Granato, advised us: If you are going to go after something this monumental, you all have to be on the same page. Any female hockey player in the United States needed to know why we were doing this. If they had concerns, we were happy to talk through it. I had thousands of conversations with players from all levels, from the national team to high school, and their parents. Some were scared. Some were hopeful. A lot of times we were frustrated. But we had to stick together, trust our guts and be confident that this was the right thing to do.

We reached a point that we never wanted to get to: threaten a boycott. We said we wouldn’t play in the upcoming world championships until meaningful progress was made. Which brings me to that boardroom three years ago.

After another long round of fruitless negotiations, it was time to have one final discussion for the day. John Langel, one of our lawyers, said, “Meghan, I think you should deliver it.” Up to that point, our lawyers had done all of the talking, but as a team, we agreed that the other side needed to hear a player’s voice.

I’ll never forget being in that room and the emotion we all felt when we sat down again with USA Hockey. My teammates and I were practically arm in arm on one side of the table.

“We did not come this far to only come this far,” I began on behalf of all of us. “This is really important to us, and we’re not giving up now.”

We knew that moment was so much bigger than all of us. It was bigger than hockey — and bigger than sports. We were determined to implement change and make history.

As I retire, reaching that landmark deal with USA hockey in 2017 remains one of the highlights of my 14-year career with the national team.

I was talking to my best friend, Erika Lawler, recently. We’ve known each other almost 20 years. In sharing my news with her, she said, “Megs, you have so much to be proud of.”

I started thinking a lot about that and realized it isn’t an easy thing to say about yourself, especially out loud. I had never thought about it before, let alone said it.

I’m proud of myself.

As women, it’s unnatural to be self-congratulatory. We have in the past been taught to be deferential and modest. But you know what? I am proud. I’m SO proud of our team and everything we went through together to achieve the success we did and proud of the way we inspired young girls to take the sport to new heights. I’m proud of the hard work I put in, as well as of relationships I built. I’m so proud that this was my hockey career.

There are so many other unforgettable moments. The gold medal we won that spring at the world championships, one of seven I had the honor of being a part of, is another highlight. As is the unparalleled, euphoric joy of winning Olympic gold at PyeongChang in 2018, which was especially gratifying after our excruciating overtime loss to rival Canada in the Sochi Olympics four years earlier and the 2-0 loss to them four years before that in the Vancouver Games.

More meaningful and important to me than it all are people: my family, teammates, coaches, support staff, fans, organizations and the next generation of players. They are at the core of all of those experiences, and I am so humbled and grateful to be able to share my career with them. Hockey changed my life. I put on a pair of skates as a toddler and grew up through the sport. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to play for Team USA.

Although being an athlete will always be part of my identity, I am ready for the next chapter. I know it’s the right decision for me, but at the same time, it’s still very emotional. The exciting part is deciding what’s next. My wife, Gillian, and I welcomed our son, George, in February. I am looking forward to the new adventure and challenges of being a mom and to helping put George in positions to thrive.

I want to continue to make an impact in hockey — working hard to change our sport for the better and taking pride in inspiring the next generation — but now I get to explore what that looks like. I’ve always dreamt about becoming the first female GM of an NHL team, and who knows? Maybe one day. I’m grateful I have so much in life to look forward to and work toward, but first I want to reflect.

I always had a strong personality, to say the least. As a kid, I gave my parents hell and never wanted to be told what to do. When my parents signed my older brother up for hockey at the local rink in Danvers, Massachusetts, my mom jokes that she remembers there being some sort of two-for-one deal. I was only 3 years old, but she decided it would be much better to watch me on the ice than try to chase me around the stands and keep me out of trouble while my brother played.

Growing up, I always played on all-boys teams because that’s all there were. It was never really an issue — which is probably a testament to my parents, my teammates and their parents, too. They fostered an environment of inclusivity. Even though I was the only girl, I was never made to feel lesser than. I was told I could achieve whatever I wanted, as long as I was passionate and stayed committed.

When I was 10, I went to an event with my dad at which Gretchen Ulion was the keynote speaker. It was spring 1998, and Gretchen had just come home from the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, where the U.S. won gold. It was the first time women’s hockey was included in the Games.

I got to meet Gretchen, put on her game jersey and her medal around my neck, and hear her story of becoming an Olympian. Before then, I had never seen, never heard of, never knew of an elite female hockey player. I was the only girl on boys teams; I idolized men such as Ray Bourque and wanted to play in the NHL. I never saw other girls playing hockey. Meeting Gretchen — and seeing her command a room filled with mostly men — was transformative for me.

I left that night and told every single person I knew — teachers, coaches, strangers, you name it — that I was going to go to the Olympics one day and captain Team USA to a gold medal. I wrote it down in every single notebook I had. It’s crazy to reflect on that now. I was 10 but apparently determined. I proceeded to build my life around that goal.

I attended a prep school in New England called Cushing Academy. My eyes were pleasantly opened there to a whole new level of exposure to girls/women’s hockey, and by my senior year, I had committed to the University of Wisconsin to play for the Badgers. I fell in love with Wisconsin’s campus, community and the athletic program. I wanted to surround myself with players and coaches who were going to challenge me, and I wanted to play for a team that was vying for a national championship every year. I still dreamt of going to the Olympics, and I thought who better to learn from than Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson — the Miracle man himself, the leading goal scorer at the 1980 Olympics.

Coach Johnson challenged and pushed me but also trusted me and threw me into situations in which I could learn and grow. I have never found a way to properly thank him for the profound impact he has had on me as a player, leader and person. (Thank you, Coach.) By December of my freshman year, I was invited to my first U.S. national team training camp. I was 19, and I idolized (and still wanted the autographs of) players such as Angela Ruggiero, Julie Chu, Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell, and now I had an opportunity to be on the same ice as them.

I remember watching Krissy at practice; I couldn’t believe how fast she was. I couldn’t imagine myself ever being at that elite of a level. I was truly in awe of all of the women there. I studied them all week, Krissy especially. One morning, in the middle of camp, we were sitting next to each other on the bench before practice, just chatting, and she looked at me and said, “You’re going to be really great for this team.” We were at one of the old, beat-up rinks in Lake Placid, New York. It was probably 6 a.m., a few days after Christmas, freezing cold. It’s one of those camps that you just grind through every year, but I’ll never forget that moment. It gave me the confidence to feel like I belonged.

Shortly after graduating from Wisconsin, I played professional hockey. The initial transition from college was definitely challenging. At Wisconsin, athletes — male or female — are given everything you could imagine to succeed. You feel almost like a true professional athlete. As a women’s professional hockey player back then, you were not given much. We had to sharpen our own skates, buy our own equipment and practice at 10 p.m. or other odd hours. There were no permanent locker rooms or places to call our own, no towels, freezing cold showers at dingy rinks and really long bus rides. But I did it because I loved the game — that’s why we all do it. But also, at that time, it was the only opportunity to step on the ice and stay sharp between national team camps and events.

I dream one day that a young girl can grow up and truly make a career and a living playing professional hockey. I dream she will be treated like a professional and receive the same opportunities as men. Being part of the current Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, we are moving the needle, and we are closer, but we’re not there yet.

I’ll never forget how proud I felt walking in the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. I was surrounded by my closest friends and teammates and all of Team USA. I had made my dream a reality.

I thought of how grateful I was for the encouragement and unrelenting support of my family: my mom, Mary, my dad, Bob, my sister, Katelyn, and brother, Bryan. The four of them have been on my side since day one — through heartbreak and elation — and I am eternally thankful for their love and strength. I also thought of how proud I was to represent not only my country but also my hometown of Danvers, Massachusetts, where I started this lofty journey as a kid.

All athletes have different journeys, and when you reach a certain stage, there’s a shared understanding of the sacrifice to get there. To the other women in hockey, from different countries and teams: I cherish our battles over the years. I have so much respect for every single one of you.

My journey was certainly not without setbacks. After my first Olympics in 2010, I missed more than a year because of the aftermath of a head injury. I learned that the highs and lows are equally important and can define any athlete’s career. Not surprisingly, I learned more about myself during some of the dark times than I did standing on any podium. They helped me be a better player, leader and, most of all, person.

To my teammates: It’s nearly impossible for me to describe how much you all mean to me or the profound impact you have had on my life. I have learned so much from watching you and listening to you. You are all champions and ambassadors for our sport. The things you have done and continue to do amaze me, and I look up to each of you. I am thankful for our friendships that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

The loss in the gold-medal game to Canada in Sochi in 2014, my second Olympics, sometimes still haunts me. We got up 2-0 in the second period and held on to that lead for a bit. It was so close we all could almost taste it.

Then we absolutely crumbled. There are so many factors that went into it, but if you’re up by two goals with less than two minutes to play, you have to put the game away. Canada tied it late in the third period, and we lost in overtime. As a captain, I felt like I didn’t do enough. I beat myself up for a long time for not being able to lead our team to a gold medal. It was so devastating to me. Being that close and coming up short of your childhood dream in back-to-back Olympics does not feel good. I remember collapsing in hysterics, away from the team, crying in my mom’s arms in the parking lot of the rink in Sochi.

When I got home, I had to ask myself hard questions: What do you want? Who are you? What are you made of? Are you going to do this a third time — and if so, how are you going to do it differently?

Our whole team felt that way — we had to do something different as a program, from an on-ice standpoint and an off-ice standpoint — and we worked through those questions as a group for the four years between 2014 and 2018. Along that journey, we fought for the 2017 agreement with USA Hockey in which women in our program were treated and supported on the same level as the men. That is our team’s legacy. We changed our sport. We’re in a climate right now in which women in all industries are starting to stand up and fight for equitable treatment and pay, and I’m so proud of our team for doing just that: paving the way for generations of young girls and women to have the confidence to stand up, speak up, speak out, ask questions and see things through, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult it can get at times.

The 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang were the culmination of it all. We advanced to the gold-medal game against Canada, and once again we found ourselves heading to overtime. I remember looking around the locker room after the third period, and what I saw and felt was business as usual. I was sitting in my stall, like I had a million times before, with these same amazing women with whom I had spent a million practices and bus rides and road trips. You know everyone’s routines. Everyone went about their business. The players who get treatment between periods got treatments. The players who typically stay at their stalls and talked did that. There were players listening to music. Players laughing. Players eating. It was so calm, and I just knew it was our time. The calm, confident, prepared presence of all of my teammates made me know we were going to get it done.

In the shootout, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson scored the iconic go-ahead goal, and we were all jumping all over each other on the bench. I remember vividly everyone looking at Jocelyne, waiting for her to skate through the bench to celebrate, but Brianna Decker was looking the other way — at Maddie Rooney in the net. We’ve got this 19-year-old kid in net, and Decker points to her and goes: “You f—ing save this!”

It was a moment frozen in time. Of course Rooney saved it. Our team had that trust. We finally won Olympic gold — for the first time since that 1998 team. After celebrating on the ice with my teammates, I ran up — on my skates — to celebrate with my mom and the rest of my family.

We all had so much to be proud of.

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