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John Langel watched the U.S. women’s hockey team’s thrilling Olympic gold medal win over Canada from the same room in his home where he watched the U.S. women’s soccer team win the 1999 World Cup final.
It might have been a coincidence. It also might have been a good luck charm.
The veteran Philadelphia-based attorney spent many years representing the U.S. women’s soccer team, and last year represented the U.S. hockey team in its labor dispute against USA Hockey. Now Langel and those players have another win to savor.
Langel spent the hockey game texting with six players from the 1999 soccer team. Among them were Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy – the last of whom was at the game as an analyst for ESPN. Chastain was in an airport, while Lilly woke up her daughters at 11 p.m. for the opening faceoff.
There was also lots of support on social media from current U.S. women’s soccer players. Penn State product Ali Krieger tweeted: “You all inspire me!!” Delran native Carli Lloyd saluted the win and the fact that it came on the anniversary of the U.S. men’s hockey team’s 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic upset of Russia.
“The hockey women’s journey was similar to the soccer women’s journey,” Langel told the Inquirer and Daily News on Thursday, after staying up very late Wednesday night. “And while the hockey women were going through it, the soccer women embraced them, supported them, guided them, talked to them.”
That journey has unfolded as much off the ice as on it. Now that the gold is America’s for the first time in 20 years, the next step is to turn that into the kind of commercial success that the soccer stars have enjoyed. As the labor dispute last year showed, that work can be even harder than winning a medal.
“Like soccer, Americans love winners and champions,” Langel said. “But similar to soccer, we had failed leagues and learned that for a successful league, you need national governing body support.”
Women’s basketball has it from USA Basketball and the NBA, which gives the WNBA financial backing. Soccer has it from the U.S. Soccer Federation, which subsidizes the salaries of National Women’s Soccer League Stars, and from Major League Soccer clubs that run NWSL teams.
The obvious parallel would be for the NHL to boost to the three-year-old National Women’s Hockey League, which has teams in Newark, N.J.; Stamford, Conn.; Buffalo and Boston. The Buffalo team is owned by the Sabres. There’s also the Canadian Women Hockey League, a six-team group whose Montreal team is affiliated with the Canadiens.
A source with direct knowledge told the Inquirer and Daily News that Comcast-Spectacor has had some preliminary discussions about bringing a NWHL team to Philadelphia, but nothing substantive is in the works as of now.
U.S. national team players make enough money to earn a living from the sport, thanks in part to the collective bargaining agreement won by last year’s protest. But that only covers a small group.
“You would hope that with the lessons learned through soccer, that you could learn similar lessons” in hockey, Langel said. “You’ve got to just find out what the right model is. It took soccer three times, and 12 years, 13 years, post-‘99.”
Langel sees growing interest at the grassroots level. The fastest-growing demographic in U.S. youth hockey is girls. Langel has seen sellout crowds at college games from Big Ten powers Wisconsin and Minnesota to the Patriot League’s Colgate (where his son Matt is the men’s basketball coach). Wednesday night’s gold medal game drew 3.7 million viewers across TV and online, according to NBC, even with the 11 p.m. start.
Some big corporate sponsors are already on board, such as Comcast and Dunkin’ Donuts. NBCSN and the NHL Network televise many U.S. national team games. Langel hopes that the gold medal win will be a catalyst for something bigger. And if it is, the lessons learned from soccer’s growth will help.
“It comes at a time when there is a greater appreciation for women and girls, and a greater sensitivity to trying to do things,” Langel. “I think that these women, like the ’99 women, are dynamic and intelligent and passionate.”
They also understand the trail blazed by those who came before them. Langel said that past U.S. hockey teams – the ones that lost gold medal games to Canada in the last four Olympics – “were not paying attention to what needed to be done off the ice. This group of women decided in 2015 that they were going to do that.”
Now that losing streak to Canada is finally over. But like their soccer-playing predecessors, the hockey champions know their moment of finality on the ice is just the start of things off it.