As female hockey players from across the globe have taken up the fight for fair treatment the past three years, members of the Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey program have jumped right in.

Goaltender Maddie Rooney was part of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s threatened boycott of the 2017 IIHF World Championship in Michigan, securing a deal that improved pay and resources.

Last summer, forward Ryleigh Houston put her name on a lawsuit against her former school, North Dakota, for cutting the women’s hockey program.

In August, goaltender Emma Soderberg joined the rest of the Swedish women’s national team in their boycott of the national federation over compensation and health insurance.

Asked what she thought of her players activism, one word sums up the feeling of Bulldogs coach Maura Crowell: Proud.

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Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coach Maura Crowell
Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coach Maura Crowell

“I’m proud of them,” Crowell said. “I'm proud of the way our players have handled everything.”

The Bulldogs return to the ice at 4 p.m. Saturday to drop the puck on the 2019-20 season with an exhibition against the reigning National Women’s Hockey League Isobel Cup champion Minnesota Whitecaps at Amsoil Arena.

The Whitecaps are currently caught in the middle of a boycott themselves, one that’s left the defending champs with just 12 players out of 25 from last year’s playoff roster.

Emma Stauber of Duluth and leading scorer Jonna Curtis are both back, but other key pieces such as Hannah Brandt, Lee Stecklein, Kendall Coyne-Schofeild and former Bulldog Katie McGovern are boycotting the NWHL as members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Player Association, which also includes former Bulldogs Demi Crossman, Catherine Daoust, Jessica Convery and Reagan Haley.

Instead of playing in the NWHL — the last remaining pro league in North America after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded — the PWHPA members are taking part in a series of exhibitions known as the Dream Gap Tour while awaiting the creation of what they consider a sustainable professional league for women’s hockey.

“I really am impressed with the the Dream Gap Tour that's going on, as well as the NWHL,” said Crowell, who is also the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Under-18 National Team. “I know we all want one league, but to have two successful professional leagues right now I think is great for game. There's a lot of coverage. There's a lot of buzz. We talked about that every four years with the Olympics, the amount of people talking about women's hockey after the Olympics is huge. And you feel all this pressure to capitalize on that time period. What they're doing now is keeping women's hockey in the conversation.”

Crowell’s support of the NWHL and PWHPA should come as no surprise. Her players say the coach has been nothing but supportive of their activism in her five seasons as head of the Bulldogs.

Ryleigh Houston
Ryleigh Houston

Houston was one of 11 former North Dakota women’s hockey players to file suit against UND in June 2018, alleging the elimination of the women’s hockey program was a Title IX violation. The suit didn’t seek any damages, just the reinstatement of the program. The suit was dismissed in this summer, though the players have appealed the dismissal. They are being represented by the same attorney who represented Shannon Miller in her lawsuit against UMD.

Houston said she didn’t join the suit against her former school because she wanted to leave the Bulldogs and return to North Dakota. She said the former Hawks know that even if they are successful, they’ll never play for UND again. They just want to see the program return for future generations, and to send a message that what the university did, and how it did it, was wrong.

Houston said she communicated that to Crowell right away, and the coach had her back.

“Having that support and for her to back me up on my decision, that was huge for me,” Houston said.

Maddie Rooney
Maddie Rooney

Rooney said Crowell had the back of both her and former Bulldogs defenseman Sidney Morin in 2017 when both were part of the World Championship boycott, even though Crowell had strong ties to USA Hockey.

Now Rooney is supporting her teammate, Soderberg, as the Swedish national team players fight for many of the same things the USWNT fought for in 2017 — better pay, resources and health insurance.

Like Soderberg, Rooney was coming off her sophomore season at UMD and just beginning to crack the national team roster when the boycott began. While it can be tough to give up a chance to live out a lifelong dream of playing for your country, it’s key everyone stands by each other, Rooney said.

“She's handling it well,” Rooney said. “It's hard, especially when you're first getting involved on the national team. You don't want to make any noise.”

Soderberg said she was really looking forward to the opportunity to take part in a Swedish national team camp in August, and possibly even the Four Nations Cup — which includes the U.S., Canada and Finland — that Sweden would host in the fall. Both events were cancelled due to the Swedish boycott.

Emma Soderberg
Emma Soderberg

It’s been easy to stand by her teammates, however, because it will mean a better future in hockey for all, Soderberg said.

“People don’t want to lose money while representing the national team,” Soderberg said. “We want compensation for days they lose money from work. We want good insurance because now when people represent the national team, they don’t insure us.

“This for a better future. This is a good thing and I’m standing by all my teammates.”

Minnesota Whitecaps at Minnesota Duluth

What: Exhibition

When: 4 p.m., Saturday

Where: Amsoil Arena