U.S. women's hockey team willing to risk everything for respect

The Canadian Press via AP

Despite having seven world titles, the U.S. women's hockey team is willing to sit out until it feels it has achieved fair change.

To outsiders without a sense of the backstory that led to the U.S. women's national team announcing it will not report to the March 31 to April 7 world championships, the decision might look like a drastic measure. The team informed USA Hockey of its bombshell decision Wednesday after acceptable progress was not made in their 14 months of contract negotiations.

But to the members of the team, making a decision this antithetical to being world-class athletes is the ultimate measure of how serious and fed up they are.

They are willing to risk everything -- starting with sacrificing the chance to compete, something no elite athlete wants to surrender -- to earn the respect and support they feel has been nearly two decades too slow in coming to the girls and women's program.

When you hear the players' arguments, which were partially laid out in this press release Wednesday, it's hard to disagree.

The U.S. women's hockey team is a success story in spite of the laggard support they've received from their federation over the years -- not because of it.

Now, after winning seven world titles and capturing medals at every Olympic Games since women's hockey was introduced in 1998, when the U.S. team won gold, these players are finally drawing a line in the sand. To them, it doesn't matter anymore if the federation is guilty of merely benign neglect or the sort of systematic sexism other women athletes have had to fight. These women just want it to change.

"All of us consider it a privilege to put on a Team USA jersey," team captain Meghan Duggan said in a phone interview from Boston, where she lives and trains with seven other players. "None of us wanted this day to come. But we feel we owe it to women players who came first in our sport; we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to women in future generations."

Mike Stobe/Getty Images for the USOC

In many respects, the U.S. women's hockey team doesn't even get the perks given to the boys' under-18 teams.

The U.S. national team is ranked No. 1 in the world and was scheduled to report to Plymouth, Michigan, on March 21 for the world championships. Now all of that is in jeopardy.

Duggan and fellow team captains Kacey Bellamy and Monique Lamoureux-Morando called team general manager Reagan Carey early Wednesday morning to inform her of the squad's decision at about the same time USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean was notified by the players' legal counsel, John Langel and Dee Spagnuolo of Ballard Spahr. (The firm, which is handling this case pro bono, is the same one that conducted successful negotiations in the past for the U.S. women's soccer team against its federation.)

"We have so much respect for Reagan Carey we felt she deserved to hear it from the players first, before she heard it from a press release or social media of whatever outlet it might come from," Lamoureux-Morando said. "I think it's fair to say USA Hockey was probably shocked this morning and didn't expect us to go to this length to heard."

None of the national team members know if the federation, which is the governing body for all the U.S. men's and women's, girls and boys teams that represent in world and Olympic hockey competitions, will respond even more harshly than it did in 2000. Back then, the players' decision to merely hire attorneys to represent them in contract talks with the federation prompted then-coach Ben Smith to lock the team out of its training facility in Lake Placid.

That team blinked and quickly went back to work without a changed deal. Many players later felt Smith still held a grudge and cut star Cammi Granato years later for leading the uprising, a charge Smith disputed.

But the takeaway was not lost on this veteran-laden team. They say little has improved in the four Olympic cycles since.

USA Hockey issued a statement later in the day in which Ogrean said, "We acknowledge the players' concerns and have proactively increased our level of direct support to the Women's National Team as we prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. We have communicated that increased level of support to the players' representatives and look forward to continuing our discussions."

But Langel challenged the federation's contention in the release that the players will receive $85,000 in compensation in the coming year as proof USA Hockey has significantly increase its commitment.

"That is so incredibly misleading. And you can quote me on that," Langel said. "That couples the USOC money with their [federation] money and assumes the women win gold at the 2018 Olympics. That amount would only apply to the Olympic year. And more than $60,000 of it would come from the USOC."

The statement did not specifically address the players' concerns about the other 3½ years and also suggested USA Hockey might send a team of replacement players to the worlds in the already-named national team's place.

"The players know that's always a risk. But they are confident that won't happen," Langel said. 

Said Lamoureux-Morando: "I would say good luck trying to field a competitive team. It's a sad day when USAH says that it would be open to fielding a team other than its own national team rather than listening to its players who have devoted their careers to their program."

In the 16 years since that 2000 team's initial reach for more equitable treatment compared to their men and boys counterparts, today's women's senior national team says it still gets shockingly low financial support from USA Hockey.

The women's senior squad has been the jewel of the U.S. Olympic program, and yet significant parts of their treatment don't exceed even the perks given to the boys' under-18 teams, let alone the men's Olympic teams laden with NHL players.

The financial stipend the women's senior team receives covers only the last six months they train together in the four-year cycle leading up to each Winter Olympic Games, and amounts to a total of only $6,000 per player.

That's it.

The other 3 1/2 years? The women are on their own.

The players say the federation's past history of intransigence is one reason they started these talks so early last year.

But USA Hockey -- which reported gross receipts of $42 million in 2014-15 and paid its executive staff compensation ranging from $440,209 in salary and bonuses for director Dave Ogrean to $250,000 to $300,000 for other senior officials -- hasn't acted on the women's reasonable requests for things like merely having the federation schedule them more than nine games a year in non-Olympic years. Why hasn't that ever been done?

The teenage boys' national developmental teams plays a 60-game-plus schedule and often trains in residence in Plymouth.

The Olympic committee supplements the scant training money the female national team players get from USA Hockey. The USOC does so on a graduated scale from the U.S. Olympic Committee, same as athletes in other sports do. But even accessing that support requires meeting an exacting standard. The actual amount each woman hockey player gets from the USOC depends on accomplishments such as how often she's made the roster for past world championships and Olympic teams. It's capped at a maximum of $24,000 a year for even the most accomplished players. Others earn as little as $700 a month from the USOC.

Many of the U.S. national team players hold two or three jobs or lean on family and friends to continue to play.

The USOC sometimes pays bonuses for world championships or Olympic medals, too. But when Lamoureux-Morando, a member of five world title teams and two Olympic silver-medal-winning squads along with her twin sister, Jocelyne, is asked whether USA Hockey has ever supplemented the USOC performance bonuses, she says: "No. Never. Not since I've been here."

Even the rings the woman have been given for winning world championships have sometimes taken years to receive, unlike the under-18 boys teams.

If that were the only indignities the girls and women endure, it would be enough.

But over the years, the federation has rebuffed serious attempts from outside parties to organize post-Olympic victory tours for women's hockey similar to the profile-raising ones the U.S. gymnastics, women's soccer and figure skating teams have conducted.

"I think it's fair to say we've all failed these women as we've gotten to this point," laments sports agent Brant Feldman, who has represented players on the women's squad dating back to Granato.

Today's women's players have stories of having to endure more arduous travel arrangements to competitions that they contend their male counterparts would never be asked to tolerate.

The women's players tell stories of their goalies having to compete at world championships still using their college equipment -- then later noticing the under-18 boys program getting kitted out with all new equipment for their events.

They say they've tolerated room accommodations that, in one galling case, resulted in several players waking up with spider bites during a team camp stay in Blaine, Minnesota. (One player says some teammates who lived in the area brought their own blankets and pillows rather than use the ones provided.)

When you know all that, it's easy to see how this day has arrived.

One of the new things the national team players are now asking for is a contract that will provide them with a "living wage" and cover the entire four-year period between Olympics, not just their six-month, $6,000 residency they get now before they head off to each Winter Games.

Duggan says this team still hopes USA Hockey will respond to their requests in time for worlds. But if not, she says, this team is united. It will not break ranks.

"This is the most determined and passionate and stubborn group of women I know," Duggan says.

Added Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson: "Maybe now we'll be heard."

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