USA Hockey expected to reach back out to players as Thursday deadline passes

U.S. women's national ice hockey team forward Hilary Knight joins OTL to share why the players are willing to boycott the IIHF World Championships and forgo defending their title if USA Hockey is unwilling to make progress to secure fair wages.

USA Hockey is expected to reach out to players on its senior women's national team, as well as their representatives, in an effort to restart negotiations over a labor dispute that has put their participation in the upcoming IIHF World Championships in jeopardy. 

The federation had asked players to respond by 5 p.m. ET Thursday to an email request asking each to individually state whether she intended to play in the tournament, which will take place in Plymouth, Michigan, beginning March 31.

Members of the team, however, declined to respond.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer, in a phone interview later Thursday night, said the deadline was never intended to be any sort of ultimatum, and that the federation has attempted to reach out to the team and its legal counsel to reopen talks.

"I know some people are portraying the 5 p.m. deadline [to the players] as a line in the sand, which was never the intention," Fischer said. "We saw what they said, obviously. We wanted to reach out individually to the players to make sure we knew for certain what their intention was. That was the only purpose, the only 'method to the madness', if you will ... It wasn't meant to say, 'By 5 o'clock later today, see ya later!' That was never the intent.

"Our continued efforts and hope is that the players we initially selected for the national team are the ones that will represent the U.S at the World Championships. I think there will be efforts to have conversations. Ultimately, where it ends is the great unknown, I guess. But there will be further conversation. Again, the desire is to resolve this. And that's in a nutshell."

John B. Langel, legal counsel for the players, said he had not yet heard directly from USA Hockey but the players welcomed reopening negations that could avert their boycott and settle their contract dispute.

"That was always our intent," he said.

The 23-member team first announced Wednesday that it intended to boycott the event due to a stalemate in contract talks that began 14 months ago.

After the deadline passed Thursday, the team in a statement said: "We are focused on the issue of equitable support and stand by our position. We continue to be grateful for the encouragement and loyalty of our fans."

The National Women's Hockey League, the 2-year-old pro league where many national team members play, issued a statement Thursday saying it supports the U.S. team, and players for the Boston Pride and Connecticut Whale gathered at mid-ice before the NWHL's semifinal playoff game in Boston as a show of solidarity.

Billie Jean King was among the other sports figures voicing support, tweeting earlier Thursday: 

The U.S. women's soccer team had a recent dispute over fair wages with its national governing body, eventually filing a successful complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Langel said that is something his players are not considering yet. 

"We're still hopeful we'll have meaningful discussions [with the federation] and reach a resolution," Langel said earlier Thursday. "The players' goal right now is to report for training [next week] and play in these world championships. Filing litigation will not get that result. If we're not successful, then we'll consider our options. But the players picked the 15th [of March] in order to give USA Hockey time to have serious discussions with the players. That's their hope. We told that to USA Hockey. And it's up to USA Hockey if they want to do that."

Earlier Thursday, Fischer disputed the players' contention, made in a news release, that USA Hockey is attempting to field an alternative team to play in world championship games.

Asked if the federation has already begun contacting other players on the U.S. under-18 and under-22 girls' and women's teams about playing in the world championships as replacement players, Fischer said, "That is absolutely not true."

U.S. national team co-captain Monique Lamoureux-Morando said in a phone interview after Thursday's deadline had passed that captain Meghan Duggan had personally called the remaining 90-plus college, amateur and pro players in the national-team pool earlier in the day and held one-on-one conversations with each, as well as many of their parents and coaches.

Duggan offered to answer any questions they might have about the boycott, and asked them to honor the senior women's team's refusal to play in the world championships unless USA Hockey's stance toward contract negotiations with them changes.

Lamoureux-Morando said of the national team's expectation, based on those player conversations: "I would be surprised if USA Hockey will be able to field a replacement team, as the federation pretty much implied yesterday that they would try to do. I don't think they'll be able to get the players."

Asked if the national team reps had to address fears among the other players -- particularly the younger ones -- that they might be blackballed by USA Hockey going forward if they joined the senior national team's boycott, Lamoureux-Morando said, "There were some people with questions. We told them we believe as long as everyone sticks together, everyone's going to be fine. They [USA Hockey] are not going to be able to go out and find another 90 players to make up a new pool. We firmly believe that. We also helped them understand that a lot of why we are doing this is for the next generations.

"There have been multiple times today when I've been moved to tears by all the support and feedback we've gotten."

The two sides are at a stalemate in contract talks that began 14 months ago. They have a deep divide over whether the girls' and women's programs are treated equitably compared even to the boys' developmental teams. (The men's U.S. national team for Olympic competitions is typically made up of NHL players, making comparisons with the women's senior national team's treatment difficult.)

The federation and players also disagree on issues as fundamental as the actual amount of aid the players receive -- the federation insists the figure is higher than the players reported -- and whether it matters if the compensation and aid comes from the federation or U.S. Olympic Committee.

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