USA Hockey takes another wrong turn in talks with women's team

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Captain Meghan Duggan and the women's national team are boycotting the upcoming world championships unless they can reach a new agreement with USA Hockey.

As the history of other sports leagues has constantly shown, the idea of fielding replacement players during labor disputes is a short, ugly and ineffective negotiating tactic.

But that's been yet another lesson lost on USA Hockey in its bungled, 14-month negotiations with its women's national team that hit a new nadir Friday afternoon.

After threatening for nearly a month to send a backup team to the world championships if the U.S. women's team held fast on its decision to boycott the tournament in Michigan next week because of unmet demands for a new contract and more equitable treatment, USA Hockey scrambled over the past three days to muster a substitute team.

And the response the federation received by its self-imposed Friday 5 p.m. deadline was exactly what the national team players warned it would be: lousy and embarrassing.

So far, no player contacted via the form-letter email USA Hockey sent out Wednesday has publicly stepped forward to say, yes, that she would defy the players' boycott and be available to play.

But coaches and players who refused the federation's request are willing to talk.

"What it basically came down to for us is, 'How do we foster the continued growth and development of women's hockey if we're willing to play at worlds as scabs?'" Anya Battaglino, the head of the National Women's Hockey League Players' Association as well as a player for Connecticut Whale, said in a phone interview Friday. "We're basically taking the position that if you're not for us, you're against us.

"I don't know of any player who told USA Hockey, yes."

Blake Bolden, a player for the NWHL's Boston Pride, says she hasn't been a member of the U.S. national team pool since 2014, so when she saw the USA Hockey email in her inbox Wednesday, "I didn't even have to open it -- I knew what it was about, and I thought, 'Well, the national team women must be doing something right for things to get to this.'

"It's a bit desperate by USA Hockey," Bolden added. "They're going so far as to email every hockey player they can think of, or every player that was in the USA pool that they previously cut and told they were never going to reach out to again. And everyone I know is telling them, 'I support the national team.'"

When asked for comment, USA Hockey communications director Dave Fischer told ESPN.com that the federation will continue to try to reach a resolution with the players.

On Friday, the NHL Players' Association and Major League Baseball Players' Association were the latest prominent groups to throw their support behind the U.S. women's team, too, joining "Miracle on Ice" Olympic hero Mike Eruzione, members of the U.S. women's national soccer team, Billie Jean King, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and plenty of others who have weighed in.

Even the U.S. women's bitter on-ice archrival, Team Canada, issued a statement of support Friday, putting aside for a moment how the two teams have competed against each other and combined to win every Olympic gold medal and world title that has been contested.

University of North Dakota's Brian Idalski, a veteran head coach who has had members of the current national team play for him in addition to working for USA Hockey-run camps and squads for years, says his decision not to cooperate with USA Hockey's replacement team push was informed by "the fight I've seen the women players have to go through just to play."

Idalski said he had just left on a recruiting trip earlier this week when he was contacted by USA Hockey.

"I didn't feel comfortable urging some of my players to be involved with a replacement team, and I didn't think it was right for USA Hockey to try to send one," Idalski says. "I got their information, and I also made sure my assistant coaches passed along some information from [national team captain] Meghan Duggan and the women's team, too. What I told our team is I didn't think [accepting a replacement slot] was a good idea.

"Most of our players have been off the ice the last two weeks. So if you're a player, how smart is that for you to put yourself in that situation? Also, some of them were under-18 team players that haven't had opportunity to play for the senior national team yet, but might be down the road. I said, 'Wouldn't you want some of those things these players are fighting for you, too?'"

USA Hockey has said all along the team's participation at the March 31-April 7 worlds will go on, even if it had to send replacements. It's understandable the federation explored having a Plan B, not wanting to scuttle the tournament itself.

After the team first announced last Wednesday it was boycotting worlds without any progress toward a new contract, the sides traded salvos before finally agreeing to restart talks Monday in face-to-face meetings in Philadelphia. Those talks lasted more than 10 hours and went well enough that all sides involved --- USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean, John B. Langel, the players' lead attorney, and many of the players themselves -- emerged hinting a deal could be near.

Ogrean characterized the talks as "positive" and "productive" enough to take the proposals they discussed back to a vote by USA Hockey's executive board.

Getting approval for the contract the two sides shook hands on Monday failed spectacularly, too. Within 48 hours, the players still hadn't received an update, but the federation began reaching out to replacements early Wednesday afternoon.

By Thursday afternoon, the federation contacted the players' side to relay a counteroffer that reduced some of the financial terms the players thought they had agreed on in principle Monday.

The players -- many of whom had their bags packed to leave for training camp when they got the word -- expressed disappointment and rejected the counter after taking a team vote late Thursday night and releasing a statement saying the boycott still stands.

The federation has now scheduled a vote Monday by its full board of directors, several sources told ESPN.com.

But even as its replacement-player hunt was failing the past two days, the federation was also just getting around to sending a message to all 91 voting members of its board of directors, asking them to sign the waiver that's necessary to even allow Monday's vote on the proposed players' contract to take place.

"This is what we've been dealing with," says team co-captain Hilary Knight. "It was a week wasted. For a deadline that is very time sensitive, it does not make much sense."

If USA Hockey thought the players would blink and grab Thursday's reduced offer just because the deadline to report for worlds or start the tournament is closer than ever, they were wrong again. Same as they were wrong to think the players would never boycott at all.

"In a man's terms, that's a ballsy move by them," Eruzione has said.

The idea of sending replacements to the world championships was always a farce for competitive reasons. The optics of a U.S. federation fighting the team that's been the unparalleled jewel of the program since women's hockey was added to the Olympics in 1998 has been even more unsightly.

By fighting so hard to prolong the demonstrable inequities the women have endured compared to the boys and men's teams since the team's inception, USA Hockey convicts itself of being the blinkered, backward place the players have said it is. More details just seem to leak out daily about just how lopsided and bad things have been. The latest was this CNN Money piece Friday that illustrated some of the differences between the men's and women's teams in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Before that came this story, "The Case Against USA Hockey," showing how a star boy and girl's treatment in the program differ sharply.

These negotiations between USA Hockey and the players began nearly 15 months ago because everyone knew they could be long and challenging.

When this is all said and done, the women will have achieved some historic change. They'll have won more support and tangible changes than ever before.

But what history will also show is again and again, the only amateurs in this set piece seemed to be some of the folks running USA Hockey.

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