With deal reached, U.S. women's national hockey team will play at world championships
The U.S. women's national hockey team and USA Hockey agreed to a landmark new contract on Tuesday to avert the players' boycott of the IIHF World Championships that begin Friday and significantly address the women's protests about compensation and the federation's inequitable treatment of its girls' and women's programs.
"It's historic, it's new and different, and the players are happy," said John B. Langel, the players' lead counsel at Ballard Spahr, the law firm that handled the case pro bono.
"Today reflects everyone coming together and compromising in order to reach a resolution for the betterment of the sport," USA Hockey president Jim Smith said in a joint statement released by the two sides. "We'll now move forward together knowing we'll look back on this day as one of the most positive in the history of USA Hockey."
The unprecedented four-year deal was struck after USA Hockey's board of directors held a 3½-hour conference call Monday and rejected a proposal that the two sides negotiated March 20 in Philadelphia.
Still, the 91-member board gave USA Hockey's executive committee the authority to finalize a new deal without returning for another full board vote. The players agreed to resume talking hours later, and that led to the sweeping agreement that both sides hailed as landscape changing when they emerged from discussions that ran deep into Monday night and didn't end until Tuesday evening, following some last-minute snags over marketing issues.
The 23 players on the national team, by taking the determined stand they did, achieved many of the improvements they were seeking.
The team's annual compensation will improve to roughly $70,000 per player, a source who has seen the contract said. Toss in the newly negotiated performance bonuses USA Hockey agreed to pay the women for the first time and the players could push their income over six figures if they win the Olympics or world championships.
"It's a great framework for pushing ahead and the progress of women's hockey," USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean told ESPN's Craig Custance on Tuesday. "I think there's a lot of consciousness raising that was done for people, and it's going to continue to allow us to progress at a bigger and faster pace."
The agreement ended 15 months of oft-stalled, sometimes terse negotiations.
The women's team will report immediately to Plymouth, Michigan, to begin its world title defense with Friday's opener against archrival Canada, the reigning Olympic champion.
"Our sport is the big winner today," U.S. women's national team captain Meghan Duggan said in the statement. "We stood up for what we thought was right, and USA Hockey's leadership listened. In the end, both sides came together. I'm proud of my teammates and can't thank everyone who supported us enough. It's time now to turn the page. We can't wait to play in the World Championship later this week in front of our fans as we try and defend our gold medal."
Other planks of the new deal:
• USA Hockey will allocate $950,000 by the final year of the backloaded agreement to a compensation pool for the players.
Previously, USA Hockey paid each member of the women's national team $6,000 for the six-month training residency before each Olympic Games. The other 3½ years, the players' only financial support came in training stipends that the U.S. Olympic Committee provides athletes.
• Until now, those USOC training stipends ranged from $750 for newer members of the women's national hockey team to a cap of $2,000 per month. Going forward, every national team player will get the maximum $2,000 monthly stipend, regardless of her experience level, with USA Hockey making up whatever monthly difference the USOC doesn't pay.
USA Hockey will also pay each national team member an additional $2,000 per month when the new contract kicks in, making each player's base salary $4,000 per month before any bonuses they earn.
• For the first time, USA Hockey will pay the women's team performance bonuses -- $20,000 for a gold medal, $15,000 for silver -- to supplement the five-figure performance bonuses the USOC pays athletes in all sports.
• For the first time, the women's team will receive the same level of travel arrangements and insurance coverage as the men's team. The women's per diem was bumped up from $15 a day for non-travel days at events to $50, the same as the men's.
• USA Hockey and the players will establish a committee to make recommendations on how the federation can improve its marketing, scheduling, public relations efforts and promotion of the women's game.
• USA Hockey will add a foundation position to improve fundraising and other efforts for its girls' developmental teams, which currently receive virtually nothing compared to the $3.5 million the boys' program receives and the additional $1.4 million USA Hockey pours into the USHL, a top-tier league for 16- to 20-year-old boys.
The players on the national team believed such movement wouldn't have been achieved without the boycott they announced on March 15.
Five days later, negotiators for both sides shook hands and emerged from more than 10 hours of face-to-face talks in Philadelphia hailing the "positive" and "productive" progress they made. But Ogrean, who was there, contends the federation didn't view what was achieved as a tentative agreement, telling Custance, "That was a misunderstanding."
USA Hockey's executive board rejected that proposal without presenting it to the 91 voting members of its full board of directors and sent the players a reduced counteroffer on Thursday. The players rejected that proposal just a few hours later.
By remaining unified and holding their ground, they got the appreciably better deal they ratified Tuesday evening.
The gathering pressure on both sides to reach a deal before Friday's start to the world tournament also was a factor.
"[Sitting out the tournament] was a reality from day one," Duggan told The Associated Press. "We put that on the line, and we made a promise to ourselves that until we reached an agreement that we thought was acceptable and we had made progress, that was a realization that maybe we wouldn't be there."
Prior to Tuesday, Ogrean had said that the world championships would go on either way. He repeatedly emphasized that the federation's first preference was to send the national team it had selected.
Still, the federation tried to muster a replacement team to report on Wednesday, in time to play in Friday's opener, in case the boycott held. But dozens of pro, college, high school and post-collegiate players -- even some rec-league players that the federation approached -- publicly said they had rebuffed the invitation to play or would not play if they were asked.
The federation never confirmed that it had enough replacement players to send a team.
Although Ogrean is pleased with the end result, he told ESPN that the process was less than ideal.
"I think this was uncomfortable for everybody. If a player has been in the program 10 years, I've known them 10 years ... it was an uncomfortable process," Ogrean said. "There were people in the room who care about each other a lot."
The pressure to reach a resolution mounted Monday, when 16 U.S. senators released a letter they sent to Ogrean and the federation criticizing the treatment of the women's team and stressing that USA Hockey is legally required by the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act to "provide equitable support and encouragement for participation."
"These elite athletes indeed deserve fairness and respect," the senators wrote.
By then, the women's team had other snowballing support. The players' unions of the NHL, the National Women's Hockey League, NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball spoke out. Past and present members of the U.S. women's soccer team and the Canadian women's national hockey team backed the U.S. team.
"We congratulate the U.S. Women's National Team and USA Hockey on reaching an agreement that will allow the world championship tournament to be a best-on-best showcase," Hockey Canada's women's general manager Melody Davidson said in a statement Tuesday night. "Our preparation has remained consistent, and we are looking forward to a great tournament and our opening game against the United States on Friday night in Plymouth."
Thousands of people went on social media to voice opinions, many of them using the hashtag the team adopted: #BeBoldForChange.
"I think every woman that plays the game and has played at an international level has been through this battle, understands it, has lived it and respects it," Hayley Wickenheiser, a five-time Olympian who played 23 years for Team Canada, told CTV on Monday.
The U.S. women have won six of the past eight world titles -- a total they can now try to add to beginning Friday.
They have never failed to win an Olympic medal since women's hockey was added to the Winter Games in 1998.