The shrewd steps that led U.S. women to landmark deal

Knight proud of team unity in landmark new contract (3:00)

Hilary Knight joins OTL to detail the U.S. women's national ice hockey team's new four-year agreement with USA Hockey, addressing the women's protests about compensation, will improve to roughly $70,000 per player. (3:00)

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- They are happy to be back playing hockey, happy to finally be back together in person instead of holding daily conference calls from their far-flung hometowns to update one another on their threatened boycott of these IIHF World Championships.

All of that is settled now because of the historic contract they extracted from USA Hockey in a staredown that wasn't settled until late Tuesday night.

But you could tell by the end of practice Thursday that the players weren't much interested in taking a victory lap. They were already looking ahead to Friday's opener against archrival Canada, the biggest threat to the Americans' world title defense. Asked what the U.S. needs to do differently this time against Canada, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson was as tough on her own team as she was at the bargaining table: "We could start by keeping the lead against them, if we get one," Lamoureux-Davidson said, referring to Team USA's back-to-back losses to Canada in December​.

The U.S. team is determined to not let the mere 72 hours it had to prepare for this tournament be an excuse. After the way they repeatedly outmaneuvered USA Hockey during the 14-day boycott cliffhanger that had everyone from U.S. Senators to hockey moms telling the federation to quit treating the team so unfairly, it would be silly to pick the Americans to somehow survive five games over the next eight days to win this thing -- yet dumb to bet against them.

The details of how they reached the historic agreement with USA Hockey underscore a remarkable tactical achievement, not just a triumph of will or daring.

The sight of yet another group of female athletes demanding equitable treatment is all too familiar. The history of women's sports has been ribboned with such stories since women's sports began.

What was different -- and riveting -- about this team was that the players weren't just asking for the federation to give them something, they were also willing to risk everything to make it happen.

It was a compelling narrative from the start on March 15, when the team dropped its bombshell announcement that it intended to boycott the tournament because it was seeking equitable treatment and higher compensation. The plot only thickened as the days wore on because of how the players' side recast the power dynamic in the negotiations.

Everything was orchestrated to emphasize the players' strength and solidarity. ​The day after the team's announcement, the federation bit back by unilaterally setting a 5 p.m. deadline for every woman on the team to individually declare if she indeed intended to boycott the event. The players ignored it.

When the federation fired off a statement the next day, charging, among other things, that the players were making unreasonable demands that could bring them as much as $237,000 or more a year -- a 100-fold increase over the USOC-funded training stipend of $24,000 the top players were earning annually -- feisty Hilary Knight (a must-follow throughout the negotiations) tweeted "LOL," and the players swiftly issued another response. They dismissed USA Hockey's numbers as "grossly misleading" and "patently false," and the federation didn't roll the claims out again.

The players' side seemingly outmaneuvered and flummoxed the federation again and again. Someone who works for USA Hockey told some of the players that the possibility of a boycott had been discussed internally, but "they underestimated you. They didn't think you'd have the guts to do it."

The current players knew this was risky business but pressed on -- a measure of how fed up they were over how they had been treated. They knew the tale of how the 2000 women's national team had been locked out of their training facility in Lake Placid by then-head coach Ben Smith -- the same man who led the team to the 1998 Olympic gold medal -- for merely having the temerity to hire a lawyer to seek better treatment for the team. The current team knew that Cammi Granato, leader of the attempt back then, didn't enjoy the full support of her spooked team. The 2000 players quickly went back to work and little changed, except for Granato.

The suspicions that Granato was cut from the 2006 team shortly before the Torino Olympics because she and Smith never mended their relationship is a story still told in hockey circles today, though Smith has always disputed it.

But it's funny how history tends to repeat itself.

The attorney who approached USA Hockey in 2000 was John B. Langel, the same Philadelphia-based attorney at Ballard Spahr who handled the current team's case pro bono, with help from six others at the firm.

Langel, whose experience in sports labor and employment issues includes helping the 2000 U.S. women's soccer team in its fight against its federation, says he wasn't looking for a job last summer when his cellphone rang. He had just retired from full-time practice and was walking to his car when he saw a number he didn't recognize. "So naturally I didn't pick it up," he says now with a laugh.

He eventually learned the call was from Brant Feldman, a sports agent whose involvement in women's hockey stretches back to Granato's playing days. When Feldman, whose clients include team captain Meghan Duggan and twin sisters Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando, asked some of the soccer players for a recommendation, they told him, "Get Langel."

It was terrific advice. As the boycott threat rolled on, it was clear at certain junctures how the women's soccer team's experiences informed what the hockey players did. Back in 2000, U.S. Soccer didn't just threaten to field a replacement women's team -- it did it, sending a younger group to a tournament in China. When USA Hockey threatened to pull a page out of the same playbook, the women's hockey team was prepared.

Two weeks before they even announced the boycott, the 23 members of the team began collecting contact information for the 90-plus other players in the national team pool, ​and players in the two-year-old National Women's Hockey League, as well as college coaches and players from Division I to Division III. When USA Hockey made the replacement player threat a second time, the players mobilized​.

"I'd kinda like to dare them to try it," Knight said.

"We are confident they won't be able to get a replacement team," Lamoureux-Morando predicted.

USA Hockey began to look silly when its repeated attempts to drum up interest in filling spots on a replacement roster were met with no after no​, just as the national team players predicted. They had already been making calls for two days by then.​

Duggan believed it was her responsibility to call every coach, parent or player the team asked not to cross the boycott line, and later estimated that number amounted to about 500 people. Other players were vigilant too. If the federation extended an invite to a rec player, the national team seemed to know about 10 minutes later. If word floated up that members of the under-18 team were about to get an invite from the federation, someone from the national team called the girl's parents, and perhaps the player too, asking for their support.

USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean had said all along that the world tournament had to go on with or without the boycotting national team, but that his first hope was to settle with them. But there was reason to wonder how true that was when word surfaced that federation official Jim Johannson had started approachin​g​ beer league players. One of them told ESPN.com, "It's crazy. It's insane."

People noticed and expressed wonder. It was one thing when the player unions of all four major sports leagues and the National Women's Hockey League expressed support, or when active NHL players or Olympic icons like Mike Eruzione and Billie Jean King chimed in, or when 16 U.S. Senators chided the federation. But the pull the women's team had at the grassroots level was extraordinary. Before long, women's club teams, men's rec teams and co-ed teams had gotten involved; angry hockey moms and van-driving sports dads were expressing support; high school girls started taking team photos and tweeting to the U.S. team in solidarity, many of them adopting the same #BeBoldForChange hashtag the national team used.

Members of an over-50 women's team in suburban Detroit threatened to picket outside the world championship arena in Plymouth if a settlement wasn't reached. Someone started a petition for the players on Change.org. People of all ages and backgrounds and callings began mimicking these photos the 23 national team players had posted of themselves, holding up handwritten signs with slogans like "Strong ... United ... Legacy." Fans posted photos of themselves with homemade signs of their own with whatever words resonated with them: "Determined ... Together ... Brave."

By the time those reports surfaced that USA Hockey had approached beer leaguers and other players who had never been in the national team program or had been out of college for years, the lengths to which the federation was going seemed over the top. USA Hockey was asking replacements to report Wednesday and play Canada 48 hours later? They were willing to risk making a farce of the event or send out teenagers as cannon fodder against the world's best, rather than negotiate with their women's team that had won six of the past seven world titles and has never failed to win a medal at the Olympic Games?

It wouldn't stand.

The coalition-building was the moment the entire saga started to turn in the players' favor. By the extraordinary end, it was believed USA Hockey had succeeded in recruiting as few as six players.

"To me, the unity that sprung up beyond our team is the real unsung story in all of this," Duggan now says. "Yes, people are going to give the 23 players on this team credit for making history, and we're incredibly proud of what we did. But if the first 23 replacements the federation called had said yes, our boycott would've been dead right then in the water."

By nightfall Tuesday, when the deal was announced and some terms began leaking out, the players hadn't just gotten a settlement -- the magnitude of their victory was shocking. They achieved nearly everything they sought: better treatment, better working conditions, and a living wage that will hit about $70,000 per player (before performance bonuses) by year two of the unprecedented four-year term of the agreement.

This was a win for them. It was a win for other female athletes in other sports who will negotiate after them.

A few hours after the agreement was reached Tuesday night, Langel marveled at what an extraordinary journey it had been, while Feldman went back to work to catch up on all the things he said he had fallen behind on the previous days. The players scurried to pack and make flight arrangements to get to Plymouth in time for a skate Wednesday. "It was pretty special; it was pretty cool," U.S. forward Amanda Kessel said after practice Thursday.

A little farther down the interview room, Knight was asked how ready this U.S. team could possibly be for Friday's opener against Canada, followed by a 3 p.m. game the next day against Russia, given that it only had 48 hours to prepare. She laughed a "trust me" kind of laugh.

"We have a lot of emotions to let out -- a lot," Knight said. "I think we'll be ready."

The players say there were so many times during the past 15 months of talks -- and especially the past two weeks -- when they would ride out concerns by encouraging one another. "We didn't come this far only to get this far," they said. "If not now, then when?"

Before any of them ran to catch a plane Wednesday morning, there was one thing they got to do the night before.

"Signing that new contract on the dotted line tonight was pretty emotional," Lamoureux-Morando said.

It would be silly to expect them to defend their world title on top of all that. And dumb to bet against them.