U.S. women's hockey team threatens to not play in world championships

U.S. captain Meghan Duggan and her women's national hockey teammates plan to sit out of the world championships unless they secure fair wages. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Members of the U.S. women's national hockey team said Wednesday that they will not participate in the IIHF World Championship beginning on March 31 in Plymouth, Michigan, unless significant progress is made to secure what players consider to be fair wages and support from USA Hockey.

USA Hockey responded later Wednesday, saying that the organization has increased its financial commitment to the players but will only support them, not employ them.

The reigning world champions were set to arrive at training camp on Tuesday. Players said they believe meaningful progress was not being made in the negotiations and, as a result, informed USA Hockey on Wednesday that unless that happens, they will not report to Michigan.

"We are asking for a living wage and for USA Hockey to fully support its programs for women and girls and stop treating us like an afterthought," said captain Meghan Duggan. "We have represented our country with dignity and deserve to be treated with fairness and respect."

"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," said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, in a statement. "We have communicated that increased level of support to the players' representatives and look forward to continuing our discussions."

The U.S. has won gold in six of the past eight world championships and has medaled in every Olympics, including winning gold in 1998.

The women, who are being represented in their negotiations by John B. Langel and Dee Spagnuolo of the law firm of Ballard Spahr, are seeking a contract with USA Hockey that includes what the players feel is appropriate compensation. Most of the players' compensation outside of the Olympic period comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The USA Hockey statement goes on to say: "The support USA Hockey is implementing in order to prepare the Women's National Team for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games includes a six-month training camp, additional support stipends and incentives for medals that could result in each player receiving nearly $85,000 in cash over the Olympic training and performance period. The sum is in addition to a housing allowance, travel allowances, meal expenses, medical and disability insurance and the infrastructure that includes elite-level support staff to train and prepare the players."

Langel took exception with the organization's statement, especially the $85,000 figure.

"That is so incredibly misleading, and you can quote me on that," he said to ESPN's Johnette Howard. "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."

Player Hilary Knight said she and her teammates are taking inspiration from other female athletes.

"We are fortunate to have strong pioneers who have changed the landscape of their sport. Figures such as Billie Jean King or teams like U.S. women's soccer have built a foundation not only for hope, but for action. As leaders in the sport of hockey, we are asking for equitable support and encouragement for participation for women," Knight said. "This is another important step for women in sports, but also for women at large and for generations to come in our fight for equal pay and support."

In the past, USA Hockey has provided the players with $1,000 per month during the six-month Olympic residency period. According to the players, USA Hockey pays virtually nothing during the remainder of the four-year period, despite its expectation that in each of the non-Olympic years, the players train full time and compete throughout the year.

"It is a full-time job and to not get paid is a financial burden and stress on players, obviously. That is the conversation my husband and I are having right now," said player Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson. "Is playing going to be more stress than we can handle? Sadly it becomes a decision between chasing your dream or giving in to the reality of the financial burden."

The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act requires national governing sports bodies to "provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis," as is the case in hockey. According to the players, USA Hockey spends approximately $3.5 million annually to support a schedule of more than 60 games a season for boys participating in its national team development program. There are no comparable development opportunities for girls.

USA Hockey countered that argument in its statement.

"USA Hockey has a long-standing commitment to the support, advancement and growth of girls and women's hockey and any claims to the contrary are unfounded," it said. "USA Hockey is invested in the growth and development of girls and women at every level of play. As a matter of fact, USA Hockey has grown participation in girl's and women's hockey from just more than 23,000 players in 1998 to more than 73,000 today."

Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey, concluded that: "USA Hockey's role is not to employ athletes and we will not do so. USA Hockey will continue to provide world-leading support for our athletes."

"It's hard to believe that, in 2017, we still have to fight so hard for basic equitable support," said U.S. alternate captain Monique Lamoureux-Morando. "But when I think about the women who paved the way for our team -- and when I see girls at rinks around the country who are dedicated to pursuing big dreams and look to us to lead by example -- it's well overdue for us to speak up about unfair treatment, even if it means sacrificing an opportunity to represent our country. We owe the next generation more than that. We owe it to ourselves to stand up for what is right."

USA Hockey said it planned to "field a competitive team" for the IIHF tournament. How that team would be put together wasn't immediately clear.

"Good luck getting a suitable No. 1 competition to represent our country on a world stage," player Knight said. "I kind of dare them."

Matt DelDuca, a lawyer with expertise in labor and employment issues said, "Who's going to win is going to depend on how strong their leverage really is in the eyes of the organization."

The wage dispute follows one by U.S. women's soccer players, who last March filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged wage discrimination by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Lamoureux-Davidson said the hockey players have been in touch with soccer players about their dispute, which is ongoing; Langel represented U.S. women's soccer players from 1998 to 2014.

Cammi Granato, one of the first women in the Hockey Hall of Fame after being inducted in 2010, dealt with wage disputes during her career and appreciates current players taking such a difficult stand.

"It says a lot for what they're fighting for," Granato said. "It says a lot for the fact that there needs to be change. This takes a lot of courage."

Lamoureux-Davidson said players are hopeful that taking a stand will force the issue.

"We all want to go play," she said. "But it's been 14 months and we haven't seen progress, so if there's progress within the next week and a half, we'll see."

Information from espnW's Julie Foudy and The Associated Press was used in this report.