As Hilary Knight read a text message from a former U.S. women’s hockey player praising the team for sacrificing playing in the world championships over a wage dispute, she started to wonder who will play if they don’t make progress in talks with USA Hockey.
“We’re unanimously united as a player pool,” Knight said. “Good luck getting a suitable No. 1 competition to represent our country on a world stage. I kind of dare them. It’s tough.”
After players threatened Wednesday to boycott the upcoming tournament as defending champions on home ice, USA Hockey said it will “field a competitive team” for the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Hockey Championship that begins March 31 in in Plymouth, Michigan.
After Knight, Amanda Kessel, captain Meghan Duggan and twins Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando were among those to lead the charge to skip the tournament, that’s easier said than done.
“If you ask older players, they’re going to say no because they’ve been through the wringer on these issues and if you ask the younger players, unanimously they’re going to say no because they believe in what we’re doing,” Knight said by phone Wednesday. “It’ll be interesting to see who they come up with.”
Negotiations between players and USA Hockey going nowhere over 14 months led to this development, and players lawyer John Langel characterized the negotiating gap as a chasm. Players have said they won’t attend training camp next week or play in the tournament unless there are clear steps toward what they hope is a four-year contract.
“This is one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make as a team I think in all of our careers,” Duggan said. “Being willing to stand up and sacrifice an opportunity like that, to host a world championship on home soil, to defend a gold medal, I think it just shows how passionate we are and how serious we are and how we’re not going to be underestimated.”
USA Hockey said the organization and the U.S. Olympic Committee provide national team players with financial support, training opportunities, camps and strength and conditioning programs.
“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,” USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said. “We have communicated that increased level of support to the players’ representatives and look forward to continuing our discussions.”
USA Hockey said each player participating in the Olympics in South Korea next February could receive up to $85,000, which also includes medal incentives.
Duggan called the statement “completely misleading and dishonest,” and the law firm representing the players said no $85,000 offer was made.
“It’s an example of them kind of disregarding anything that we’re asking and basically disregarding our request to be under contract for a four-year period and any of that,” Duggan said, adding that players are also asking for insurance and travel expenses they don’t feel are provided on an equal level as men’s players.
Neither USA Hockey nor the players would reveal details of the wages in dispute or how the men’s team is compensated. The U.S. men’s team is comprised of highly paid NHL players, as are most established men’s national teams.
Players pointed to the $3.5 million USA Hockey spends annually on its National Team Development Program with no comparable setup for women’s development and the fact that those men’s under-17 and under-18 teams play 60 games a season compared to just nine for the women’s national team in a non-Olympic year.
Canada, the world’s other women’s hockey powerhouse, puts more money into the sport in part because of government funding. Hockey Canada general manager of women’s programs Melody Davidson said development players receive $900 a month and senior-level players $1,500 a month even outside Olympic years and that players are supported full-time for nine months around the Olympics.
“We get paid for six months out of a four-year span,” said forward Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who only recently received a check for December Series games against Canada.
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 players’ leverage is they’re the players in the country.
“We’re asking for equitable support and marketing and visibility and promotion in programming but also in some financial support,” Knight said. “It’s 2017 and those things are not unreasonable.”
USA Hockey said it is committed to growing women’s hockey and that more than 73,000 women play hockey in the U.S. now compared with 23,000 in 1998, when the Americans won gold at the first Olympics with a women’s tournament.
But women’s players have had contracts only in Olympic years and are seeking a deal that covers them in off years. Several players said USA Hockey has paid players $1,000 a month during their six-month Olympic residency period and nothing the rest of the time.
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.”