Just days before the world championship tournament was set to begin, USA Hockey and the US Women’s National Team came to an agreement on athlete pay and benefits that staved off a debilitating boycott supported by NHL players and US senators.
On Tuesday night, the two sides announced “an agreement that will result in groundbreaking support” for the women’s team and female athletes at all levels of the sport over the next four years. The deal was reached ahead of a planned boycott of the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship tournament, which begins on Friday.
The women have sought concessions from USA Hockey over the last 15 months, asking for comparable compensation for the team and treatment of its girl and women programs. On March 15, the national team players announced they would boycott the upcoming tournament if their demands were not addressed in the form of a new contract.
Negotiators for both sides met for 10 hours in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 20. Players left the face-to-face talks believing they had achieved a tentative agreement, but USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean told ESPN: “That was a misunderstanding.”
Meanwhile, the reality of the potential boycott began to take hold. USA Hockey reportedly began reaching out to collegiate players — including those playing at the Division III level, Under-16 teams and women who had played in college and were still playing recreationally after graduating — to serve as replacement players.
“At first, I admit, I thought, ‘Wow!’ Just the chance to pull on a USA jersey has always been a dream,” left winger Dani Sibley, a senior at DIII University of Wisconsin-River Falls, told ESPN. She and two teammates turned down an invitation to try out for the national team.
“It almost seems like we’re the last resort and they’re just willing to throw us in there,” teammate Carli Moran said.
The US women’s team is the defending world champions, and the United States is hosting this year’s tournament in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth, Michigan. Along with the potential embarrassment a team of scabs might present because of a lack of practice and a sharp difference in skills between the US women and the competitors, the replacement players may not have even been allowed on the ice due to anti-doping regulations. The IIHF requires athletes to participate in drug testing for six months ahead of a tournament. Russia was expected to protest any waiver that might have been granted, according to ESPN.
The planned boycott began garnering attention not just on the women’s side of the sport, but on the men’s as well. The men’s national team threatened to skip their IIHF World Championships in May if USA Hockey used replacement players, USA Today and SB Nation reported.
The National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) offered their support for their female colleagues, as did the player’s associations for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL). Fans voiced their encouragement with the #BeBoldForChange hashtag.
On Monday, federal lawmakers got involved, as 20 US senators — all Democrats — sent a letter to Ogrean to express “serious concern” about the women’s accusations of “inequitable allocation of resources to the women’s hockey program and unjust treatment of national team members.” In the letter, the legislators noted that USA Hockey is required by the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amatuer Sports Act to “provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis.”
“These elite athletes indeed deserve fairness and respect,” the senators wrote.
The next day, USA Hockey conceded to many of the women’s team’s demands, according to ESPN, citing a source who has seen the contract. The new, four-year deal calls for the players’ annual compensation to rise from a reported $6,000 per player for the six-month training residency before each Olympic Games and a monthly stipend for the other 3.5 years to $70,000 annually. The stipend will also rise from $750-$2,000 based on experience to $4,000 before bonuses. USA Hockey will also pay performance bonuses for the first time.
he women’s team also sought child care, maternity leave and other benefits commensurate with the men’s team. For the first time, the women will receive the same level of travel arrangements and insurance coverage as the men’s national team, including a raise in their per diem from $15 to $50. It is unclear if the agreement addresses child care or maternity leave, as the “parties agreed to keep financial terms between them,” a joint statement read.
USA Hockey will also provide more support for the women’s side of the game at all levels, including financial, marketing and scheduling. It also agreed to improve fundraising and other efforts for the developmental teams, which had previously received almost no money, compared to a combined $4.9 million for the boys’ and USHL programs.
“Our sport is the big winner today,” Meghan Duggan, captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team, said in a 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.”
The US women’s team will hold its first practice session on Thursday at 3:15pm ET, and the puck will drop for the tournament with the Americans facing off against archrival Canada on Friday at 7:30pm ET.