US women hope bond forged by pay fight leads to Olympic gold

By TERESA M. WALKER,
Last Updated: Thursday, November 30, 2017

(AP) Hilary Knight was listening to the radio when she heard the U.S. women's hockey team come up.

It wasn't about a big win on the ice. It was about a fight off the ice that ended with better pay and benefits.

"It's a big deal," the two-time Olympic silver medalist said. "Women's hockey now is on the map. And not only did we fight for things in our sport for the next generation, but hopefully we inspired other people outside."

Threatening to boycott the world championships on home ice last March landed the U.S women's national hockey team a pay raise and some of the perks USA Hockey gives the men. Standing together to earn a deal reached only three days before playing rival Canada to kick off the world championships brought them closer together, a bond they used to win their fourth straight world title.

The Americans believe their chemistry couldn't be stronger and could help them achieve their ultimate goal: ending a 20-year drought by winning Olympic gold at the 2018 Winter Games.

Knight says a delicate balance is required.

"After a win like that on both fronts, you sort of feel untouchable," Knight said . "You've changed the world. You're hoping that you've changed the other industries for the better. But also, too, realizing you have to have humility and the opponent's right around the corner, building, working, doing the same things you're doing, and every time you show up at the rink it's a 50-50 battle and you've got to be at the top of that battle."

Earning better benefits was something the Americans had fought for, and lost, before.

Angela Ruggiero, currently a member of the International Olympic Committee's executive board, worked as an ice rink security guard the summer before the 1998 Olympics to help pay the bills. Ruggiero said her team had a similar fight in 2000 and it was time again for "a real, contested sort of debate."

"They stood their ground and fought for what they believe was right," she said of the current team.

Timing mattered.

The United States had won the world championships seven times when the women threatened March 15 to boycott the IIHF Women's World Championship in Plymouth, Michigan. They stuck together after more than a year of negotiations with USA Hockey and threats of replacement players until a new four-year contract was reached March 28. The Americans received support from the unions for the NHL, NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, along with 20 U.S. senators.

Under the new contract, USA Hockey will be putting more money into women's hockey with the national team receiving the same $50 per diem per day as the men along with similar travel and insurance perks. A women's advisory group also is supposed to feature former and current players to help grow women's hockey.

The women also are receiving more money per month during Olympic training, which began in September. Winning gold would mean bonuses of $57,500 from the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Hockey combined with annual compensation potentially topping $70,000.

"It's been great to see progress since then, where USA team athletes can just play hockey," Ruggiero said. "That's not to say you'll make a lot of money, but it defers some of the expense of meals, rent and travel."

The Canadians took notice of the off-ice victory. Canada puts more money into the sport in part because of government funding, and Hockey Canada officials said players are supported full-time for nine months around the Olympics.

"It's amazing that they've brought women's hockey a step closer to where it should be, and I think in time it's only a matter of when as female athletes we'll be able to play the game we love and get paid," Canadian forward Meghan Agosta said. "I think hockey's come a long way and they kind of set the bar high."

The U.S. women were recently honored by the Women's Sports Foundation with the Wilma Rudolph Courage award . They've also had the support of politicians, celebrities and Billie Jean King.

In the end, what will matter most is how the Americans fare on what remains the biggest stage for women's hockey when the Olympics begin in February in South Korea. This fall, they've beaten Canada three out of four games in their pre-Olympic exhibition tour, including twice in winning their third straight Four Nations Cup championship.

U.S. coach Robb Stauber said the players' unity was impressive in reaching the new contract. Stauber said different goals often require a different approach, though the women's bond can carry over.

"You got to stick together," said Stauber, whose team faces Canada in an exhibition on Sunday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Gigi Marvin, a two-time silver medalist and the team's oldest player at 30, said the Americans already have established they're a close group. And captain Meghan Duggan said that bond gave them energy and momentum at the world championships. They also learned a lot about themselves through that fight.

"For sure, it brought us closer," Duggan said. "Right now we're focused ... on doing what we need to do to achieve our ultimate goal."

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AP Sports Writer Melissa Murphy in New York contributed to this report.

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Online: https://www.apnews.com/tag/WinterOlympics

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker