Column: Women's Hockey Team Wins On and Off IceApril 6, 2017
The players were coming off a two-week standoff with USA Hockey, the governing body that oversees international hockey competition. Instead of practicing for the tournament, Marvin and her teammates announced on March 15 they would boycott the tournament unless they received a new contract. Negotiations on a new compensation package began some 15 months earlier but little progress had been made until the women took a firm stand: Pay us or we won’t play. In the end, the hockey federation blinked first.
The women were reluctant to take personal credit for their huge accomplishment. "Our sport is the big winner today," team captain Meghan Duggan said shortly after the deal was announced. "We stood up for what we thought was right… I'm proud of my teammates and can't thank everyone who supported us enough. It's time now to turn the page.” For the brain trust behind USA Hockey, turning the page will include licking their wounds and building a relationship between the organization and the players they tried to divide, break and replace.
This wasn’t a victory so much as a total and complete surrender by USA Hockey. But the federation had little choice. After the women announced their boycott, USA Hockey made it clear the World Championships, to be played on U.S. soil, would go on as scheduled, even if they had to recruit replacement players. That plan went up in smoke after a desperation call went out to pro, college, high school and post-collegiate players and not a single player responded in the affirmative. In fact, dozens of players announced publicly they had rebuffed the invitation to play and went on to say they fully supported the National Team’s efforts. The women also received support from professional players' unions representing the NHL, NBA, NFL, MLB and the National Women's Hockey League (unrelated to the Women’s National Team). Even the Canadian Women's Team, which stood to gain the most from the absence of the USA’s top players, publicly backed their first round opponent.
The agreement gave players increased training stipends; base salaries of $4,000 per month before bonuses; performance bonuses of $20,000 for a gold medal and $15,000 for silver to supplement the five-figure performance bonuses the USOC pays athletes in all sports; the same travel arrangements and insurance coverage as the men's team; and per diem of $50 - up from $15 - for non-travel days at events, the same as the men. In sum, under the new contract players could earn $70,000 per year in non-Olympic years and more than $100,000 in Olympic years. The new compensation package provides the equivalent of full time employment and could potentially keep some women in the sport into their 30s.
There will be indirect benefits as well. USA Hockey and the players will establish a committee to make recommendations on how the federation can improve its marketing, scheduling, public relations efforts and promotion of the women's game. Last but not least, USA Hockey agreed to add a foundation position to improve fundraising and other efforts for its girls' developmental teams. Currently, such teams receive virtually nothing compared to the $3.5 million the boys' program receives, not to mention the additional $1.4 million USA Hockey pours into the United States Hockey League, a top-tier league for 16- to 20-year-old boys.
Throughout the long ordeal, the women stayed united, supported each other and focused on the negotiations to the same extent they did on training for the tournament. That formula has led to winning six of the last eight world titles and medaling at every Winter Olympic Games since women's hockey was added as a sport in 1998. But it’s arguable that their most impressive performance – and greatest achievement – occurred off the ice.