For months the players had been negotiating with USA Hockey. It happens every four years in conjunction with the Olympic cycle. The talks rarely make news, but this month they made waves, big ones, when the 23 members of the Women's National Team, including Buffalo native Emily Pfalzer, announced they would not defend the world championship gold medal, on home soil, without a fair deal.
Among their demands were better compensation, which would include any compensation in non-Olympic years, more investment in development of the women's game and better marketing.
After two weeks of intense action and media campaigns, both sides announced an agreement late Tuesday night putting the defending gold medalists on the ice for the IIHF Women's World Championship which begins Friday in USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich.
— Emily Pfalzer (@EmilyPfalzer) March 25, 2017
When the players announced on March 17 they would boycott the upcoming Women's World Championships if they could not reach a fair agreement with USA Hockey, the national governing body doubled down, stating it had a Plan B to field a competitive team without their senior players. USA Hockey started reaching out to potential replacement players to gauge interest and availability.
But the national governing body found itself up against an unprecedented depth of solidarity. Players within the national team system, including those who just won gold at the Under-18 World Championship, declined invitations. So too did players in the National Women's Hockey League, the Canadian Women's Hockey League and college hockey. The solidarity went down to the high school and recreational league level.
American women's hockey players had summoned their collective power and were going to use it.
"It shouldn't surprise any of us that they are not only great athletes but great leaders and they're willing to fight for what what's right in a way their mothers or grandmothers would have wanted to do but didn't have the wherewithal to do," said USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, who has extensively covered women's sports and the Olympic movement. "They are not accepting the status quo. They are fighting and where did they learn all of this? From playing sports.
"This is exactly what they were raised to do. They'll use every ounce of what they learned as athletes, all those life lessons from playing sports and use that now not only for themselves but for the next generation."
That level of collective confidence was missing 17 years ago when Cammi Granato first brought up the gender inequities in USA Hockey's program.
Granato was the face of women's hockey in the United States, the captain of the team that won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in the sport in 1998. And she was vocal about what she thought USA Hockey could and should provide for its women's team - including better compensation, marketing and development.
That didn't win her any friends in USA Hockey. By 2005, the leading scorer in U.S. women's hockey history was unceremoniously cut from the squad in advance of the 2006 Torino Olympics.
And the national governing body for ice hockey in the United States continued business as usual.
"We weren't very unified," Granato told The Buffalo News this week from her home in North Vancouver, British Columbia. "Some players just weren't sure. We were a new program, just off our first Olympics and felt incredibly fortunate just to have a team.
"The door got slammed on us. It got slammed on us pretty hard. It was intimidating. We had no idea there was going to be this explosion of anger against us. The reaction was, 'How dare you question what we've given you.' We were just trying to have a discussion to get some things to help our team and support women's hockey. We had no idea the reaction would be that strong. And everything just stopped."
It stopped because if USA Hockey could cut Cammi Granato, the face of women's hockey who would become one of the first two women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, well, it could cut pretty much anyone.
Seventeen years after those first requests were made, the women's national team picked up where Granato left off - with a vengeance that gained the sport more attention than it's ever received in a non-Olympic year and garnered support from their fellow Americans in the NHL to every major players' association in North America to members of the U.S. Senate.
"People call us pioneers because we were the first to play in the Olympics, but these girls are being pioneers right now," Granato said. "This is a group that could possibly change the face of women's hockey in the United States and that's a really big deal. I'm so proud of them for standing up for what they believe in."
Standing behind you!!! pic.twitter.com/OA4RQ8VvJ6
— Cammi Granato (@CammiGranato) March 27, 2017
What do they believe in?
It starts with wages and compensation, but just as important to this group is the money spent on marketing the women's game and in developing girls' hockey on all levels, including creating opportunities for elite girls.
The statement announcing the deal announced Tuesday night said "the parties agreed to keep financial terms between them," but ESPN reported the players would receive annual compensation of about $70,0000. ESPN also reported that USOC grants, distributed by USA Hockey, would no longer be based on experience but that each player would receive a $2,000 monthly stipend.
Also in the report, USA Hockey will pay performance bonuses for the first time and give the women's team the same level of travel arrangements and insurance coverage as the men's team.
Another key victory for the players was the formation of a Women’s High Performance Advisory Group that would meet regularly to assist USA Hockey officials as they work to advance the women's game in terms of programming, marketing, promotion and fundraising.
They work hard for the money
Brianne McLaughlin had just graduated from Robert Morris with the NCAA career record for saves and a degree in nursing. It was time for the 2010 Olympics and the goaltender was part of the U.S. Senior National Team. This was the dream. This was the highest level of competition for a woman who loved to play hockey.
But she got paid from USA Hockey only when the team was centralized for the six months leading up to the Olympics. McLaughlin was the backup goaltender on one of the best teams in the world, but to keep improving, to keep her roster spot, she needed to find a way to train all year, every year, not just in bits and pieces. And she needed to find a way to pay for it.
So along with the stress of being an elite-level athlete, she took on another added stress - that of entrepreneur. McLaughlin, who won the Isobel Cup with the Buffalo Beauts this season, started her own business outside of Pittsburgh to coach and train goaltenders.
"The amount of time needed to do what they're asking of you to win these gold medals, it doesn't leave you time for anything else," said McLaughlin, who played in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. "It wears on you because you don't even know your schedule. When you make this team, you're gone all the time.
"Where are you going to find a job that lets you off three weeks for Worlds and the week of Christmas and a week off here and there? It's not realistic. That's how I started my business in the first place. I had to work for myself so I could take the time off I needed to train and do the things they asked of me to be ready and prepared for the national team."
It's a common theme for elite women's hockey players - doing what they can to make ends meet. Training stipends are intended for training, which doesn't cover things like rent or food or transportation. Players live with parents. They take other jobs. They squeeze in coaching at as many hockey clinics as possible.
The wage dispute wasn't completely a cut-and-dried affair. USA Hockey pays players only $1,000 a month for the six-month period leading up to the Olympics. They don't receive any money from USA Hockey outside of an Olympic year despite representing the U.S. in the annual Four Nations Cup and the IIHF Women's World Championship.
And while USA Hockey responded to the player's lament of poor pay by stating that the women can make up to $84,000 in an Olympic year, that money comes from training grants from the United States Olympic Committee. USA Hockey only decides how to distribute the money.
To address the wage issue, USA Hockey issued a statement March 17.
"Providing players a living wage implies USA Hockey employs players and it does not," the statement read. "Simply USA Hockey does not pay players a salary - women or men - and instead provides training stipends and support to help put athletes that participate on our national teams in the best position to compete for a gold medal."
Other national governing bodies do pay their athletes salaries. According to its federal tax return, U.S. Figure Skating had revenues in 2014 of $17.9 million. It pays its elite athletes, male and female, around $50,000 a year.
USA Hockey's tax return lists its revenue in 2014 at $41.9 million. It pays its elite women $6,000 - every four years.
While the notion of "equal pay" may make the biggest splash, the women were looking for other compensation to put them on par with the men's team, including insurance coverage and providing the same type of accommodations during international events (hotels and flights).
Wages was not the only issue on the table for the 23 women willing to pass up the opportunity to defend their World Championship gold medal on home soil. Players said their battle is about creating an equitable system for the next generation.
The IIHF Women's World Championships are being staged in USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., another vivid reminder to the women of how much they take a back seat to the men in the USA Hockey universe.
In 2015, the USA Hockey Foundation created Plymouth AC, LLC, a company, that, as noted in the organization's public financial statements, was formed "for the purpose of purchasing and maintaining a hockey arena in Michigan. A purpose of the hockey arena is to provide a wholly owned home of the National Team Development Program."
The National Team Development Program is for boys only.
The program started in 1996 as a way for USA Hockey to identify elite players under 18 and centralize their training. The men's program has two teams. The Under-17 team competes in the United States Hockey League as well as three international events annually. The Under-18 team plays mostly college teams in exhibitions, USHL teams and prepares for three international tournaments while getting players ready for the NHL Combine and NHL Draft.
— USA Hockey NTDP (@USAHockeyNTDP) March 23, 2017
The men's program has produced four overall No. 1 picks - Auston Matthews (2016), Patrick Kane (2007), Erik Johnson (2006) and Rick DiPietro (2000).
The success follows significant financial investment.
In the financial statement for the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2016, USA Hockey spent $4 million on national team development. Of the $8 million the NHL gave USA Hockey, $3.4 million was earmarked for the National Team Development Program.
The investment, too, comes in the form of the home arena. The USA Hockey Foundation gave Plymouth AC, LLC - the company it formed to own and operate USA Hockey Arena - $1.9 million in grants, while the budget lists expenses for the Plymouth AC program at $4.1 million. And while the women do get to play there on occasion (see the pending Women's World Championship), it is viewed as the home rink of two teams dedicated to the advancement of American men's hockey.
The National Development Team Program not only allows the men to train, it allows them to compete. The two men's teams combined played 149 games in the 2015-16 season. All the women's national teams - from the senior team to the U-18 Select team - played in just 20 games.
This is the crux of the inequity the players see in the USA Hockey system - the investment in teenage boys far outpaces the investment in girls and women's hockey.
Getting their due
Earlier this year, the Buffalo Jr. Sabres announced it would form an elite U-19 women's team. The organization was pretty jazzed about adding its first women's team and creating another opportunity for skilled players in Western New York. While they would be in competition with established programs, including powerhouses from Nichols School and the Buffalo Bisons, it signaled another sign of growth and an opening to create a deeper and more talented pool.
The organization had to pull the plug when it learned of a USA Hockey bylaw that prohibits a newly formed girls or women's team from competing in USA Hockey national championship tournaments for three years.
Three years. That's a long time to ask girls to play on a team without the possibility of playing at the highest level.
It's another example of the structural issues that USA Hockey faces when trying to grow the game for women.
"A girl in Buffalo growing up right now who's really athletic looks to basketball and sees the WNBA, to swimming and sees Katie Ledecky, to tennis with Serena and Venus Williams or to golf where she sees great people making millions of dollars. Why would she pick up a hockey stick?" Brennan said.
"USA Hockey, in my mind, is sending a message to girls in Buffalo, 'Don't bother with this sport.' And that's against everything they're supposed to be doing. As a business decision it's stunning and it's appalling in the sense of stewardship of your game."
USA Hockey also appeared to be in violation of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, as pointed out by 16 U.S. senators, including New York's Kirsten Gillibrand, who sent a letter to USA Hockey this week supporting the players.
The law requires a national governing sports body to "develop interest and participation throughout the United States" and to "provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis."
The Ted Stevens Act also requires the U.S. Olympic Committee to collect and publish diversity data. And USA Hockey has a lot of failing grades when it comes to gender equity.
In the 2015 report, women accounted for just 11.93 percent of the board of directors, while they comprise 30.51 percent of athletes on national teams. Only 16.6 percent of the executive committee are female and just 18 percent of national teams' coaches and direct support personnel are women.
Fewer women's voices at the decision-making table, critics say, puts the issues faced by girls and women at a competitive disadvantage.
Perhaps more women's voices in the decision-making rooms would have avoided the public relations mess when they unveiled the jerseys for the 2014 Olympics. Stitched into the women's jerseys were the previous Olympic gold-medal winning teams - except the only golds listed were the ones the men's team won. Left off was the women's gold in Nagano in 1998.
Slights like these began to galvanize the women's national team players.
Which is why the advisory group, which will be comprised of former and current players from the U.S. Women’s National Team program, along with volunteer and staff leadership, was a big gain for the players in the announced contract deal.
“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.”