There's always electricity when Canada and the United States face off at the women's world hockey championship, but Friday night's matchup in Plymouth, Mich., is expected to generate a special buzz.
The high-profile dispute between the U.S. women's team and USA Hockey over the past two weeks attracted widespread attention as the players threatened to sit out if their demands for equity weren't met. Three days before puck drop, the two sides averted the boycott by striking a significant deal to address the inequitable treatment of girls' and women's programs. So Canada and the United States will meet on opening night after all, and the women hope that the support they experienced translates into a spectacular atmosphere.
"The biggest thing we wanted was a change in the mindset and the culture within USA Hockey and we believe we achieved that," U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said by phone, talking over the noise of her elated teammates as they finally united in Michigan. "We hope females in the U.S. and other countries can recognize that they can stand up for the things they deserve.
"I think we're going to use this movement to electrify our team. I can't wait to see how it impacts us and the fans who come to show their support for women's hockey."
It was a prime opportunity for the women's team to take a stand, with USA Hockey as host of the world's best female hockey teams in Michigan, a popular hockey state, at USA Hockey Arena. The event would lose lustre without the Americans, the No. 1 team in the IIHF world rankings, winners of seven of the past 10 world championships and half of the headline rivalry at any women's world hockey event: Canada versus the United States.
The U.S. players said USA Hockey was paying them $1,000 (U.S.) a month during the six-month residency period before an Olympics and then "virtually nothing" during the other 3 1/2 years. USA Hockey maintained its athletes shouldn't be employees. A year of discussions hadn't accomplished much.
When the players threatened on March 15 that they would boycott, USA Hockey vowed it would still ice a team for the world championship. Via countless calls and e-mails to college hockey programs, the National Women's Hockey League, junior teams and women's leagues, the national team achieved solidarity with the women's hockey community. One after another, players approached by USA Hockey to be replacements said no. Many of those players had dreamed for years about pulling on a USA jersey, and knew they would never get such an invitation again. They chose solidarity over a temporary spotlight, and tweeted out their decisions.
There was a barrage of other support for the women on social media, too, from little girls posing in their hockey jerseys using the hashtag #BeBoldForChange, to American NHL players and women from the U.S. soccer team, who also shared experiences from their own equity battles.
"There were tweets and messages we received that brought tears to my eyes," said Duggan, a two time Olympic silver medalist and six-time world champion. "In this day and age, with social media and the ability to reach out and be visible, it was a huge help to us."
Firm messages also came from the unions that represented players in the NHL, NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball.
"It is important that the best American women players be on the ice for the championship," the NHLPA said in a statement. "The notion of seeking replacement players will only serve to make relationships, now and in the future, much worse."
More than a dozen U.S senators collaborated on a letter to USA Hockey.
"We urge you to resolve this dispute quickly to ensure that the USA Women's National Hockey Team receives equitable resources," wrote the senators. "These elite athletes indeed deserve fairness and respect, and we hope you will be a leader on this issue as women continue to push for equality in athletics."
The four-year deal was struck Tuesday night. Highlights reportedly included a hike in annual compensation to roughly $70,000 a player, performance bonuses for medals, the same level of travel arrangements, per diem and insurance coverage as the men, the formation of a women's committee to make recommendations on promotions and scheduling for the women, and a foundation to improve fundraising and girls' hockey-development programs.
"We'll now move forward together knowing we'll look back on this day as one of the most positive in the history of USA Hockey," said USA Hockey president Jim Smith.
Monique Lamoureux-Morando, a two-time Olympic silver medalist with the United States and five-time world champion, was at her full-time job much of the week, as were many female hockey players trying to make ends meet. She was on the job at 5 a.m Tuesday as a strength and conditioning coach in North Dakota, while she also juggled the conference calls about the negotiations.
"I had my bags packed for a week, and like every other woman on this team, we kept skating and preparing individually when we held out through training camp," said Lamoureux-Morando by phone during a layover on her way to Michigan. "It wore on us for two weeks that it was a very real possibility that we would miss the world championships. We were willing to risk that opportunity in order to do what was right for women in our sport."
The U.S dispute caused many to ask how the Canadian women's team is financed. Putting an exact dollar amount on their compensation package is problematic, because funding comes from many streams and varies from player to player.
Sport Canada's Athlete Assistance Program, the so-called "carding" system, provides eligible athletes with an annual stipend of up to $18,000 (Canadian) a year, depending upon their experience levels – and could increase by up to $270 a month between now and next year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. On a needs-base, athletes are also eligible for a $500-a-month top-up to their funding through Sport Canada's Excellence Fund.
The Canadian Olympic Committee offers bonuses that are performance related – $20,000 for a gold medal, $15,000 for a silver, $10,000 for a bronze – and given that Canada has been first or second in each of the previous five Olympics, that money is close to guaranteed.
Hockey Canada's annual agreement, negotiated with its players through the Women's High Performance Advisory Committee, runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 and covers costs associated with insurance, travel, ice time, coaching and other expenses associated with the players' training. This is what inspired the U.S. women to ask for a similar committee.
At the moment, the two sides are also putting the finishing touches on a nine-month addendum to the agreement to cover player costs associated with centralizing the Canadian team in Calgary. That agreement will run from July 1 until March, 2018, and provides players with a training allowance, which covers rent, plus a food allowance, relocation expenses, and child-care allowances where applicable. In 2014, according to a report from The Canadian Press, compensation from the Olympic addendum was worth $2,500 a month to the players.
"Every little bit helps – and that's the reality of being a women's hockey player," said former national team star Cassie Campbell-Pascall. "You always have to find another little thing to make ends meet."
Canadian player Meghan Agosta, a three-time Olympic champion, is a great illustration of someone who juggles hockey and a career. After she helped Canada win a gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, she relocated to Vancouver, where she works full-time as a police officer. She uses her annual vacations to compete in international competitions, such as the worlds.
If she is selected for the 2018 Olympic team, Agosta will be obliged to take a one-year leave of absence in May from her job in order to move to Calgary in the fall, where the team will be centralized. Agosta has high praise for both Hockey Canada and the Vancouver Police Department for helping her with the work-life balancing act, but acknowledges it comes at a cost.
"That means leaving without pay," Agosta said. "It means putting my pension and benefits on hold. It means having to buy back my pension when I get back. But it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make on any given day to be able to represent my country. It's totally worth it."