US women's hockey agreement could have far-reaching impact

Cammi Granato's biggest victory in hockey came 12 years after she retired.

When USA Hockey and the women's national team agreed to a contract Tuesday night that ended a wage dispute, Granato couldn't put her happiness into words.

The Hockey Hall of Famer and her teammates staged a similar fight in 2000 without success, and she hopes the current team's progress paves the way for the future of women's hockey and even other sports.

''It's bigger than any victory that we've had in USA Hockey,'' said Granato, who won the gold medal in 1998 with the U.S. at the first Olympics with women's hockey. ''I just think it's such a positive, positive day for women's hockey, women's sports and women in general.''

Granato and lawmakers, lawyers and experts see the U.S. national team's agreement as a precedent-setter for other hockey teams around the world and other men's and women's athletes in this country.

As the U.S. women's soccer team continues to work out a labor contract, the women's hockey team showed how it could leverage solidarity and timing into a multiyear agreement that satisfied all parties involved and pushed gender quality in sports forward.

''I'm hoping it will create a wave across the country of more equity in pay,'' said Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, one of 20 senators to write to USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean encouraging him to end the dispute.

''We know that it's not going to be exactly the same. We know the viewership numbers for some of these sports, but at least you have to try. When you try and you give them more funding, it's kind of a chicken-and-egg problem.

''Once they're able to actually support themselves and it's more lucrative, you get more women going into the sport, then you have better sports and you have more people watching them.''

In that way, women's hockey has taken the first step toward following women's soccer, almost 20 years after the World Cup-winning team led by Mia Hamm, Brianna Scurry, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain inspired Granato and her teammates to challenge USA Hockey.

Members of the U.S. women's hockey team will now make $3,000-$4,000 a month with the ability to earn around $71,000 annually and up to $129,000 in Olympic years when combined with contributions from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

That's still less than what women's soccer players bring in, but now players won't have to work second or third jobs - and half did - or retire to start a family because the new contract guarantees that protection along with insurance and other improvements.

Lawyer John Langel of Ballard Spahr, who represented soccer players from 1998-2014 and the hockey players in this negotiation, said hockey ''shouldn't necessarily take the same long journey'' depending on how many strides are made in professional leagues, programming, marketing and sponsorships.

One immediate impact is lengthening careers, which has already shown to be the case in soccer and could transfer over to other sports.

Granato retired in 2005, but still felt as if she had ''more to give'' and finds it incredible that players in the current generation won't have to hang up their skates as early as she did.

With a deal in place, the U.S. opens its world championship gold-medal defense Friday against Canada. Players had threatened to boycott the tournament over the wage dispute, which Pepper Hamilton labor and employment lawyer Matt DelDuca considers the most interesting aspect of the case.

''It shows other groups a path for trying to negotiate and use their leverage to negotiate a deal that's favorable to them or that they're satisfied with,'' DelDuca said.

''It does really require solidarity though. You really need to have everybody together to make it work, and in this case they really seemed to have had that. In all those ways it is a benchmark for other groups to use.''

USA Hockey said all along its priority was to get a deal done, but did reach out to replacement players. Very few accepted the invite as star forward Hilary Knight and other top players espoused the solidarity of the entire player pool.

''There wasn't any poaching of other players,'' said North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp, another senator who wrote to Ogrean.

''They were all united in this common goal, and I think that competitive, athletic spirit really showed up in terms of fighting for your rights. I thought they deserved the support of people here who say that they support equality in pay and equality in opportunity.''

Susan Cahn, a University at Buffalo professor of women's history, said the Senate's involvement made it clear this wasn't just a financial dispute, but ''a political issue around equal treatment and fighting gender bias in amateur sport.''

Within hockey, the agreement allows for future expansion in the professional and amateur ranks.

''It sets the stage for a major growth in the game,'' Granato said. ''I think there's a potential here to take this team and have it be followed similar to other women's sports and where they're at right now.''

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This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the last name of University at Buffalo professor Susan Cahn.

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Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

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