Females are facing an off-ice fight at all levels of hockey

PLYMOUTH, Mich. (AP) The best women's hockey players in the U.S. can now make a living playing the sport they love thanks to a landmark agreement with USA Hockey reached after a threat to boycott the world championship. The deal will likely help their counterparts north of the border make more money in their next Olympic agreement with Hockey Canada.

Even those who will benefit, though, acknowledge the off-ice fight isn't over.

At every level of female hockey, from pre-teen girls to college to post-graduate players, there are obstacles.

''Women's hockey has come a long way with the amount of teams that are popping up and support and visibility,'' said Meghan Duggan, captain of the Americans' team playing in the world championship. ''I think it has a long way to go, and I'm excited to push it ahead. I'm certainly proud to be someone standing up for women's hockey and really trying to get it to move forward. I look forward to see how far women's hockey is going go.''

In a border town about 300 miles north of suburban Detroit, a new USA Hockey rule appears to be having unintended consequences for girls trying to find their stride.

The Soo Lady Lakers, an organization based in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, participated in the state's Tier II 14-and-under tournament with just 11 girls that were mostly from Canada and 12 years old or younger. Beginning next season a USA Hockey rule states, no player 12 years or younger is eligible to play on a team intending or declared to compete in district or national championships.

Malory McCormick, who coached the Lakers at this year's tournament, said the girls on her team that are not old enough to play 14U hockey next year have limited options. They can drive 2-plus hours, each way, to join a 12U team in Kalkaska, Michigan; play with 12U boys in their area; participate in house hockey with girls just learning how to skate; or quit playing the sport.

''It's heartbreaking to tell the girls I don't know what our team will look like next year,'' McCormick said.

Kristen Wright, USA Hockey's manager of girls' player development, said the new rule was put in place for safety and development reasons because girls usually hit a growth spurt at about 13.

''The rule hasn't gone into effect yet and we want to see what's going to happen,'' Wright said in a telephone interview Saturday night. ''We think more good than bad will come up this, but we'll review this over time and we'll see how it changes the landscape of the game.''

Given the chance to comment on this story with a conversation or email, Michigan Amateur Hockey Association President George Atkinson repeatedly declined on Sunday.

In the same week that USA Hockey gave in to demands from its top-caliber women, females in the sport had a setback when the University of North Dakota eliminated its women's hockey team. Eight players from the program represented three countries in the 2014 Olympics, including Monique Lamoureux-Morando, who plays defense for the U.S.

Lamoureux-Morando, who was a volunteer assistant coach for the program last season, said players on the team found out about the decision on Twitter.

''To have that happen and then the way in which they found out that their team was cut is just in my opinion very unacceptable,'' Lamoureux-Morando said.

At the next level of women's hockey, a professional league in Canada and another in the U.S. are trying to make it independently. At least some women who play for both leagues wish the five-team Canadian Women's Hockey League would merge with the four-team National Women's Hockey League to become one. That might help the sport gain support from the NHL, which could potentially financially back the best women in the game as the NBA does with the WNBA. The CWHL pays players with performance and playoff bonuses and hasn't delivered on a promise to give them a salary. The NWHL paid players $15,000 and $26,000 last year in its inaugural season and then a month into the second season, the league announced it over-estimated its financial projections and slashed salaries in half.

For the first time, though, there's hope for girls aspiring to play hockey as a career when they become women.

The best hockey players in the U.S. can make about $70,000 a year thanks to the recent agreement and in Olympic years, including next year, they can earn up to $129,000 with contributions from the U.S. Olympic Committee. And like the men who play for USA Hockey, the women will fly in business class and sleep in nicer hotels.

That development provided a lot of girls across North American with an emotional boost, including 12-year-old Crosby Wildfong, who looks up the players bold enough to threaten sitting out of the world championship.

''All of them are my idols,'' said Wildfong, who is driven from Flint, Michigan, to suburban Detroit about an hour each way to practice with a top-tier HoneyBaked team. ''I agree with them. They play the same sport as the boys, and the boys are getting paid so much more than they are. I don't think it's fair.''

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AP Hockey Writers John Wawrow and Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

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Follow Hockey Writer Larry Lage at http://www.twitter.com/larrylage

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