United States' Alex Carpenter skates during practice in preparation for the IIHF Women's World Championship hockey tournament, Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Plymouth, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya
March 30, 2017

PLYMOUTH, Mich. (AP) Meghan Duggan and her U.S. hockey teammates were on the ice practicing, just where they wanted to be, two days after agreeing to a deal that avoided a boycott - and a little more than 24 hours before playing rival Canada in the world championship opener for both teams.

''It's our Stanley Cup in any given year, in a non-Olympic year,'' Duggan, the team's captain, said Thursday. ''To put that on the line initially for us was an unbelievable gut-wrenching sacrifice. It was one of (the most) difficult things we've ever had to do. So, to really stick together throughout the entire process and now find ourselves here, yesterday, ready to play in the world championships is just ... it's the greatest feeling in world.''

The American women made a bold move earlier this month, publicly threatening to not show up at the marquee event at USA Hockey arena, and it paid off when the off-ice battle ended Tuesday night with a four-year deal.

Members of the U.S. women's hockey team will now make $3,000-$4,000 a month with the ability to earn about $71,000 annually. They can make up to $129,000 in Olympic years with contributions from the U.S. Olympic Committee. That's quite a boost for a group of women who were getting $1,000 a month for six months around the Olympics.

And like their male counterparts that compete for USA Hockey, the women are flying in business class and staying at nice hotels.

''That's what basically we've been saying all along: `What do they have? OK, equitable to that,''' said Kacey Bellamy, who plays defense for the Americans. ''And I think that that's the most important thing. We're not asking for more. And I think that that's the biggest message that people sometimes get confused about.''

Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel, an American, said the women deserved better.

''I think as a USA hockey player, you're trying to grow the game and that's the women's, too,'' Eichel said.

The Canadians, clearly, are glad the U.S. women got a deal done and are in suburban Detroit, too.

Not only will it likely improve what Hockey Canada offers in its current negotiations with players, but it keeps a highly charged rivalry on the ice. If USA Hockey failed to offer its top women to play, the organization appeared to be prepared to field a team with lower-level caliber players such as some playing Division III college hockey.

''We're excited that they're here,'' Canada goaltender Shannon Szabados said. ''It wouldn't be the same without them whether they weren't here or if it was a different squad that they brought.''

When the U.S. and Canada meet in women's hockey, it's usually quite a show. Nearly 18 million people were watching on TV when the Canadian women's hockey team rallied from a two-goal, third-period deficit to beat the Americans 3-2 in overtime to win Olympic gold in 2014.

Not as many are expected to tune in Friday night on the NHL Network when they meet again, but that won't slow down the deep and talented teams, who are projected to play again for gold April 7.

If any of the six teams make it to the finals, it would be a first.

Since the first International Ice Hockey Federation women's world championship in 1990, the Canadians and Americans have not allowed another country to advance to the finals. The U.S. beat Canada last year at the world championship, winning the eight-nation tournament for the third straight time over Canada and sixth time in seven opportunities.

Finland appears to be the team to beat from the rest of the pack, which includes Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Canadian coach Laura Schuler, though, insisted the gap is closing between the sport's two powers and the rest of the world, in part because more Europeans are playing for North American-based colleges.

''Even Canada and the U.S. last year had trouble with other countries,'' Schuler said. ''We had some trouble with Finland and the U.S. had some trouble with Russia. They were really close games. That's the thing about the world championships, everyone is here to win gold. There's a lot of talent across the spectrum.''

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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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