Players from the U.S. women's ice hockey team met with officials from USA Hockey, the sport's national governing body, on Monday in Philadelphia amid a standoff over equal pay issues that has the players threatening to boycott this month's world championship tournament.
Team captain Meghan Duggan, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and six-time world championship winner, told the Inquirer after the day-long meeting that there were "great, productive discussions" between the two parties.
The meeting was held in Philadelphia because the players retained Ballard Spahr lawyers John Langel and Dee Spagnuolo last week as part of an effort to bring their issues to greater light.
"We will continue to have the discussions to reach an agreement as soon as possible that will hopefully allow the players to play," Duggan said. "The goal of both sides is to get the players to camp with enough time to prepare for and compete at the world championship."
A USA Hockey statement Monday night offered a similar sentiment.
"We had productive meetings today with players that are part of the U.S. Women's National Team program and their representatives, and conversations will continue this week," the statement said. "Our goal remains to have the players we previously announced as the U.S. Women's National Team be the group that represents our country at the upcoming 2017 IIHF Women's World Championship."
The United States is hosting this year's edition of the International Ice Hockey Federation's marquee women's tournament. It will be held in Plymouth, Mich., starting March 31, and the opening day of games includes a prime-time rivalry showdown between the U.S. and Canada.
Those two nations have contested four of the five gold medal games since Olympic women's hockey began in 1998, and every IIHF title game since the world championship began in 1990. The Americans have won the last three IIHF titles and seven of the last nine.
Duggan and her teammates were originally scheduled to report to a pre-tournament training camp in Michigan on Tuesday.
"It can be flexible," she said. "We don't have specific details as to exact time and how further discussions will go, but we will continue to have further discussions."
Among the issues on the table is that USA Hockey only pays women's national team players $1,000 per month during the six-month residency period leading up to an Olympics, and no other money during the rest of the four-year cycle.
Some players participate in the fledgling National Women's Hockey League, and Duggan said the league "supports the players and looks to push women's hockey as a great product." But those salaries aren't enough to be considered full-time compensation either - certainly not in comparison to the salaries that professional men's players make.
Spagnuolo told CNN last week that the players want a $68,000 annual salary, child care, maternity leave and other benefits. They are also asking for increased support for youth national team development programs, claiming USA Hockey spends nearly $3.5 million per year on its boys' program but has no comparable program for girls.
"Ultimately, it is about equitable support and wages for women in this program," Duggan said.
After the players made their initial announcement last week, USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said in a statement: "We acknowledge the players' concerns and have proactively increased our level of direct support to the Women's National Team as we prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. We have communicated that increased level of support to the players' representatives and look forward to continuing our discussions."
At the same time, USA Hockey president Jim Smith said, the organization's "role is not to employ athletes and we will not do so."
Duggan and her teammates have drawn considerable publicity and public support in recent days. From the hockey world, the Washington Capitals' Kevin Shattenkirk and John Carlson - both of whom played for the U.S. men's team at the 2014 Olympics - have lent their voices. So has 1980 "Miracle on Ice" star Mike Eruzione:
Duggan said she and her teammates are thankful for the support.
"It's been fantastic," she said. "Obviously we're passionate about what we're trying to do and we believe in it, so for others to believe in it as well is great."
It's no coincidence that the women's hockey players have retained Langel, who was the chief counsel for the U.S. women's soccer players from 2000 to 2014. Duggan said that the hockey players first reached out to him around a year and a half ago.
"We had read a lot and heard a lot about the work he had done with the soccer team, and thought it might be a great fit," Duggan said, "and certainly it is for us."