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Why the United States’ best women’s hockey players are threatening to strike

Monique Lamoureux, right, celebrates a goal against Team Finland in the 2014 Four Nations Cup. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff Bassett, File)
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Monique Lamoureux-Morando started noticing the slights not long after she earned her spot on USA Hockey’s women’s national team in 2009.

While the teenagers and young men on USA Hockey’s world junior (under-20) men’s team had a seemingly endless supply of sticks, 27-year-old Lamoureux-Morando said, she and her teammates sometimes had to buy their own. While the goalie on the junior men’s team always played in top-of-the-line pads and a freshly painted helmet, the women’s goalie needed to use her old pads from college for months, her alma mater’s brown and white clashing with the red, white, and blue jerseys for Team USA.

And, in what Lamoureux-Morando and her teammates have described as a last straw of sorts, when USA Hockey held an official jersey unveiling ceremony in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the Olympic sports organization didn’t invite the women’s team, and stitching on the jerseys that celebrated all of Team USA’s gold medals didn’t mention the 1998 gold won by the women’s team in Nagano.

“We don’t believe it was done maliciously,” Lamoureux-Morando, a two-time Olympic silver-medalist, said in a phone interview. “We’re just an afterthought.”

Olympic executives cash in on a movement that keeps athletes poor

This week, Lamoureux-Morando and her teammates announced what amounted to a threat to strike. The U.S. women’s national team is refusing to play in the upcoming women’s ice hockey world championships — which USA Hockey is hosting later this month in Michigan — unless the Olympic governing body agrees to pay the players what they consider fair wages and offer more year-round support. Currently, USA Hockey doesn’t pay the women at all in non-Olympic years, and in the year before an Olympics pays them $6,000 each.

USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean — who earned $440,000 in 2015, according to USA Hockey’s most recent 990 filing with the IRS — did not respond to interview requests. Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo., USA Hockey selects and trains teams for international competition and certifies coaches and officials across the country. The organization had $42 million in annual income in 2015, according to the 990, much of it generated through membership fees.

“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,” Ogrean said in a statement USA Hockey released this week. “We have communicated that increased level of support to the players’ representatives and look forward to continuing our discussions.”

In the statement, USA Hockey claimed it is increasing its support for the upcoming Olympics in South Korea to offer women’s players up to $85,000. The lawyer for the women’s team, John Langel, said this claim is misleading, as $62,500 of that figure would actually come from the United States Olympic Committee, including a $37,500 gold medal bonus that is not guaranteed.

“And that offer doesn’t discuss the other three [non-Olympic] years, when they’ve offered us zero,” said Langel, attorney with Ballard Spahr law firm in Philadelphia.

This is the second pay dispute between a women’s national team and an Olympic governing body in the past year; the women’s national soccer team filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year alleging wage discrimination by U.S. Soccer. This dispute is slightly different, however.

Soccer offers lucrative international competitions in non-Olympic years, and U.S. Soccer for years has paid both its men’s and women’s national team members (albeit paying the men more). International hockey isn’t as profitable as soccer, and USA Hockey hasn’t traditionally paid players on either of its national teams in non-Olympic years. For the past five Olympics, the men’s team has been largely filled with well-paid professionals from the NHL.

“In our role as the national governing body, USA Hockey trains and selects teams for international competition,” USA Hockey President Jim Smith said in a statement. “USA Hockey’s role is not to employ athletes and we will not do so. USA Hockey will continue to provide world-leading support for our athletes.”

The support USA Hockey has provided its women has been far from world-leading, however, according to Lamoureux-Morando and her teammates. While USA Hockey spends $3.5 million supporting its under-20 men’s team, according to lawyers for the women, there is no parallel development program for young women, and USA Hockey spends only about $1 million each year supporting the women’s national team.

“It confuses me how a national governing body can sit there and say, yeah, I can spend $3.5 million on 17- and 18-year-old boys, and I don’t have a corresponding obligation on the women’s side,” Langel said.

In addition to more pay, the women want USA Hockey to invest more in supporting their team in non-Olympic years by scheduling more games. The women’s team typically plays nine games in non-Olympic years, according to Lamoureux-Morando, while the junior men’s team plays 50 or more.

The women’s team is due to report to training camp next week, and the world championship tournaments starts March 31 in Plymouth, Mich. In statements this week, USA Hockey officials indicated they are considering finding replacement players, if the impasse is not resolved by then.

Hilary Knight, a 27-year-old forward who has played on the team since 2006, said sitting out the tournament would be painful for her and her teammates, but necessary to demonstrate their resolve. After winning a silver medal in Sochi, Team USA has won the past two world championships.

“It’s a huge sacrifice that we’re putting the world championship on the line, and I think that speaks volumes,” Knight said. “Equitable is the key word. For us, it’s not an unreasonable ask.”