Canadian women's team 'excited' to face U.S. after wage dispute resolved
Canada's Natalie Spooner (right) looks intensely up the ice under the watchful eye of USA's Anne Schleper during the women's ice hockey gold medal game at the Sochi Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 20, 2014. (Al Charest/Postmedia Network/Files)
Natalie Spooner had just gotten off the ice on Tuesday night when she heard the news.
The Team Canada forward didn't know the exact details of the U.S. team's four-year agreement with USA Hockey. At the time, she didn't much care. All that mattered, she said, was that Canada's biggest — and, let's face it, only — rival was back in the women's hockey championship.
“We're pretty excited,” said Spooner. “I don't think the tournament would be the same without them, so I just think we're looking forward to the tournament now. We feel ready and we're excited to play against them.”
Spooner's comment that the tournament wouldn't be the same without the U.S. is not hyperbole. Had the U.S. players gone through with their boycott, which was the result of seeking increased wages and developmental support at the grassroots level, Canada might as well have joined them in sitting out. Not just as a show of solidarity, but because without the U.S. the tournament wouldn't be competitive.
Canada and the U.S. are far and away the two best hockey-playing countries in the world. It's not even really close at this point. The two countries have played for gold in four of the last five Olympics.
Since the women's world hockey championship was established in 1990, Canada and the U.S. have always met in the final, with the U.S. winning in six of the last seven years.
“We definitely stand for women's equality, but looking at our games and how close they've always been and how they've always been our biggest rival, they're the games we get the most excited to play in and the games we want to play in,” said Spooner. “So knowing that they're back, it definitely gets us excited to start the tournament and get going.”
It was two weeks ago — after 14 months of negotiations — when the women's team announced it would be boycotting the tournament unless USA Hockey stepped up with more financial support.
“We are asking for a living wage and for U.S.A. Hockey to fully support its programs for women and girls and stop treating us like an afterthought,” team captain Meghan Duggan, said in a statement at the time. “We have represented our country with dignity and deserve to be treated with fairness and respect.”
The threat put the women's careers at risk, with USA Hockey apparently ready to go ahead with replacement players for the tournament. But the women didn't waver and in the weeks leading up to the world championship had received an outpouring of support from both men and women, including tennis legend and women's rights leader Billie Jean King.
It all worked out in the end, with both sides agreeing on a new four-year contract on Tuesday. In a statement released by USA Hockey, Dave Ogrean, the organization's executive director, said “This process has, in the end, made us better.”
Prior to the agreement, players claimed they were paid US$1,000 per month, only in the months leading up to the Olympics. According to details of the new deal, which Duggan called “historic” in an Associated Press story, the amount paid to each player is believed to be around $3,000 to 4,000.
“It's great to hear that they're going to be there, for sure,” said Team Canada head coach Laura Schuler. “Anytime that those two teams have played, it's almost always a one-goal difference and a back-and-forth game and always exciting.”
Indeed, at last year's world championship final, the U.S. edged Canada 1-0 in overtime. It was the third straight year the U.S. won, a fact not lost on the women's players.
“We knew we wanted to play against them and wanted them to be there, but I think at the same time we couldn't use it as a distraction and just had to focus on ourselves,” said Spooner. “We had hoped it would all work out and they would be here. I think it's excitement for sure.
“We get excited to play against the U.S. and they're always awesome games for us and the fans. I think there's been a lot of close games between us and none of them have really gone in our favour.
“We're just ready to play some awesome hockey.”
FAMILIAR LOOK FOR CANADA
With 13 returning players from the team that won a gold medal at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Team Canada will have a familiar look to it at the women’s hockey championship in Plymouth, Mich.
But the inclusion of four new players — Erin Ambrose, Renata Fast, Sara Potomak and CWHL rookie of the year Laura Stacey — should give this year’s edition even more jump.
“We have a good combination between veteran players and youth players,” said head coach Laura Schuler.
“There’s so much skill on the team, I mean it’s pretty crazy to watch,” said forward Natalie Spooner, who was part of the team that won gold. “We’re fast, we’ve got some big bodies so we can play a physical game also, but there’s so many skilled players that can bury the puck. It’s definitely exciting to watch.”
Canada, which lost 1-0 in overtime to the U.S. in last year’s world championship, opens the tournament on Friday night with a game against its longtime rivals.