Road To The Olympic Games


How Canadians paved the way for the U.S. women's hockey deal

The deal struck by the U.S. women's hockey team for better pay and perks may not have been possible if their Canadian rivals hadn't fought a similar battle nearly two decades ago.

Post-'98 Olympics fight led to lasting changes

After the 1998 Olympics, goalie Sami Jo Small and her Canadian teammates banded together to fight for, and win, better pay and other benefits. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

It seems there is peace between the U.S. women's hockey team and its federation.

The deal reached Tuesday between the players and USA Hockey has averted a boycott of the upcoming world championships that nobody wanted.

This battle over wages, equity and respect has spawned a loud debate, with many prominent voices weighing in, mostly supportive of the team's demands.

For ​Thérè​se Brisson, the issues being fought over south of the border were fascinating but not new. The former captain of the Canadian women's hockey team, who now sits on the Canadian Olympic Committee's board of directors, has been down this road before.

"It's a déjà vu moment," says Brisson, who was at the forefront of a similar fight against Hockey Canada in 1998 after her team returned from the Nagano Olympics.

It was the first time women's hockey was an Olympic medal sport. The team captured a silver but returned home feeling disrespected and underappreciated.

Like the U.S women, Brisson and her teammates fought for players to have a voice in how they were treated and compensated. 

"The first thought I had about all of this was thank god we put in all that work back then and put in a common infrastructure with Hockey Canada around our common goals," Brisson says.

A seat at the table

That infrastructure has seemingly created a lasting harmony between Hockey Canada and its players. And much of it appears to be mirrored in many aspects of the deal reached by the U.S. women.

Brisson points to the formation of a Women's High Performance Advisory Committee, made up of current and former players, as a key first step in Canada.

"Think of it like a players' advisory board," Brisson says. "And as an outcome of that we actually got a seat on the board of Hockey Canada. So this committee became a mechanism to talk to Hockey Canada about what some of the challenges were, the issues."

Former Canadian women's captain Thérè​se Brisson helped her team earn a say in Hockey Canada's policy decisions. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

The formation of a similar group is a centrepiece of the deal between the U.S. women's team and USA Hockey.

The deal around compensation, a central issue in the dispute, is rooted in the same principles as the Canadian system.

Without getting too deep into the numbers, the American players were looking to get paid year round, regardless of whether it is an Olympic year. The team's old deal saw a bulk of their funding tied to the six months leading up to an Olympic Games.

Now it appears the team will be paid monthly. Reports peg the figure at $3,000 to $4,000 US a month, plus other incentives.

That's similar to what's available in Canada, says former national team goalie Sami Jo Small.

Small says in Canada, there is more of an opportunity to earn a sustainable year-round wage. Through a variety of government sources, a typical player on the national team could collect around $35,000 a year, tax free.

"The majority comes from our sport federation system — it's called carding and [money from it] comes every month. Currently, top athletes receive $1,500 a month plus there are other incentives available," Small explains.

"If you live in Ontario, for example, there's an additional $6,000 available through [the] Quest for Gold [program]. There's some extra money if you win at the Olympics. But the thing in Canada is that it comes every month no matter what, so you know you can pay your rent, you know you can pay your food."

A question of respect

Brisson was also able to get other concessions from Hockey Canada that still exist today and also appear to be components of the U.S. deal.

"Hockey Canada said, listen, we can't foot the entire bill but let's put together all of the pieces so we can provide a little more comprehensive support," Brisson says.

For example, when players relocate to Calgary for Olympic preparations, they are provided with moving expenses as well as additional training and living stipends. Extra insurance is provided. Players are also free to make additional money through their own sponsors. 

A large part of the U.S. dispute was about respect. The American women were tired of feeling like the forgotten team, an afterthought in the minds of USA Hockey.  

Both Brisson and Small say USA Hockey has a poor track record when it comes to treatment of its women's team.

For example, when the U.S. jerseys for the 2014 Sochi Olympics were unveiled, members of the women's team watched on television. None of them were invited to the press conference.

"I just can't ever see that happening at Hockey Canada," says Brisson, who sees more differences between Canada and the U.S.

"When a big player retires here, there is a press conference and a celebration. I don't really see that happening in the U.S.," she says. "When there is an exhibition game here, it is heavily promoted with the intent of getting people out to the games."

Small adds: "To me there's just an oversight when it comes to even thinking about women's hockey. Someone like [retired U.S. star] Cammi Granato should be a hero like [soccer icon] Mia Hamm. There is nothing she hasn't done on the ice. But USA Hockey has done nothing to elevate her."

The new deal is in place. But earning the respect the American women desire may take time.


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