Hilary Knight

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U.S. women’s hockey team to play NWHL team in Olympic tune-up

NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. women’s national team will play two exhibitions against some familiar faces from the National Women’s Hockey League next month in a final tune-up for the Olympics.

The games are set for Jan. 13 and Jan. 15 at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, Florida, where the national team has been training.

Eleven players currently on the U.S. roster competed in the NWHL during the 2016-17 season, USA Hockey said Thursday. The pro league enters its third season with teams in New York, Boston, Buffalo and Stamford, Connecticut.

”(The NWHL) continues to play at an elite level and does a great job of exposing the game in different markets,” USA Hockey women’s director Reagan Carey said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer helped the Buffalo Beauts win the NWHL championship last March.

”The NWHL is honored to be welcomed by USA Hockey and to participate in this pair of important exhibition games,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said. ”Our players, coaches and staff are excited to have this opportunity.”

U.S. national team captain Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Gigi Marvin, Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy, Alex Carpenter and Amanda Pelkey played for the Boston Pride.

Amanda Kessel (New York Riveters) and Haley Skarupa (Connecticut Whale) also played in the pro league.

Many of the players on both rosters are either ex-teammates or completed against each other in college and the pros.

”The NWHL will do its best to give the players some strong competition so they’re ready to bring home the gold in February,” Rylan said.

The U.S. team won gold at the first women’s hockey event, at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Since then, the team has earned three silvers and a bronze in losses to Canada.

”We want to make sure the ’98 team has some company with the gold medal,” Carey said.

The Americans and Canadians will finish their six-game exhibition series with two games this weekend. The U.S. has a 1-3 record so far, but beat its rivals twice at The Four Nations Cup and won the title.

The teams have drawn good crowds in Canada and U.S. stops in Boston and St. Paul, Minnesota. They drew 9,000 flag-waving fans on Dec. 3 in a 2-1 overtime loss at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.

”It’s been great to see so many young girls and hockey teams,” Carey said. ”You can really see the growing landscape for young girls.”

The U.S. plays Canada on Friday night in San Jose, California. The Americans wrap up the series on Sunday night at Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers, in a game televised on NHL Network.

U.S. women hope bond forged by pay fight leads to Olympic gold

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By TERESA M. WALKER (AP Sports Writer)

WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. (AP) — Hilary Knight was listening to the radio when she heard the U.S. women’s hockey team come up.

It wasn’t about a big win on the ice. It was about a fight off the ice that ended with a better labor deal.

”It’s a big deal,” the two-time Olympic silver medalist said. ”Women’s hockey now is on the map. And not only did we fight for things in our sport for the next generation, but hopefully we inspired other people outside.”

Threatening to boycott the world championships last March landed the United States women’s national hockey team a pay raise and some of the perks USA Hockey gives the men. Standing together to earn a deal reached only three days before playing rival Canada to kick off the world championships brought them closer together, a bond they used to win their fourth straight world title.

The Americans believe their chemistry couldn’t be stronger and could help them achieve their ultimate goal: ending a 20-year drought by winning Olympic gold at the 2018 Winter Games.

Knight says a delicate balance is required.

”After a win like that on both fronts, you sort of feel untouchable,” Knight said. ”You’ve changed the world. You’re hoping that you’ve changed the other industries for the better. But also, too, realizing you have to have humility and the opponent’s right around the corner, building, working, doing the same things you’re doing, and every time you show up at the rink it’s a 50-50 battle and you’ve got to be at the top of that battle.”

Earning better pay was something the Americans had fought for, and lost, before.

Angela Ruggiero, currently a member of the International Olympic Committee’s executive board, had to work as a security guard the summer before the 1998 Olympics to make a few extra bucks. Ruggiero said her team had a similar fight in 2000 and that it was time again for a ”a real, contested sort of debate.”

”They stood their ground and fought for what they believe was right,” she said of the current team.

Timing mattered.

The United States had won the world championships seven times when the women threatened March 15 to boycott the IIHF Women’s World Championship after a year of negotiations. They stuck together until a new four-year contract was reached March 28. The Americans received support from the unions for the NHL, NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball along with 16 U.S. senators.

Under the new contract, USA Hockey will be putting more money into women’s hockey with the national team receiving the same $50 per diem per day as the men along with similar travel and insurance perks. A women’s advisory group also is supposed to feature former and current players to help grow women’s hockey.

The women also are receiving more money per month during Olympic training, which began in September. Winning gold would mean bonuses of $57,500 from the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Hockey combined.

”It’s been great to see progress since then, where USA team athletes can just play hockey,” Ruggiero said. ”That’s not to say you’ll make a lot of money, but it defers some of the expense of meals, rent and travel.”

The Canadians, winners of the last three Olympic gold medals, took notice. Canada puts more money into the sport in part because of government funding, and Hockey Canada officials said players are supported full-time for nine months around the Olympics.

”It’s amazing that they’ve brought women’s hockey a step closer to where it should be, and I think in time it’s only a matter of when as female athletes we’ll be able to play the game we love and get paid,” Canadian forward Meghan Agosta said of the Americans. ”I think hockey’s come a long way and they kind of set the bar high.”

The U.S. women found themselves honored by the Women’s Sports Foundation in October with the Wilma Rudolph Courage award . They’ve heard from politicians, celebrities and people like Billie Jean King.

In the end, what will matter most is how the Americans fare on what remains the biggest stage for women’s hockey when the Olympics begin in February in South Korea. They’ve beaten Canada three out of four games this fall as part of their pre-Olympic exhibition tour, including twice in winning their third straight Four Nations Cup championship.

U.S. coach Robb Stauber said the players’ unity was a great thing in reaching the new contract. But Stauber said different goals often require a different approach, though the women’s bond can carry over.

”You got to stick together,” Stauber said.

Defenseman Gigi Marvin, a two-time silver medalist and the team’s oldest player at 30, said the Americans already have established that they’re a very close group. And captain Meghan Duggan said the bond they have gave them energy and momentum they used at the world championships. They also learned a lot about themselves through that fight.

”For sure, it brought us closer,” Duggan said. ”Right now we’re focused … on doing what we need to do to achieve our ultimate goal.”