There was always the chance that talks between the women’s national hockey team and USA Hockey would crash.
USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body, at one point threatened to find replacement players, and the pressure on the women’s team was enormous.
But giving in was never an option, said Dee Spagnuolo, their lawyer.
“I can tell you these players never blinked,” said Spagnuolo, a partner at the Center City law firm of Ballard Spahr. “They did not waver and they were united as a team.” The negotiations concluded last week with a pay raise and other concessions for the players.
Financial details have been kept confidential, but it reportedly calls for an annual salary of $70,000 a year, and commitments from USA Hockey to increase promotion of women’s hockey. Before the deal was signed, USA Hockey guaranteed the women no more than $1,000 a month for a several-month period leading up to the Olympics.
Spagnuolo, and her negotiating partner, John Langel, a longtime Ballard sports and employment lawyer who retired last year, began their representation of the players in 2015. Talks with USA Hockey commenced last year. It was a pro bono representation, meaning they did not charge for their services.
Their clients insisted that without a contract, they would not play in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Women’s Championship that began in Plymouth, Michigan last Friday.
The two sides settled just before the start of the championship, and the women are playing extremely well, thumping co-favorite Canada by 2-0.
During the high stakes showdown, the women’s team put out the word to college players and to those in the struggling women’s professional hockey league that becoming replacement players would undermine advancement of women’s sports overall. The message was heard and USA Hockey soon dropped the effort.
The women also received support from members of Congress, the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
While compensation wasn’t the only issue, the pay disparity between women players and men was grating to the women’s team. Men who play in the Olympics typically are NHL players, where the base salary is $650,000 a year and where seven figure salaries are commonplace.
No such commercial opportunity exists for female players. They were forced to subsist on $1,000 a month for several months in advance of the Olympics and on payments from the U.S. Olympic Committee of up to $2,000-a-month year-round.
That meant the best women hockey players could hope for was no more than $28,000 a year, Spagnuolo said, and many received much less.
At Ballard, Spagnuolo focuses on white collar defense, internal investigations and compliance; labor and employment issues don’t typically cross her desk.
But this case was a natural for Spagnuolo. She grew up in New Hampshire, was the only female player on the high school hockey team and went on to play hockey at Bowdoin College. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and lives in Lower Merion with her wife and their four children, ages two through 10.
She says she has the highest degree of respect for her clients, who came close to sacrificing their dreams.
“They were not only willing to sacrifice the opportunity to play in the championships," she said. "Had USA Hockey been able to find a replacement team as they were trying to do, it would have been very difficult to reach an agreement and very possible that these players would have sacrificed their careers.”