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NHL helped end USA Hockey, women’s national team wage dispute

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The NHL’s support of women’s hockey included the league stepping in at the last moment to end a wage dispute between USA Hockey and national team players threatening to boycott the 2017 World Championship on home ice.

Two people familiar with the situation said the NHL agreed to pay USA Hockey to help fund the four-year agreement reached in March 2017. The people spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the league and USA Hockey have not made that information public.

The NHL also supports the idea of one women’s professional league and has several member teams involved in both leagues.

The Buffalo Sabres purchased the Buffalo Beauts in December to become the NHL’s first franchise to fully own an National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) team. The Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens each have partnerships with Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) teams based in their respective cities.

The NHL has been careful to avoid the appearance of favoring one league over the other. Commissioner Gary Bettman told the AP last month he has no interest in forming a third league because he doesn’t want the NHL “to look like a bully” by pushing the existing leagues out of business.

Players want a single North American women’s professional hockey league. Bettman does, too. And now NWHL founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan is on record saying she is working toward that objective.

“One league is inevitable,” Rylan wrote in an email to the AP, her strongest statement regarding a potential merger with the rival CWHL.

Rylan’s comments come nearly four years after she split from the CWHL to establish the NWHL, which became the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary.

The investor-funded NWHL has provided a framework for how a pro women’s league can function, but most observers agree that two leagues competing for the same talent pool and limited financial resources isn’t going to last — or help the game grow.

The U.S.-based NWHL, in its fourth season, grew to five teams after expanding into Minnesota this year. The CWHL, in its 12th season, began paying its players a salary for the first time last year and has six teams, including ones in Worcester, Massachusetts, and China.

Rylan is now echoing what Jayna Hefford said in July upon being named the CWHL’s interim commissioner. The former Canadian star called the formation of one league “a priority” and projected it could happen within two years.

Rylan’s comments also come after both leagues discussed merger options this summer, a person with direct knowledge of the discussions told The AP. Also on the table is an NWHL proposal for both league champions to compete in an end-of-season playoff, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Rylan confirmed she’s spoken to Hefford, and added: “There is a path, and Jayna and I and our business partners will continue those discussions.”

Hefford expressed cautious optimism regarding the possibility of joining forces.

“It’s certainly something we have to figure out,” she said, while noting she’s still new on the job. “I’m trying to understand what the challenges are, what the roadblocks are and try to figure out a way to get us to the point where we have one truly professional women’s hockey league.”

Hefford was scheduled to meet this week with NHL officials, including Bettman, for the first time since replacing former commissioner Brenda Andress.

Bettman is hesitant of the NHL assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL because, as he put it, “we don’t believe in their models.”

“We need to start on a clean slate,” Bettman said.

“If at some point the leagues say, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t see this as a long-term solution, we’d like you to start up and we’ll discontinue operations,’ then we’ll do it. But we’re not pushing it,” he said. “If we’re going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us.”

Rylan, who previously worked at the NHL, took exception to the comments.

“What’s it like when Gary Bettman tells the media the model for our women’s league doesn’t work? Of course, it’s really disappointing,” said Rylan, who nonetheless called Bettman a “gracious adviser.”

“Can we improve? No question about it,” she added. “If Gary and more NHL owners want to get involved in women’s hockey, that’s an awesome an exciting thing. Let’s get started now.”

Hayley Wickenheiser, a retired six-time Olympian and newly hired Maple Leafs assistant director of player development, said, “I think the NHL should and could do more and in a heartbeat make it happen.” But she placed more of an onus on the players to make it happen.

“They need to take control and move it forward, and the NHL is there and ready when they are,” said Wickenheiser, the first woman to be hired to a hockey operations role.

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Swim meet canceled after FINA’s threat to ban athletes

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GENEVA (AP) — Amid growing conflict between swimmers and their world governing body, an international swimming meet was canceled on Thursday after threats to ban athletes who took part seeking better prize money.

The Italian swim federation called off the Dec. 20-21 competition it was organizing in Turin, saying it acted to protect athletes from FINA.

The Turin meet was linked to a proposed International Swimming League, a privately run operation which aims to operate outside FINA’s control and pay higher prize money.

“FINA declared the event ‘non-approved,’ threatening sanctions against the participating athletes,” Italian officials said in a statement.

FINA, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some Olympic champions have long criticized FINA, believing swimmers should be better rewarded, have more say in decisions, and could create their own union.

Olympic champion Adam Peaty of Britain wrote on Thursday on Twitter he was “incredibly disappointed” by the cancellation.

The politics involved will “galvanize swimmers, not break them,” wrote Peaty, who holds 50m and 100m breaststroke world records.

Peaty has previously supported Hungarian star Katinka Hosszu in her public criticism of FINA, and calls to create a swimmers’ union.

Italian organizers said Peaty, Hosszu and other Olympic champions including Chad le Clos of South Africa and Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden were due to take part in their 25-meter pool event. It was scheduled days after the short-course world championships being staged in Hangzhou, China.

The clash of events seemed to provoke FINA into finding more prize money for its worlds event in the smaller pool.

On Nov. 6, FINA added to its promised prize fund for China by almost doubling the total to $2.07 million.

FINA wrote to member federations on Oct. 30 warning of bans of up to two years for taking part in Turin.

However, a European Commission decision last year suggests swimmers could successfully challenge any attempt to limit their right to race and earn money.

The European Union’s executive arm ruled the International Staking Union in breach of anti-trust laws by threatening severe bans for speed skaters who wanted to compete in a South Korean-organized event in Dubai.

The ISU’s threats “also serve to protect its own commercial interests,” the European officials said.

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Simon Ammann believes ski jumping career end is near

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Simon Ammann, the most decorated active ski jumper with four Olympic gold medals, said it is hard to imagine competing beyond this season, according to Swiss newspaper Blick.

Ammann, 37, swept the individual Olympic titles in 2002 and 2010 to join retired Finn Matti Nykänen as the only four-time Olympic ski jumping champs.

In PyeongChang, his sixth Olympics, Ammann placed 11th and 13th, one month after making his first World Cup podium in nearly three years. He decided after those Winter Games that he would continue at least one more season, but has no plan to go all the way to a seventh Olympics in 2022, according to Blick.

Ammann has teased retirement since at least 2011 and even said going into the 2014 Sochi Olympics that he was “99 percent sure” they would be his final Games.

The now-father of two first gained crossover celebrity with his surprise Salt Lake City 2002 gold medals, his first wins in top-level international competition. The bespectacled Ammann’s victory screams and resemblance to Harry Potter helped land him on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and one of Europe’s biggest shows, sitting next to Shakira.

Fellow ski jumper Noriaki Kasai of Japan holds the Winter Olympic record of eight appearances. Kasai, 46, has said he plans to go for a ninth participation at Beijing 2022.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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