By Amy Tennery
(Reuters) - With increased pay, improved travel and a host of new maternity benefits, the WNBA's latest collective bargaining agreement (CBA) sent up roars of celebration that reached beyond women's basketball.
For professional women hockey players, the deal was a tantalizing prospect of what could be.
"We look to the WNBA as leaders in women's professional team sports and continue to fight for the day when women's professional hockey has an infrastructure that aligns with a model like the WNBA," said Kendall Coyne Schofield, who earned gold and silver on the ice as a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team.
Last year, Coyne Schofield, along with many top players, formed the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA). They elected not to compete in the fledgling National Women's Hockey League, or any North American pro league, until an economically viable option emerged.
They understand that securing acceptable salaries, benefits and playing conditions could be a lengthy fight.
"(The WNBA's) recent CBA didn't happen overnight. This was over 20 years in the making and I greatly commend the players for building an environment (in which) women professional athletes can actually flourish," Coyne Schofield said.
But not too lengthy. "My hope would be that we could get to this point much more quickly than 25 years, knowing that we can learn from what the WNBA has done," added hockey hall of famer Jayna Hefford.
The women's basketball deal "gives us hope for the way our athletes could be treated," added Hefford, who helped Canada win four Olympic gold medals including scoring the gold-clinching goal in 2002. She is now an operations consultant for the PWHPA.
Beginning with the upcoming season, top WNBA players can earn more than half a million dollars - more than triple the ceiling under the previous contract - while the average salary across the league will be $130,000, according to terms of the deal signed last week.
While that is a fraction of the earnings of their high-profile male NBA counterparts, the deal nonetheless marked a significant step forward for women in sports. And it comes at a time when the World Cup champion U.S. women's national soccer team is battling in court to earn pay and benefits equal to the less successful men's team.
Canadian Olympic silver medalist Sarah Nurse, a member of the PWHPA, said the WNBA deal is "a reminder that what we have considered 'professional' women's hockey in the past has been far from professional."
"We will continue pushing for that truly professional environment that can set us up to be successful as the best athletes we can possibly be," Nurse added.
Some fans of the women's game have suggested that getting to that level could require more active participation from the National Hockey League similar to the WNBA's relationship with the men's league.
Unlike the WNBA, which plays to fairly large crowds often in the same big arenas as the NBA, the five-team National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) operates in far smaller rinks in the United States.
Its current salary cap is $150,000 per team, forcing many players take on second jobs despite a 50-50 revenue split, conditions that led to some of the sport's elite talent to depart for the PWHPA.
Anya Packer, executive director of the NWHL players' association, called the WNBA's new agreement "some of the most exciting news that I've witnessed in my lifetime."
"There's a lot of things that I think change when you can officially pay your players a full salary," said Packer, eyeing the day when women's ice hockey has earned the respect and visibility it deserves.
"I wish I could say it was five years down the road, but it's all kind of waiting on when people are going to invest back in women," she said.
(Reporting By Amy Tennery; Editing by Bill Berkrot)