Speedskaters win concession from Speed Skating Canada in team fees dispute

Canada's Ivanie Blondin competes in the women's 5,000-meter speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. Blondin is having a career season in speedskating, but there are mornings when she questions why she's putting on her skates.A cold, hard financial reality has settled on the national speedskating team this winter, and the options Speed Skating Canada is considering are so unpopular that some of the top skaters on the long-track team are willing to sacrifice their funding rather than fall in line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Matt Dunham

CALGARY - Tension between some of Canada's top long-track speedskaters and Speed Skating Canada eased Thursday when the national federation gave the athletes a temporary reprieve on the introduction of a team fee.

Facing a $1-million decrease in its 2014-'15 budget, Speed Skating Canada considered introducing a fee of $1,200 per skater on the long-track and short-track national and development teams this winter.

That move was so unpopular that some skaters on the long-track team were sacrificing their monthly Sport Canada funding in protest. The situation created a breakdown in trust between athletes and the Ottawa-based federation.

After The Canadian Press published a story on the situation Thursday morning, Speed Skating Canada chief executive officer Ian Moss said in an e-mail that the athletes would not have to pay a team fee this season, but still may be required to do so for 2015-'16.

The concession was a relief for Ottawa's Ivanie Blondin, Laurent Dubreuil of Levis, Que., and four-time Olympic medallist Denny Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., who were in a financial standoff with their federation.

"For sure it makes a huge difference," Blondin said. "I think that's great news, but moving forward we need to find a solution for the next season in order to be able to find that money for our team.

"If it's fundraising or whatever it is, at least this time around we'll have enough time and notice if the fee is to be implemented for the 2015-'16 season to come up with it and not be stressed out about it."

The situation created a more serious financial issue for the athletes. There was no official word from SSC on how much the team fees would be if they were implemented, but the athletes' agreement with the organization included a clause that they had to be paid.

The athletes' agreement is a contract between athletes and their national federation to fulfil certain requirements, such as wearing sponsors' logos on clothing.

Blondin, Morrison and Dubreuil would not sign until they knew what the fee would be. They were loathe to sign what they considered 'blank cheques' to SSC.

Since they wouldn't sign, they were ineligible for Sport Canada funding.

Blondin is eligible for $1,500 a month from Sport Canada. She didn't receive it in December and wasn't going to receive it in January until she signed her athletes' agreement. It's her only source of income and she felt the financial strain.

"As soon as I get that formal notice, I will be signing my documents and sending them off to Sport Canada in order to receive my funding," Blondin said. "There was too much uncertainty and standing up for our team was our goal."

"Me, Denny and Laurent decided we would take the hit for the team and if it was losing our carding, it was losing our carding. It's been two months we've been dealing with this."

Blondin won five World Cup medals in her first four events this season, while Dubreuil earned four medals in as many races in the men's 500 metres.

The athletes were told informally in October they might face team fees this winter, which was too late for many of them to come up with the money while they were competing.

"This at least relieves the pressure for this year and gives us all the heads up that we probably have to do something extra next summer whether it's finding crowdsource funding, getting a job or getting new sponsors to pay for it," Morrison said.

"It takes the stress away for this year so we can just focus on the results, but I fear next year (the fee) is going to be twice as much."

Dubreuil awaited official communication from SSC on Thursday before he would commit to sign his athletes' agreement, but said he was more inclined to do so. The 22-year-old said the impasse was a distraction from training and racing.

"Even though Ivanie and I have had our best seasons so far and a really good fall World Cup season, it was still on our mind and still worrying us," Dubreuil said. "We could never fully concentrate on our skating.

"Now I feel like a weight is off our shoulders. We can move forward with this season and just worry about skating fast instead of worrying about getting enough money to skate this year."

The Canadian team was in Calgary on Thursday preparing for the Canadian single distance championships starting Friday at the Olympic Oval. The next World Cup races are in Hamar, Norway, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.

Athletes in other sports pay team fees to their federation to help cover costs of competing such as travel, accommodation and the transportation of equipment. The lugers, for example, will pay $1,800 in team fees this winter.

The speedskaters may have earned a small victory, but they and Speed Skating Canada still face a cold, hard financial reality.

Moss said the national team budget has dropped by $750,000. The organization's financial picture for this season didn't become clear until September, which is why athletes were informed of the possibility of team fees late.

A team fee across the short-track and long-track teams would have generated about $75,000, he said.

After winning a combined 13 medals at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics Games, the long-track team won two medals in Sochi, Russia, in February with Morrison's silver and bronze.

Own The Podium funding is doled out based on a sport's medal potential. SSC's allotment for 2014-'15 is $517,000 less than in 2013-'14.

The speedskating team has corporate sponsors, but one recently renewed for less money.

SSC's head office has relocated within Ottawa to halve the rent, Moss said, and three upper management positions have been reduced to one and a half.

The long-track team did not have any off-season training camps. Development team skaters, who receive just $900 monthly in Sport Canada funding, must pay their own expenses when they travel to Canada Cup competitions.

"We remain committed to a world-class high performance programme but just need to find other ways to fund it now that we are running $750K lower in the HP budget than in previous years," Moss said in an e-mail.

"It takes time to adjust to such a reduction but we will not compromise our performance commitment in the meantime."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Blondin receives $1,800 monthly in athletes' assistance.

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