By Peter Rutherford
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - A protracted pay dispute that almost saw the U.S. women's ice hockey team boycott last year's world championships was part of a journey that forged bonds between the players and helped them win a first Olympic gold since 1998, captain Meghan Duggan said.
USA Hockey and the national team reached a pay deal just days before the start of the tournament last March. It came after more than a year of efforts by the team to secure higher wages and greater support from the governing body.
On Friday, a day after the Americans stunned defending champions Canada in the gold medal match at the Pyeongchang Winter Games, Duggan said the Olympic title was fitting reward for all their struggles.
"What we went through last spring and really what we've been through on this journey,... when you think about USA hockey in the last 20 years, trying to chase after a gold medal, there's a lot of ups and downs and there's a lot of things you go through as a team," she told a news conference.
"I don't think that we would be... sitting here today, if we hadn't gone through some of the things that we've gone through. It definitely made us closer, bonded us, united us as a group, I think it united us as a country."
An engrossing shootout victory over arch rivals Canada gave the Americans their first title since 1998 when the women's tournament was added to the program in Nagano. It snapped a run of four straight Olympic titles for the Canadians.
"Everyone in the world knows our history against the opponent we faced last night so it certainly was special for us, based on what we've been through, but it was about Team USA last night," said Duggan, who tasted defeat in the Vancouver and Sochi finals.
She said she did not know whether the team would go to the White House to meet U.S. President Donald Trump if an invitation came their way
"That's something I don't even think we've thought about yet," she added. "We're just so excited about last night's win, it's been a whirlwind, there's a lot going on, I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get there."
Hilary Knight, who was also part of the team that lost in the 2010 and 2014 finals, hoped the United States could help contribute to growing women's ice hockey around the world.
Canada and the United States are the only teams to have won Olympic gold in women's ice hockey, with Sweden, in 2006, the only other team to have even made a final.
"I think women's hockey has grown... but if anything I think we need to lend more resources to other countries and really develop and get younger girls interested in the game at a younger age," Knight said.
"I think that growth will be contagious around the world and hopefully we can have more countries competing at the Olympics."
(Editing by John O'Brien)