Hilary Knight continues to redefine what's possible on and off the ice

As well as being a standout for the U.S. for well over a decade, Knight has been a prime mover for improved pay and conditions for women players, and diversity in ice hockey.

By Rory Jiwani
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Since making her World Championship debut as a teenager, Hilary Knight has become one of the greats of American ice hockey.

In recent years, she has also been hugely successful in lobbying for improved pay and conditions in the women's game.

After silver medals at two previous Olympic Winter Games, the star forward finally won gold at PyeongChang 2018 as the United States denied perennial rivals Canada a fifth consecutive title in a shoot-out.

She has won no fewer than eight world titles and is the most prolific goalscorer in World Championship history.

After her bid for more glory in Beijing, Knight will return home to start her role as an NHL television analyst, continue her efforts to establish a sustainable professional women's ice hockey league, and aim to boost participation among women of colour.

"Our entire mission is ‘If she can see it, she can be it.' We play a big role in being able to facilitate bringing hockey to everyone and making it more accessible and making it more diverse." - Hilary Knight speaking to Just Women's Sports

Hilary Knight - the making of a superstar

Born in Palo Alto, California, Knight spent her childhood in Lake Forest, Illinois where she and her three brothers started out in ice hockey.

She proved to be a natural and five-year-old Hilary told her grandmother that she would play ice hockey at the Olympics to which the response was, "girls don't play hockey".

After starring at high school, Knight was named in the U.S. squad for the 2007 World Championship in Winnipeg, aged 17, before her rookie season at the University of Wisconsin.

She became a Badgers star and, after helping USA to gold at the 2008 World Championship in China, led the NCAA for scoring in her second year with 45 goals and 83 points in 39 games.

Like team-mate Meghan Duggan, Knight took the next season off to prepare for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games where they went down to hosts Canada in the final.

They fared better at the Worlds with successful title defences in 2009 and 2011, the latter thanks to a Knight overtime winner in the final, before Canada finally toppled them in 2012.

After that, Knight turned pro with Boston Blades in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, leading the team to their first title and taking the league MVP award.

Preparations for Sochi 2014 meant she did not play much the following season, and there was further Olympic disappointment for Knight and the U.S. team as they went down 3-2 in overtime.

Marie-Philip Poulin's game winner, with Knight in the penalty box for a shove on Hayley Wickenheiser, left her and the team - who went to Russia as reigning world champions after another success in 2013 - "crushed and heartbroken".

Knight recalled to Men's Journal, "We were the best team in the world. Never for a minute did I think we were going to lose that game."

It was a defeat she took hard personally, leading her to contemplate a different career path.

She practised with the Anaheim Ducks, becoming the first female skater (non-goalie) to train with an NHL team, and weighed up a move to play in a men's league in Sweden having learned the language at university.

In the end, Knight returned to Boston and played a pivotal role in the Blades regaining the Clarkson Cup.

Hilary Knight and U.S. teammates win 2017 World Championship after boycott and new deal

The formation of the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) in 2015 prompted Knight and fellow U.S. national team star Brianna Decker to switch from the Blades to Boston Pride for its inaugural season.

Unlike the CWHL, where the players received bonuses and incentives, the NWHL paid its skaters a salary as well as a cut of proceeds from jersey sales.

The pair enjoyed more success together, leading the league for goals (Knight 15, Decker 14), assists (Knight 18, Decker 15) and points (Knight 33, Decker 29), as the Pride won the first NWHL title.

But there were problems off the ice as the NWHL informed the players midway through its second season that they would have to take a pay cut of up to 50%, dropping the minimum salary from US$10,000 to US$5,000.

Injury ruled Knight out of the start of that campaign, but she was able to help the Pride finish top of the regular season again before they were beaten 3-2 by the Buffalo Beauts in the Isobel Cup Championship game.

The United States continued to dominate the World Championship, with Knight claiming her fifth and sixth titles in 2015 and 2016, before they hosted the 2017 tournament in Plymouth Township, Michigan.

Then came a bombshell.

After lengthy fruitless negotiations with the national federation, USA Hockey, the players announced they would boycott the event.

Less than two weeks later, and just two days before the start of the tournament, the impasse was ended.

USA Hockey agreed to massively increase annual pay for women's national team players from US$6,000 to US$70,000 plus potential five-figure performance-related bonuses.

That US$6,000 figure was the same as that for men's national team players, but their multi-million dollar NHL contracts dwarf those found in professional women's ice hockey.

It was a victory for player power and equality.

Able to switch their focus to the ice, USA beat Canada in the opening game before meeting their neighbours in the final for the 18th consecutive time since the tournament was inaugurated in 1990.

Just as she did six years previously, Knight scored the overtime winner to clinch her seventh world crown.

But, as she later recalled to NBC, this triumph was far more than simply another title:

"Our fight for equitable support... it was months of negotiation. I was anticipating the hold-out, which was unfortunate, but we were extremely passionate and we really wanted to set a foundation for the younger generations coming up.

"Going through that off-ice struggle, you can't recreate it. You can't do a team-building that builds that kind of trust, that unity, that passion. And I think that's what was so powerful, internally at least, in our locker room when we were going into overtime. I never thought we were going to lose. I mean, I knew that we had the right pieces in the room to accomplish the goal, and we could rest assured that we had all the strength that we needed based on our off-ice chemistry, and that was going to translate well for us on the ice.

"To be able to put the last shot of the game in to seal the world title is a pretty incredible feeling to say the least. It was a storybook ending for multiple reasons: one being our fight for equitable support, and secondly winning our first world championship on home soil.

"It really transcended our sport. It was great to be able to walk through the grocery store or wait in line to get a coffee and have people coming up to you that you've never met before just thanking you. First off you're thinking, 'Oh my gosh, now they know about women's hockey.' But second, you've sparked something in someone else to really passionately pursue something."

Gold at last in PyeongChang

The players were soon in full preparation mode for PyeongChang 2018 with the United States desperate to win their first gold since the first Olympic tournament at Nagano 1998.

They went down 2-1 to four-time reigning champions Canada in a relatively meaningless preliminary round clash.

Then came a 5-0 victory over Finland in the semi-finals to set up yet another meeting with their North American rivals.

Knight gave her side the lead, but Haley Lyn Irwin and Poulin put Canada ahead before Monique Lamoureux-Morando tied it up with just over six minutes remaining.

Overtime failed to yield a goal meaning a shoot-out would decide gold for the first time in Olympic women's ice hockey history.

With the scores at 2-2, Knight had the chance to win it for Team USA but saw her effort saved by Shannon Szabados.

Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson then found a way past Szabados, and Maddie Rooney thwarted Meghan Agosta to secure that long-awaited gold.

Knight told Sports Section, "Having two Olympic losses on the biggest stage for our sport was tough. It was heartbreaking. So to come out with a win at the end of Pyeongchang is what dreams are made of.

"We finally captured the elusive gold medal, and it added more legitimacy to our program. Obviously, the hardware is really cool for us, but to be able to share that journey with younger kids is really cool."

And her grandmother, who became one of her biggest fans after initially being taken aback by her hockey ambitions, was able to join in the success.

"One of my goals was to bring her the gold medal before she passed away, and I was able to do that. I’ll never forget the way she just held on to that medal. She wouldn’t want to take it off her neck. It just goes to show, this experience for us sometimes means it has a different or greater impact on other people."

The collapse of the CWHL and how Hilary Knight helped form the PWPHA

Knight moved again following that Olympic triumph, joining Montreal's Les Canadiennes in time for the end of the CWHL season after the league brought in player salaries at the start of the season.

She was on the losing side in the playoffs against eventual champions Markham Thunder, and put up slightly disappointing numbers in the next regular season with 17 points in 23 games with her old rival Marie-Philip Poulin leading the team in production.

When league MVP Poulin was injured in the last game of the regular season, Knight stepped up with eight points in four games in the post-season.

But the team fell short again, losing 5-2 in the final to regular season winners Calgary Inferno led by Brianna Decker.

Just a week later, the CWHL's board of directors voted unanimously to dissolve the league on 1 May 2019 saying the underlying business model was financially unsustainable.

Knight, a long-time advocate of one professional North American league, admitted this was a blow but something that solidified the players' desire to "build a better future for ourselves and for generations of women to come".

The day after the CWHL's dissolution, Knight and some of her fellow players launched the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PHWPA).

Using the hashtag #ForTheGame, they vowed that they would "not play in ANY professional leagues in North America this season until we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves".

Billie Jean King was among those to give the organisation her backing, and the tennis pioneer has continued to support the players with Knight telling Sports Section, "There are a lot of similarities between what she did for tennis and what we’re trying to do for hockey.

"To have an icon like her kick off the puck drop for the Secret Dream Gap Tour at Madison Square Garden was unbelievable. She’s been with us since day one, which is really reassuring and unique. To have someone like her believe in what we’re doing speaks volumes."

While talks take place regularly between high-level representatives of the NWHL and PHWPA, and despite the NHL saying it would support a single women's league, the parties are still a long way apart.

Knight added, "The NWHL has no relation to us. I played for them for a handful of years (with the Boston Pride) and I did not like my experience.

"The PWHPA is a player-driven, player-led collection of players and an organisation that wants to carve out a better future in the sport and truly believes in what we’re doing."

As well as driving change in ice hockey, Knight is a vocal advocate for social justice.

She has backed the Black Lives Matter movement and wore special skates at Madison Square Garden in honour of the NHL's first black player Willie O'Ree.

From gun control to encouraging people to vote, the 32-year-old is not afraid to make her thoughts known.

And her efforts to increase female visibility in hockey were rewarded recently with women's teams included in EA Sports' long-running NHL video game franchise for the first time.

Hilary Knight aims for USA gold repeat at Beijing 2022

Beijing will be Knight's fourth and probably last Olympic Games.

For the first time, she will be part of a U.S. Olympic team which does not hold the world title after Canada won on home ice in August thanks to another overtime winner from Marie-Philip Poulin.

The likes of Duggan and the Lamoreaux twins retired after PyeongChang, but Knight believes the new-look squad can strike gold.

She told NBC Olympics, "It's wonderful to see the level of skill and talent that the program is developing. So when they get to the senior team, [they're already capable of] lights-out performances.

"There's a lot of promising young stars that... we don't even consider them young in terms of talent, but I'm really excited with the way our teams mesh so far in this process."

But beyond winning gold, Knight is determined to leave a legacy for women and girls in ice hockey.

"It's heartfelt to understand and realise that you're a small piece of inspiring the next generation, inspiring someone to lace up the skates and go out there. Yes, it is about competing and showing up and having fun with one another, but also being a part of something bigger than ourselves and doing it for a larger group that if she can see it, she can be it.

"The younger girls that are looking up to us, the younger boys that we're sparking some small dream to lace up the skates or to be their best on a daily basis, it's a true honour and also a wonderful responsibility that we don't take lightly."

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