After winning her first Olympic gold medal with the U.S., Hilary Knight continues to promote women's hockey as she seeks the Clarkson Cup with Montreal. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
U.S. Olympic superstar speaks out in Montreal
Fresh off her first Olympic gold medal, Hilary Knight isn’t taking a break. Instead, she’s come to Montreal to make her sport even bigger.
When the face of American women’s hockey announced her surprise signing with Les Canadiennes de Montreal on 8 March, it wasn’t just a coup for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). It increased an unprecedented torrent of publicity for Knight and her teammates since beating archrival Canada 3-2 in a thrilling shootout finale at the Olympics in Korea last month.
Not only have the U.S. players been honoured at NHL games in Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Washington, New York, and New Jersey, but they have also appeared on major U.S. TV shows like Saturday Night Live, Ellen, and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. They’re riding high on their legendary achievement for USA Hockey, which ended a 20-year Olympic women’s hockey drought and earned its first Winter Games gold of the 21st century.
With her telegenic personality, Knight is built for the spotlight. The 28-year-old power forward, who loves to promote strong female role models, has already done everything from posing for ESPN The Magazine’s 2014 Body Issue to completing the accuracy shooting event in a stellar 11.64 seconds at January’s NHL All-Star Game skills competition.
Now Knight is gunning for her third Clarkson Cup after triumphing in 2013 and 2015 with the Boston Blades. The University of Wisconsin product won the 2016 Isobel Cup with the Boston Pride of the rival National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). Knight, who also owns seven gold medals and two MVP titles from the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, suited up in Montreal’s season-closing 3-2 win over the Calgary Inferno to clinch first place overall.
Returning to Canada, where she made her Women’s Worlds debut in Winnipeg in 2007, she’s enjoying the chance to play with long-time foes like Caroline Ouellette and Melodie Daoust. We got in-depth with Knight before Montreal kicked off its title defence in the CWHL semi-finals against the Markham Thunder.
How’s your French coming along?
My French is getting better every single day. I know some people are scared to speak other languages when they’re in a new atmosphere or culture, but I’m not scared enough. I’ll say something totally ridiculous. I hope people just bear with me! The other day, I ordered coffee, and instead of saying a “small coffee,” I asked for a “wet coffee.” That was a good laugh.
What made Montreal and the CWHL the right fit for you?
With Montreal, it’s just because the team was gracious enough to offer me an opportunity to join their club at the end of the season. I love the way they manage their team and the expectations from a player standpoint. They really hold each other accountable to achieve what they’re capable of, which is huge.
Considering the CWHL’s vision of hockey, how they’ve been around for a number of years, and where I want to see the sport grow professionally, it just seemed like a great opportunity to drive fans from the Olympics over to a pro league and attract more eyeballs.
Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who played for the Canadiennes the last two years, decided to take the rest of the season off. Did you reach out to her to reconsider and come play with you?
No, I didn’t reach out to her directly. I can’t speak for her, but I think some players sort of had their minds made up before this year’s big tournament. Each player has a different path. If it works for them to play, then it’s awesome. If it doesn’t, then it’s not the right fit right now.
Are you hoping to team up with Poulin next year?
If I’m still here. That would be quite a combination and a really enjoyable experience for me to be on the same ice and wearing the same colours as her. She’s obviously an outstanding player. When you get great players together, it’s always a fun way to play hockey.
At the Olympics, you scored both your goals on power play tips in front of the net. Against Calgary, were you surprised to find yourself playing the point?
Yeah, I haven’t played that position in I don’t know how many years now. However, I wasn’t too unfamiliar with it just because of my college experience, when I was back there. I just wish I would have hit the net a few more times than I did! But I’m happy to fill in wherever.
To be honest, I think the most challenging part of the first game was playing centre, because I haven’t played centre in well over a decade. That’s a lot of responsibility to hand somebody! [laughs] I think I did well on the draws, but you can always clean up details.
When you look back at that gold medal game, every single goal – American or Canadian – was a beauty. Was it the perfect advertisement for women’s hockey?
Yeah. It was a great hockey game. It was a game for the ages. And obviously, it was great to be on the winning side of a shootout, but you never want a shootout to be the sole factor in who wins and who doesn’t win. But man, did all the shooters come prepared and the goalies come prepared! It was such a fantastic thing to watch and be a part of, and have a front-row seat too.
How has winning the gold medal changed your life?
I’m still the same person I was before, but it’s definitely helped to elevate our platform. I think that’s the goal. You try to do your best on the ice and you want to be respected for that, but also, a lot of the opportunities that we should be getting, just through our play, we don’t necessarily get. Now we’re getting them. People want to hear from you and hear from our team. It’s huge.
How about endorsements?
I hope it opens up a lot of endorsement opportunities, just because we know what we’re capable of and the type of people we are. I think any company would be lucky to work with any one of us. Knowing that and not necessarily having the platform that you need to have for one of these bigger companies to sign up with you was sort of the vicious cycle that we were in. I’m hoping that a lot more sponsorships and companies are going to gear up and support more of our players.
What was the most mind-blowing moment of the victory tour for you?
I feel like I still haven’t really processed what we accomplished. Quite obviously, it was a big deal. I remember the day after we won, we walked into one of the Olympic broadcasting centres and there was a giant lunch room. Everyone stood up and started clapping. We were like, “Why are they clapping? Oh yeah, we just won an awesome game!” [laughs] It’s been pretty cool to listen to other people’s experiences and how the game has impacted their lives.
You had a huge smile on your face on Saturday Night Live. What was that like?
Oh my gosh! Honestly, it’s like playing in the gold medal game. It’s everything you dream of. You still get the pre-game jitters and everything. It was such a phenomenal opportunity to be with Leslie “Penalty Box” Jones and company. She’s fantastic at what she does, and to see the behind-the-scenes of how SNL works, it’s such a cool operation to be a part of. Then you get to meet the people and the culture of their team, and you kind of feel like you’re at home.
You grow up watching SNL. I’m a huge fan. It’s so funny. Now you’re standing next to these people that you see on TV who are so talented. You go: “How did I get here?” It’s such a surreal experience.
Has anybody come up to you since then and asked you to sing that snippet of Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” that you did on the show?
No, they haven’t. But I did have someone come up to me when we were in New York and say, “Hey, you were on SNL! Can I have an autograph?” instead of “Oh my gosh, you guys just won a gold medal!” So that was interesting! [laughs] But I’ll take it.
It’s been a year since your national team negotiated with USA Hockey for equitable support. Do you feel like you got what you wanted?
I feel like we got a starting point, and I think there’s a ton of room to grow on both sides of the table. It’s our job now to hold one another accountable to try to push women’s hockey to the furthest limit.
What did it mean to get that letter from 14 U.S. senators supporting your team?
I think it just offered more weight behind our voices. It also reassured a lot of us to the core that we knew it was the right thing to do for so many different reasons. Now you have other people in other industries weighing in and lending their support as well. It’s not easy. It’s terrifying sometimes, but it’s also exciting. When another renowned person weighs in, it’s like: “Oh my gosh! We’re really doing this. This is real.”
During the negotiations, you took the lead on social media. How did you end up in that role?
I think I’m just an outspoken person. I try to use my platform and lend a voice and leverage the resources I have to help impact other people’s lives in a positive way. I’d do the same for any of my teammates. I felt really compelled to stand up because these issues have been talked about for many, many years. Shame on me for not addressing them sooner.
You’ve said that within the U.S. locker room, all the players are treated equally, including the rookies. How does that play out?
There is a level of respect if someone’s been around for a long time, but anybody would do the same. For example, I have longer legs and if we’re on a longer flight, anybody would for sure give up their seat: “Knighter, you need this more than I do.” So I think it’s just this genuine care for one another, and that exceeds any responsibility related to “Is this your first time or your 20th time?” It doesn’t matter. At the same time, there is an unspoken rule to follow the steps of players who are older than you, just because they offer a different type of wisdom and a different perspective.
I think it’s huge what we were able to create in our culture. We don’t want our first-time players playing like first-time players. We expect them to play like they’ve been there three times. They came up big, and that’s the culture we developed.
The Lamoureux twins came up big against Canada with the tying and winning goals. But then you look at the fact that they often have to train by themselves and that the University of North Dakota cut the women’s program that produced them. What does that say about how far we still have to go?
It’s on the to-do list to have a better professional league. I don’t think one’s going to expand to North Dakota right now. But it shows sort of where women’s hockey is in people’s minds. After playing against those North Dakota women’s teams in the WCHA, I was shocked that their program was removed. And I hope it gets put back into place, because it was a phenomenal program and produced some amazing hockey players like the twins.
It’s tough because I know how great of a sport hockey is. I know how big it can be, what it can evolve into, and the way it can impact people’s lives. It’s about bridging the gap and continuing to have this dinnertime conversation about what women’s hockey looks like. Part of it is creating opportunities, marketing, and leveraging different brands we have currently to create a bigger platform so that things like that don’t happen and programs just don’t disappear overnight.
Cassie Campbell-Pascall, among others, has been outspoken about the need for a merger between the CWHL and the NWHL. Where do you stand?
It needs to happen. There can only be one league, I think, at this point, moving forward. Right now, the players have to choose between the leagues, which I don’t think is fair. You have to have the fans choose between the leagues. And then you’re also splitting resources. It doesn’t really make much sense for us if we’re trying to start a fully sustainable and paid professional league, or for the growth of the game. I echo the #OneLeague.
Earlier this month, the CWHL players association tweeted: “The future of professional women’s hockey is brighter than it has ever been. Now is the time to work together with the @NHL to secure #OneLeague where the best in the world can compete. @NHLPA.” Do you want the NHL involved?
I think you look at their resources, the structure they have and their expertise. It’s just not how the NHL works, but also the example of how the WNBA and the NBA collaborated many years ago. There’s a lot of upsides to having them involved. They are the top professional level. It would be great if we had something similar.
Most of the girls who watch you will never play elite hockey. But you’re in a country right now where only two percent of girls ages 12-17 get enough physical activity, and it’s similar in America. You’ve talked about how your mom gave you skates when you were five years old. How important is it for you to be a role model for girls to get active and play sports from a young age?
It might be the most important thing that I do. I understand the statistics, and it’s going to be one of my priorities to combat the statistics and get more girls being active, specifically in sports.
I’m biased. I really like team sports. Not only is it great socially, but you learn different life skills: working with other people, problem-solving, all these great things. I have first-hand experience of what sports did for me and how it positively impacted me. That’s definitely a passion I’d like to share with others to combat that statistic of teenage girls dropping out of sports.
Besides yourself, who has the best shot in the women’s game?
That is so tough, because there are a lot. I think Alex Carpenter’s got a rocket of a shot. Obviously the twins are good. I could go down the list. How do I pick? In terms of a slap shot, Megan Bozek, hands down. With a wrister, I’ve seen Carp put the puck in places I didn’t even know existed in the net.
Who’s the best stickhandler?
Hannah Brandt’s got a good set of mitts on her. Melodie Daoust is probably the filthiest I’ve ever seen, in the best way. That shootout goal of hers was just slippery smooth.
Who’s the strictest player you know in terms of diet and conditioning?
Probably Meghan Duggan. It was tough to get her to have McDonald’s even when we were all done! [laughs] It’s like, “You’re not competing anymore! You can definitely share a cheeseburger.”
Do you support your goalie Maddie Rooney in her quest to meet Justin Bieber?
Yeah, I think it’s great! Why not, right? It’s great that she called him out. Hopefully they meet. I don’t know what she would do, though. She might faint or something.
Have you ever seen a goalie smile during a shootout like that before?
Well, she’s a goalie! [laughs] I think it’s just special. Everyone knew we all had to contribute in some way. We had players leaning over the boards, pointing at her, yelling: “One more! One more effing save! Just make one more save.” And she’s smiling back.
It’s a great group. It’s bittersweet, because that was quite a group to be part of. Now that it’s over, it’s like, “Oh my gosh!”
A few years ago, HBO’s 24/7 series followed NHL teams around with cameras. If you had the opportunity to participate in a reality show that followed your national team leading up to the next big tournament, is that something you’d be up for?
Yeah, I think it would be great. I would welcome anyone to get that project greenlit as soon as possible. I think it would be a phenomenal series and I think it would only elevate our game even more.
This weekend in the CWHL semi-finals, you’re facing Megan Bozek with the Markham Thunder. Have you been in touch with her, Alex Carpenter, or Kelli Stack – some of the high-profile names who didn’t make the Olympic team – since you won the gold medal?
I spoke with Boze for sure. Kelli and Carp are over in China [with the CWHL’s Kunlun Red Star], so I don’t even know what time zone they’re in right now. Boze shot me a text, congratulating us on the gold medal and whatnot. It was tough not having her there.
But then also, she got the news that I was coming back. I didn’t tell her. I kind of said I was, but I wasn’t 100 per cent sure. So she dropped me a text: “Welcome back! Can’t wait to play you.” I’m like, “Don’t hit me with your slap shot, because that wouldn’t go well.”
Obviously it’s easier because I’m the one walking away with the gold medal, but this was probably the hardest time through without those guys. It was extremely difficult.
What do you think of the decision to expand to 10 teams at next year’s Women’s Worlds and the aim to do the same for the Olympics?
It’s great for women’s hockey. My hope is that more resources and funding are given to other countries that don’t have the same set-up as the U.S. or Canada. That’s the only way players are going to develop, if you invest in the future of women’s hockey. It’s a great start.
In your opinion, how important is it for the Finns, the Swiss, or other nations to be able to face the U.S. or Canada and have a good chance of winning?
That’s how hockey should be. It should always be a 50-50. That’s what everybody wants to see in terms of competition. Obviously we’d like to sway the odds in our favour and put in a different type of training so that we can beat anybody we might face. But I think it’s great for the sport when it’s tight games.
Do you feel like women’s hockey has to take advantage of this moment in history?
One hundred per cent. I’m hoping that just from the gold medal game, the registration numbers are going to grow. This is a galvanizing moment for our sport. I know the game impacted other industries as well that followed our storyline. We have stories to tell. Now we have an opportunity to bridge the gap between players and fans and non-hockey fans too, and we need to do that.