Team USA star Hilary Knight reflects on her recent gold medal, the future of women's hockey and what comes next.
Hilary Knight is tired. Fresh off a fifth straight gold medal at the IIHF women’s world championships last weekend, Team USA had been caught in a ground stop at JFK Airport while returning home from Finland, delayed for several hours while inclement weather cleared. A small contingent even stayed overnight before the next flight out. Even so, Knight says, “It wasn’t too bad. The majority of us were still together, so we were paling around the airport, eating a lot of food, drinking mimosas and bloody marys, sharing stories from the tournament.”
Surely there was plenty to digest. Facing host Finland in the final—the first time ever that the U.S. and Canada weren’t meeting for the title—Knight and her teammates had pelted 37 shots on goalie Noora Raty through regulation but only scored once entering overtime. Controversy struck midway through the sudden-death period, when Finnish forward Petra Nieminen’s would-be game-winner was reversed for goaltender’s interference following a lengthy video review. A little while later, shootout goals from Amanda Kessel and Annie Pankowski lifted the Americans to victory, leaving the raucous Finnish fans stunned.
“Obviously the call could’ve gone either way when I look back on it,” says Knight, whose seven goals and 11 points led all skaters at the world championships. “But what I was processing at the time, I was like, ‘That’s a penalty.’ I think my initial reaction was, ‘Oh my gosh I’m out of breath, I need to get back to the bench and we’ll see where the call leads us.’ But really, we’re seeing the banner come down that they put the flags up on, and obviously there are gloves and sticks and helmets all over the ice, and the crowd’s chanting.
“There was a lot going on. But we’re trained to [keep] our minds focused and set on the next thing that’s going to happen. You want to hope for the best and really plan for the next step, and luckily we were ready to do that as a group.”
In a way, this is exact approach that Knight and fellow professional women’s hockey players will adopt over the coming weeks as the future of their sport is determined. Last month, the nonprofit CWHL abruptly announced its decision to fold on May 1 after a dozen seasons, shuttering six teams located in Canada, Massachusetts and China. Left behind is the NWHL, a five-team, for-profit outfit that recently finished its fourth year of operation, and all manner of uncertainty.
“All of us understand the position that we’re in as players on the ice and as leaders off the ice,” Knight says. “We’re interested in shaping the future of women’s hockey at the professional level as best as we can. But we understand that the players have a lot of leverage in this situation and we’re not just going to jump into something because it’s convenient. We’re going to do it because it’s the right thing to do but for the growth of the game.”
Speaking via telephone from her home in Montreal, where the decorated 29-year-old winger spent last season under contract with the CWHL’s Canadiennes, Knight debriefed with SI.com on the world championships, the pursuit of a single women’s pro hockey league, and more. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and space.)
SI: What did it feel like playing for the championship and seeing a team other than Canada on the other side?
HK: Different. It’s never happened before. It’s great for the growth, obviously. Me being who I am, just stubborn as a competitor, I always want to play Canada because I love playing Canada and that rivalry is so real. But at the same time, Finland brought a great team to the tournament and undeniable home crowd and home-rink advantage. They did a great job. Obviously the call didn’t go their way. But it was a phenomenal team and a great effort and it only speaks to more great things to come at the international level.
SI: How was that wait during the video review?
HK: It was interesting. I was out of breath because I was trying to chase the play down, originally get off the ice for a shift, and then to realize that their player went through and was heading towards our net, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to get back?’ But the thing for me internally, I was like, she just smoked our goalie. There was no way this is going to be a goal. Just focusing and getting ready for the next puck drop.
SI: The semifinals [an 8-0 win over Russia] was your 51st appearance at worlds, a Team USA record. Did you know you were getting close?
HK: I didn’t until I got a couple emails congratulating me. I was like, ‘What is this? Oh my gosh.’ It was a really cool experience. Obviously we’re a team sport and it’s all about the team and to have my teammates recognize me for sort of an individual award was unique and obviously heartfelt.
I was kind of fighting back tears for a lot of it, because it’s so cool when you go through thick and thin with this group of women and they’re waiting for you to get on the ice and applauding all the accolades that you’ve done, or what you’ve done for the sport. Then to top it off with a world championship is the cherry on top.
SI: In the historical context of the moment, what was it like to pass Angela Ruggiero and Jenny Potter?
HK: I was like, there’s no way I’m getting close to it. [Ruggiero and Potter] took me under their wing and guided me when I was in high school and first joined to represent our country. It’s really cool to be able to reflect and think back on all those experiences that we shared.
Now playing more and more games than those guys did, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been around for a long time.’ But it’s really cool to see the growth of the sport, how our team has cultivated this awesome culture over the year.
SI: How much of a discussion topic in Finland was the future of the women’s game? Or was it tabled until the tournament was done?
HK: We had to address it before the tournament started. Internally, too. Then when the puck drops, you have to focus on representing your country and what you’re trying to accomplish then, so putting it on the back burner until we get back.
SI: Did it come up during the layover?
HK: To be honest, we were just joking about our travel day. It’s definitely a conversation we’ve had so often, I think a lot of us need to take a step back and reflect and digest some of the information. But at the same time, we’re going to be actively meeting and talking as players and figuring out what our next step is and what we want to do. I’m hoping that comes sooner rather than later as we plan for the upcoming year.
SI: What’s on the docket?
HK: The great thing, right now, is how connected we are, whether through texting or social media. We’re always in constant communication and that’s one of the great things about moving up to Montreal for me for this season. I got to know some of the players I duel it out on the ice with, on a different level. Coming to the understanding that we’re all trying to accomplish the same things off the ice and leave the sport better than how we found it.
We’ve definitely developed relationships. It’s not only me. It’s [defenseman] Kacey Bellamy and [forward] Brianna Decker and [goalie] Alex Rigsby and [defenseman] Megan Bozek. There’s a handful of us who came up to Canada and played here. Whether we’re talking about mundane things in our daily lives or talking about the leagues, we’re actively in communication with one another, regardless of what country we live in.
SI: How did you find out about the CWHL’s decision to fold?
HK: All the players were on a call. It was the morning that we were leaving. We had to be on the ice for Team USA practice, pack up our gear and then head to the airport over to Finland. We were juggling a lot that day. I think it goes to show how we operate as professionals, as women. We can put things in different buckets and handle them and really accomplish a lot of things together. It’s a pretty unique group.
Obviously it was shocking news. The CWHL has been awesome for this sport for 12-plus years, because there was another iteration of it before. You have to tip your hat to things that they were able to do, and they were able to have a professional league for so long.
Obviously heartbreaking that it’s no longer around at the same capacity as it was. We’ll see what happens. But at the very least a lot of people are talking about it, and the sport is growing so fast. We have the right players sitting in the room to be able to accomplish great things and shape the game at the professional level.
SI: Was this a necessary pill to swallow on some level, that the two-league situation had to be reconciled to get to where you want to go?
HK: Yeah. To be honest, I don't think either of the leagues had it figured out. That’s why I moved up to Montreal. I thought the CWHL was closer to a model … well, not a model, but for the future and growth of the game, I thought they really represented the players to the best of their ability.
That’s why I decided to move up to the CWHL and steer away from the NWHL. Weighing both of them out, I don't think either of them have a great model. And so that’s where we’re at right now. We want to make sure that we have a great sustainable place to play, something that’s obviously going to protect its players but also have a good road map for the future and build and continue to grow the sport.
SI: What is missing from the model? When you picture the ideal women’s pro hockey league, what elements are there that currently don’t exist?
HK: We’re trying to build what our male counterparts have in the NHL. So to be in a constant working relationship with the NHL is something that all of us are greatly interested in. The NHL has obviously valued women’s hockey for so long and has been generous with their support so far. I think that’s only going to continue to grow.
It’s just, we need to have the right format that makes sense to us as players and them and an appropriate business model that reflects all parties involved. One of the big things is a consistent place to play that obviously respects the tradition of the game. Then also you’ve got the marketing component, being able to tap into resources that already exist, and have a front office. Then you’ve got the medical and the staffing component as well, making sure players are offered great insurance so when they need something, all those issues are taken care of by jobs that can lessen the burden of what we go through right now as professional female athletes.
SI: That’s a lot, but all so necessary.
HK: Yeah, there’s a lot of things you don’t necessarily think about. There’s the equipment people, the people working on social media in the front office, the medical part, tickets … all these other jobs that go into the final product of having great hockey on the ice and having people be able to see that.
There’s a lot that needs to be worked out. And it’s not going to happen overnight. We have a realistic approach to that. But then also making sure we have access to the right resources without going against the tradition of the sport, or going against the players and what we value.
SI: When you talk about the road map, what’s the first checkpoint? What’s the first step?
HK: Regrouping as players. We all know what we want, and we have to figure out what the necessary steps are to accomplish that. It’s really cool. It’s obviously really unique. Usually people just see us battling out on the ice. Now we’re in different roles, respectively building and being visionaries and trying to build a better future. Definitely multiple hats to wear, but really exciting to be a part of.
SI: How much of what you wanted to accomplish in Montreal by returning to the CWHL did you feel like you did, in the short amount of time that you ultimately had there?
HK: I felt like I was just getting started up here. For me, it’s kind of tough. The news is a little crushing and heartbreaking. I’d just met a lot of these people here and we went through our first year together as a team, getting to know the community a little bit more, getting more involved that way. I think part of me is like, “Ah, man, this kind of stinks.”
But hopefully there’s more opportunities that come forward. I don't know where I’m going to be, but I’m grateful for Montreal as a city and what the Canadiennes provided me and the players. A lot of that was just building those relationships outside the sport, and really coming to the understanding that we’re all doing the same things off the ice. We need to pool our great minds and do amazing things together.
SI: Like who? Give me a specific relationship that you wouldn’t have developed if you hadn’t gone to Montreal.
HK: Marie-Philip Poulin is a good example. We both work together with Bauer Hockey and obviously have been on a bunch of different sets together and played against each other in college and stuff. But I never really got to know her too well.
So to be able to train in the same facility and be on the ice with her, the moments that we spent not necessarily on the ice, you get to know a lot about different people and where they come from and what they’re trying to do, how you can help them and they can help you.
It becomes a relationship that’s a little bit greater than a rivalry when U.S. and Canada face off. It was a unique opportunity and one that I probably wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t come up here.
SI: Where do you think you’re going to play next season?
HK: I have no idea. My mom asked me that same question yesterday. We just won the world championships and she was like, ‘Okay, now where are you going?’ One thing at a time! Yeah, I don’t know. I live in Idaho. I’ve got my place up here in Montreal for a little bit. We’ll see where it takes me. Wherever it is, I’ll still be training and playing the sport I love.
SI: Let’s say your wildest dreams will come true. In five years, what does women’s hockey look like in this world?
HK: Well, it’s one of the fastest-growing sports, so no doubt that from a grassroots level it’s going to be incredible in five years. I can only imagine the talent and the speed of the game and how much faster it’s going to get.
I see a professional league, a place where it’s a sustainable career. You can graduate college and go pursue your wildest dream of being a professional women’s ice hockey player. I don’t think we’re too far off from that. I think that’s really exciting and hopefully it can happen tomorrow, if we want it to.
SI: What’s next for you?
Recharge, rest up, get back to training when I can. It’s going to be hard to stay away, but try to take 2-3 weeks off, for sure. No idea where I’ll be. But at least I’ll be ready to meet the opportunity. I think there’s going to be stuff that’ll happen in the next few weeks. It’ll be exciting. Hopefully we can continue that momentum until the fall and have a little bit more detail.