Hilary Knight is one of the most decorated women’s hockey players in history. The 31-year-old helped the United States win silver medals in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and the 2014 Sochi Games before finally capturing gold in Pyeongchang in 2018.
Knight has been at the forefront of equality for athletes as well as raising awareness for women’s hockey. She is part of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association’s 2021 Secret Dream Gap Tour that is showcasing the sport with exhibition games this weekend in Chicago.
Sports Section spoke to Knight from her home in Minnesota about the growth of women’s hockey, her Olympic memories and what’s in the future for the sport and for herself.
SPORTS SECTION: How did the Dream Gap Tour come about?
KNIGHT: We as athletes don’t have consistent visibility for the sport. You only see us every four years, so it’s about providing continuity, resources, and different training hubs to be able to train both off and on the ice, as well as games so we can compete.
Our big mission is, “If she can see it, she can be it.”
And we just saw a huge miss in sports at this level — just from a player’s perspective, like, “Hey, I don’t have the ice time I need or the games I need,” but then also from the younger generation looking up to us and saying, “I want to be like whomever that is on the ice.”
What’s the sustainable future of women’s professional hockey?
I think it’s tapping into current knowledge in the space and having shared resources with prominent leaders in hockey. It’s creating a livable wage for us women to go out there and put ice hockey first and not have to juggle 1-3 other jobs and try to make ends meet to be able to perform on the ice.
I think the future is extremely bright. We’ve made a lot of waves and a lot of movement toward that goal. However, we’re still missing the league to do that. The PWHPA is a collection of players. It’s an association, and by no way is it meant to replace or pretend to be a league by any means.
The (oft-criticized) NWHL isn’t the league to help in those matters?
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 organization that wants to carve out a better future in the sport and truly believes in what we’re doing.
So the endgame is a new women’s league and, if so, backing from NHL teams?
Wouldn’t that be a dream to be able to tap into century-old knowledge of the sport and to have shared services?
There are a lot of resources that could be shared that would be instrumental to pushing women’s ice hockey forward and giving it the platform that it so desperately needs and deserves.
I know that Billie Jean King has been involved in the PHWPA. What kind of influence has she had on not only yourself, but this organization and women’s sports in general?
She’s an icon, she’s a legend. She’s the Original 9. She is the one who did it. 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 (Feb. 28) 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.
It goes to show how big those shoes are to fill as we get older and think about legacies. You realize you’re just another piece of this puzzle trying to move sport and women forward to equality.
You were wearing skates dedicated to the first Black NHL player, Willie O’Ree, last week at the Garden. Why?
I’m honored to have been able to wear a pair of skates that capture an iconic figure in our sport. For me, it’s a small thing to do. It means more than just lacing up a pair of skates.
To be able to promote diversity and inclusion and equity in our sport is the highest priority and something that the sport needs so desperately. To be able to have some hand in social impact through a piece of equipment is really a humbling experience.
The 2014 gold-medal game against Canada in Sochi was incredible, but disappointing (Canada won in overtime). Are you over that heartbreaking loss to your arch-rivals?
I’m not over it. I never get over those big losses. I hate losing, and to lose in such a fashion. That was an incredible game to be a part of with the level of competition and it was just so back-and-forth and so much fun. We lace the skates up for that type of competition.
I think it re-instilled that hunger to come back and be better next time. And then sure enough, four years later, it’s another back-and-forth, crazy game.
What were the emotions after finally defeating Canada for the gold in 2018?
I think a lot of it was just relief. You know how good you are, you know how great your team is and your culture, and how much work you put in. But unless you win, that’s never recognized. Having two Olympic losses on the biggest stage for our sport (in 2010 and ’14) 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.
When I was five, my grandmother told my mom that girls don’t play hockey, and finally she got on the bandwagon and was super-supportive.
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.
What’s your most memorable on-ice moment in your life?
I think back to when I was a kid and went to (Nagano gold-medal winner) Cammi Granato’s camp (in Chicago), and that was the first time that I saw someone from the 1998 team. That was kind of the first time I realized that other girls played hockey.
I’ll never forget: I broke three of the wooden sticks that I brought — because I wasn’t allowed to have a nicer stick — and she let me use hers. I broke my last one on the net in a game, so I was relieved I could get her stick.
As you get older, you realize it’s those moments that you never forget.
You’ve done so much in your career. What do you want your legacy to be?
One of my missions is to put my best foot forward and be the best competitor and best teammate that I can be. And along the way have a positive impact on other people’s lives.
I know that’s a tall order. But one of the simplest things to do is to show up and compete and have a good attitude about being there and try to take a positive into another area.
In some ways, I feel like I’m still a kid very much in the sport.
Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered hockey, including at the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics, for more than a decade before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.