On the stage were a dozen or so raffle baskets, overflowing with candy and movies, that sat behind a podium. Each coach shuffled up to the stage for a quick recap of their season, looking out over a sea of youth hockey players–my u10 Connecticut Polar Bears team had just clenched our second consecutive state title. I thought the highlight of the banquet would be the sports themed basket I had just won from the raffle until our program director ushered us toward the left side of the stage.
Sitting in front of us were two women who had played for our program: Julie Chu and Hilary Knight. Julie Chu was the face of USA Hockey. Harvard grad, Patty Kazmier recipient, and most importantly, a Polar Bear. We all stared at her with our jaws glued to the floor–hoping someday we would wear the red, white, and blue.
Hilary Knight sat next to her, a tall and lanky player who was headed to suit up for the University of Wisconsin while also beginning to navigate the waters of USA Hockey. My eyes were equally as wide as each of them signed the team photo I handed them, but no one in the room had any idea what this recent high school grad would do for the game of hockey in years to come.
The 5’11 forward came into her own as a Badger. She was a 3 time All-American selection and a 3 time Patty Kazmier finalist, earning various rookie and player of the year awards throughout her four seasons. In light of her extensive recognition, it is no surprise that she is the all-time goals leader for both men and women at the University of Wisconsin. 143 goals in 161 games.
During her college career, Knight was already an integral part of Team USA. Beginning her journey with the program back in 2006, Knight played in her first Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. She recorded nine points for the team, an effort that would earn them a silver medal, losing to Canada in the Championship game. The Sochi Games in 2014 would feel like deja vu–another loss to Canada, another silver medal.
In 2018, however, the alternate captain would not settle for yet another disappointing finale. A gut-wrenching shootout and a particularly stellar performance by goaltender Maddie Rooney would secure Team USA their first Olympic gold medal since 1998. Knight could finally tack on an olympic gold to her 8 world championship gold medals.
Knight’s on-ice abilities, however, have pushed her into a spotlight she never intended to be in, but has welcomed in the name of women’s hockey. “The visibility for women’s sports in general is lacking, so a lot of the elite women’s athletes have to take on extra work just to make sure we are getting our stories out there,” Knight said to ESPN. “So you’re understanding what opportunity it is, if done tastefully, and the impact it can have on other people.”
When Knight isn’t representing the United States, she plays in a professional league called the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association or PWHPA. After playing for both the NWHL and the CWHL, she helped form this new league in an effort to create a more sustainable, professional option for female hockey players. Currently, all players, including Knight, have to work other jobs in addition to playing for any professional women’s league for financial viability.
“It’s challenging, especially with something so new, but it’s exciting at the same time,” Knight said to Red Bull. “It’s going to do so many good things if this league takes off. It will deepen women’s hockey collectively. It’ll be interesting to see the level of play in five to 10 years. That’s the exciting part of it.”
As the foundation of women’s hockey continues to grow, there is a hope for young girls to aspire to be professional hockey players. While she may not have asked to lead the charge, Hilary Knight is and will continue to be a huge part of this vision.
“I hope I’m obviously remembered for my on-ice legacy,” Knight told ESPN. “But equally, too, for what I’ve done off the ice. Sparking change, not just in hockey, but sport and other industries. Whether it’s fighting for equal pay or changing the game in how gender or body image is being reflected, my work is just beginning in many ways.”
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