Hilary Knight and the US women’s ice hockey team made history in Pyeongchang last month, beating Canada and winning gold for the first time since the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. It was a landmark win for Knight and her teammates, though landmark victories are becoming the norm for women’s hockey in America. Last year, Team USA won an equitable pay battle with USA Hockey and carried that momentum to gold last month.
Knight and the gold medalists have gone on a whirlwind tour since winning in South Korea, visiting Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Washington D.C., and New York City to celebrate the win and help spread the word about women’s hockey. On Saturday, she appeared on Saturday Night Live alongside Team USA superfan Leslie Jones. But on Thursday, Knight got back to business, signing with Les Canadiennes of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Before all that, though, she took some time last week while in the nation’s capital to talk to Uproxx about the growth of the women’s game, gender equality and the importance of a strong women’s professional hockey league in North America will be to keeping attention on the women’s game.
Uproxx: You and your teammates really have gone coast-to-coast traveling around the country over the last week or so. What’s the post victory tour been like for you?
Knight: It’s been great. I think one of the reasons we wanted to win was to be able to share our success with a lot of other people, so it was nice to be able to go on our favorite show with Ellen and do that but then also return to Tampa and thank the people that sort of welcomed us into their community over the last six months because we trained down there. And now we’re in DC. It’s quite a whirlwind but it’s also exciting and I hope the excitement continues as we move forward here.
I’m sure you’ve gotten a lot of the same questions about beating Canada and what that was like, but just seeing women’s hockey grow over the last four years: what’s that been like to be a part of? How have things changed that you’ve seen?
Yeah, even since I entered the program in 2010, things have changed. The game’s gotten a lot faster and a lot more fun to watch and play. And I think that’s reflected in the fans, too. We have more people wanting to watch women’s ice hockey now than ever before. That’s extremely encouraging and exciting as well. I hope that continues as we approach a non-Olympic year.
The game has some differences from the men’s game, not only in rules but also in style. If there’s one thing you’d want people to understand about the women’s game as a new fan or someone accustomed to the men’s game, what would it be?
I think one of the big differences between the women’s and the men’s game is just the style of play and the finesse that we have. That’s sort of given to us just because the open ice hits aren’t allowed. But they do happen (laughs). But I think women’s hockey is a very skillful game. And that’s what everyone’s so impressed about when they watch. So I’d encourage everyone to come and catch a live game. Because they won’t be disappointed.
There’s been a growing list of options in that regard over the last few years. I’m in Buffalo so I’m very familiar with the Beauts and the NWHL. Watching that league and the CWHL in Canada grow over the last few years, how important are those two leagues to the future of the sport?
Absolutely. What I’d like to see is a collaboration between the CWHL and NWHL. Right now the players and the fans are having to choose between the two leagues. It would be great if we could sort of combine efforts and make a really powerful, singular league on both sides of the border.
So now when we have a sustainable professional league on the grassroots level parents are signing their young daughters up saying ‘There is a career path after college. There is somewhere to go to make a living wage.’ So it just doesn’t stop after college. So it’s going to be huge not just at the grassroots level of the game but at the elite level as well.
It seems like between the NWHL and CWHL there’s a different perception of what a pro league should be. How do you bridge that gap with those two leagues and find a way forward?
I don’t know. At first maybe having the best of each league play one another for an ultimate final championship, or rearranging sort of the pay structure. Or maybe figuring out how to combine efforts now with partnerships with the NHL teams. That’s definitely something that can be discussed. I just hope that we can get the discussion rolling more sooner rather than later.
On a lighter note, what’s it like being Leslie Jones’ favorite Olympian?
It’s pretty cool! (laughs) Actually I sort of fangirled her. I went to the men’s US vs. OAR game and saw her there and was like ‘oh my gosh I need to get a picture with you.’ And then to have her come to one of our games and she’s literally leaning over the railing screaming at us was a pretty neat experience. So I’m happy she likes ice hockey.
I saw the video that she took of you taking the ice (NSFW) and she really is very excited. Was it hard to keep a straight face and stay focused on the game?
Oh no we just burst out into laughter. You try to have your game face on but when someone is that ecstatic and hilarious you can’t help yourself. But I think it was really good because, you know, at the Olympics it’s the biggest games of your life. I think that particular game — we needed to win in order to move on — so she added sort of a lightness and everyone was on the bench smiling. And that’s kind of what our team was all about. This calm, collected confidence but we’re also having fun, too.
I know in the past there’s been some concern with the international women’s game and how top-heavy it’s traditionally been. Is that something you’re worried about? Are other teams catching up over the last few years?
Yeah, definitely. I think as the women’s hockey train kind of continues to grow and resources are applied to different countries, you know, we’ve seen Switzerland do well and Finland, you can’t take them lightly. I’m looking forward to seeing China’s team and seeing how they’re going to grow over the next few years. There’s a lot of excitement in the sport so I hope it continues and we can get more women in the game in other countries and all over the world.
What’s the thing you want the next generation of girls growing up playing hockey to learn from you and your teammates?
Honestly, I want them to be inspired to go out and have a dream and set goals and shatter them. And have a lot of fun living a healthy and active lifestyle. I remember where I was in 1998 watching the women’s US team bringing home a gold medal. And watching that impacted my life. Now, years later, I had the same opportunity. So it’s a pretty surreal experience, but if we can inspire people through our sport then we’ve done our jobs correctly.
Representation in sports seems so important these days, and for women I think there’s a difference in girls growing up idolizing an NHL player compared to a women’s pro like yourself. Is that something you think about when it comes to growing the game?
Yeah, I think it changes the way people think about gender roles. At the same time, I think that’s one of the biggest difficulties that we have right now. People are only discovering women’s hockey every four years. Now it’s our job to bridge the gap knowing that we have this awesome, amazing product and how do we connect that to our viewers. That’s going to be the next task at hand.
But it definitely changes the way that people view athletes. And to respect females as much as you do males for their skill set.
The equitable support battle you had with USA Hockey last year was a big story and a landmark decision for women’s sports. Have you had a chance to kind of pull back and consider how important that will be for more than just hockey, but gender equality moving forward?
Yeah. I think I knew going in, and that’s why I was secretly hoping that we could just get the word out there. Because it was going to help other people not only in women’s ice hockey but in other sports and industry, too. I do realize how important it is but I guess I haven’t let it sink in quite yet. It’s something I think, maybe 10 years down the line some of us will sit back and go ‘oh my gosh, that was such an amazing accomplishment.
In your defense, you’ve been pretty busy the last year or so.
Yeah. (laughs) Trying to make the Olympic team, making the Olympic team. Then trying to win. It’s been a whirlwind for sure.
So what do the next three or four years look like for you? Have you even had time to think about that?
Yeah, I have some sort of pet projects that I want to get done. But I think people have always asked me ‘what are you going to do after?’ or ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ I guess if you asked me if I thought I’d be able to travel around the world and receive an education and meet amazing people through ice hockey I’d have told you you were crazy because it’s just a sport.
So just realizing how much this sport has done for me, you know, I want to share it. Not just ice hockey, but sports in general. With everyone. And really combating the statistic of young teenagers falling out of sports earlier than they should. So sharing that passion, trying to impact people’s lives in a positive way in some fashion is what I’ll be up to.