Before she left for Pyeongchang, forward Hilary Knight said she could tell there was “a different type of focus” for Team USA.
“There’s a different type of hunger in the rink,” she told Boston.com. “We’re doing as much as we can to put ourselves in the optimal position to win a gold medal. Every decision you make on a daily basis essentially is adding up to what could be the tipping point of winning the medal at the end of the journey.”
She was right.
In the first-ever women’s hockey finals shootout in Olympic history, Knight and her teammates’ hard work certainly paid off. Team USA earned a thrilling victory over Canada, 3-2, to end a 20-year gold medal drought.
“That’s something any elite athlete sort of obsesses over,” Knight said of the victory. “That sort of end goal, the perfection, the trophy at the end, the sort of culmination of the work that allows you to get there.”
Winning is nothing new for Knight. After making the national team as the squad’s youngest member in 2007, she won seven world championships with the U.S. While at Wisconsin, she and the Badgers won two college national championships. Like many Olympic athletes, Knight has tasted victory before the 2018 Winter Games.
But losing is no foreign concept for the 28-year-old scoring sensation, either. Despite her prolific rookie season, the Badgers were shut out, 4-0, in the 2008 NCAA women’s hockey finals.
“That was pretty heartbreaking,” she said of the loss. “But if anything, it just instilled a deeper hunger in wanting to get back the next year and to get over the hump and win the thing, which we were able to do.”
Little did Knight know her Olympic career, from the most base-level perspective, would follow a similar trajectory to her collegiate one. She and Team USA earned silver medals in Vancouver (2010) and Sochi (2014), losing out to Canada and falling one goal shy of the gold in both contests.
However, there was one key difference: Instead of getting the opportunity to avenge her team’s loss the very next season, she’d have to wait four years. The longer wait could be agonizing at times, but Knight said it largely didn’t affect her day-to-day.
“My approach hasn’t changed,” she told Boston.com. “I understand each and every year, how much harder it is to come back and compete and continue to win. Even when you lose, the expectations still become higher. The demands on your body become huge.”
“It’s hard to consistently perform at an optimal level, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that consistency kills,” she continued. “Whenever you step on the ice, you need to be a student of the game and try to hone your craft. You’re never going to play a perfect match, but you’re always chasing that perfect game.”
— Hilary Knight (@HilaryKnight) February 22, 2018
Although recovering from repeated disappointing losses has never been easy, Knight insists she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think you are a product of the environment you surround yourself in and everything you’ve experienced is a part of you and the fabric you are in,” she said.
With or without the backstory, an Olympic gold unsurprisingly ranks near the top of her lengthy list of accomplishments. While she’s undoubtedly a proud Wisconsin alum and member of the Boston Pride, Knight said there’s “100 percent” a difference when she’s wearing red, white, and blue.
“Obviously, all of us are competitors, so whenever you throw on any sort of hockey jersey, you want to win because that’s the main objective,” she explained. “But being able to play for your country and represent your country on the world stage is one of the utmost honors. Even if our pro leagues were giving us multi-million dollar contracts, it would never compare to the feeling you get wearing a USA sweater.”
Knight still remembers skating out to warmups at her very first Winter Games. One of her older teammates had told her, “You’re not an Olympian until you take the ice,” so she was eager for that first skate.
“I just had a smile plastered from ear to ear on my face, and I remember seeing all the cameras as you’re taking a lap around the net and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to dial down my smile and pretend like I’ve been here before,'” she recounted. “It’s definitely a moment and memory I’ll never forget.”
So now that she finally has her hands on the elusive Olympic gold, what’s next?
Here’s what Knight had to say about some of her ongoing initiatives:
She’s going to spread the sport.
“The biggest problem we have is that we can’t bridge the gap between a great sport and people who want to watch this great sport. With that, we’re losing a lot of potential registration numbers. People don’t know how fantastic women’s ice hockey is. People don’t know how fantastic hockey is in general. How do we make hockey more affordable? How do we get it into more households? How do we keep it part of the conversation? Those are things that will help us not only increase registration numbers from a grassroots level but also deepen the player pool from the senior national team and the elite level.”
She’s going to continue to fight for equity in women’s hockey.
“We were in an equitable support battle,” Knight said of Team USA’s recent wage dispute. Their eventual agreement avoided a potential boycott and will hopefully serve as a turning point for the sport and its players.
“I think realistically, nothing happens overnight,” Knight said of the resolution. “But it’s our job now to hold not only ourselves accountable but other people accountable to make sure we see everything through.”
As she explained, the players were asking for three things:
1. Increased PR, along with more marketing attention and opportunities.
“You’re only going to see us if you know that we’re there. Part of that onus is on us to continue to stay active in our own communities and the other part is on those who can help us push this great sport and get it in front of more viewers. That’s been the difficulty during non-Olympic years.”
2. Access to more programming.
“You really only see the women’s national team for a four nations event or a world championship. How do we bridge that gap of making sure we’re getting elite games on before the world championships and also in non-Olympic years?”
3. More compensation.
“When I say we literally make every decision around this team and trying to put this team in the best position to win, that’s every single decision. That’s a lot of time and a lot of sacrifices in people’s personal lives. People also need help finding resources in order to sustain themselves at this level.”
Knight remembers calling her mom, crying, to tell her she couldn’t afford living in Boston when she first moved to the city. When her mother suggested she should get a job, Knight responded, “You don’t understand what I’m trying to do. There’s no room for a job.”
She’s going to be an ambassador the future generations of female hockey players.
“The biggest challenges as a female athlete are the same as those women face in other industries. While there are huge equal pay battles going on around the world, we are really just trying to earn respect for not only being pioneers of our sport, but also for being at the elite level of our sport. I know there are sort of misnomers that women’s hockey isn’t as physical or fast as the guys, but women’s hockey is very dynamic and tactful in its own ways. It’s just as respectable of a sport as any male counterpart. I think it’s an uphill battle that we’re not the only ones that are fighting.”
“We have to re-educate the next generation that’s coming through the ranks and inspire them to be strong and empower them in their own ways to advocate for themselves and also push the sport forward as best as they can. You’re your own best advocate. It’s important to try and speak up and build a platform that allows you to speak up and reach other people and impact their lives in a positive way.”