Carrying the Puck, and a Fight for Recognition in the NWHL
Originally Posted: NYTimes.com
September 26, 2015
By Seth Berkman
BOSTON – Hilary Knight pulled her car into a grocery store parking lot in 2012, called home and began crying. After leading Wisconsin to two national titles in women’s hockey, she had packed her belongings and driven to Boston to train full time with the United States national team. But after watching a young employee collecting shopping carts, she felt almost envious – and lost.
Playing for the national team had been Knight’s childhood dream. But women looking to continue their hockey careers faced huge obstacles, expected to scrape by on stipends and whatever outside work they could fit around their training schedules.
Knight resented the fact that the landscape for women had not changed since 1998, the year women’s hockey became an Olympic event and the United States won the gold medal.
“I said, Here I am, a college graduate, elite-level athlete, and I can’t make ends meet,” Knight said. “I can’t get compensated for what I’m worth, essentially, so how are we going to change that?”
Three years later, Knight, 26, one of the world’s best players, is leading the charge toward mainstream visibility.
“It is a ton of pressure; she is the face of women’s hockey,” said Digit Murphy, who coached Knight in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the only women’s professional league in North America before the National Women’s Hockey League.
At 5 feet 11 inches and 172 pounds, Knight has a combination of size, strength, athleticism and skill that is unmatched, the equivalent of a female LeBron James on skates. But off the ice, the creation of the N.W.H.L. has put Knight in an unfamiliar – and uncomfortable – position. Through texts, phone calls, airport conversations and bus rides, players have bombarded her for career advice.
“I was like, Why are you asking me?” Knight said. “But I also saw that if we didn’t talk about it, if I didn’t offer advice or my insight on it, people were scared.
“For me, it was also a growth process, to be able to stand up and say: This is what I’m doing. I think it’s right for our sport. I think it’s right for future generations.”
Knight will play for the Boston Pride of the N.W.H.L., the first major professional women’s hockey league to offer salaries. One of the players she advised was Zoe Hickel, a recent graduate of Minnesota-Duluth, who has also moved to Boston.
With the season opening Oct. 11, Knight still worries about her choice. “What if we fall on our faces and I’ve convinced everyone to join a new league?” Knight said. “This is on me, and I would feel awful if that happened. If it fails, it fails. But at least we tried something different.”
As the most marketable player in women’s hockey, with sponsorships and partnerships with Nike, Chobani, Red Bull, GoPro, Casio and the hockey equipment manufacturer STX, Knight is in a stronger financial position than many of her colleagues. But as with any new venture, there are unknowns that even she must grapple with. One of them is what to charge for speaking engagements, a question she often hears from teammates.
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“We kind of have to establish a price integrity for ourselves, and figuring out how much you’re worth in a market that doesn’t even exist is very difficult,” Knight said.
The key to growth for women’s hockey is television exposure. The 2014 gold medal game between the United States and Canada drew 4.9 million viewers and doubled the 2010 ratings, according to NBC. U.S.A. Hockey reports that registration for its programs for women and girls rose 3.74 percent from 2013-14 to 2014-15.
In the N.W.H.L., Knight’s name will be one of the first used to sell the league to networks.
“She’s maybe the biggest women’s hockey player namewise in the world,” N.W.H.L. Commissioner Dani Rylan said. “It’s definitely easy to throw that out there and have someone resonate with that.”
On a recent Thursday, Knight awoke at 6 a.m. for a workout with the national team in Woburn, Mass., then had physical therapy and acupuncture and did individual skating. Once the season begins, she estimates, all but 60 to 90 minutes of her day will be consumed by hockey.
Hockey, in fact, is so ingrained in Knight that she coats the wooden floors of her apartment with Pledge so that when she takes her shoes off, she can glide across them, simulating the feeling of letting her blades carry her on the ice. She has lived there for a year, but the interior is mostly bare, though there are notes conspicuously scattered about reminding her to buy groceries, reply to fan mail or send clothes to her mother.
Knight, who last year practiced with the Anaheim Ducks and hopes to one day play in an N.H.L. game, understands that she is fortunate not to have to work in addition to training. She has been criticized at times for being the only player in the limelight when there are comparably skilled teammates. And yet even Knight has to face constant reminders of women’s hockey’s place in American sports.
Before her afternoon skate, Knight stopped at Pure Hockey, an equipment shop in Medford, Mass., to get her skates sharpened. Unlike an N.H.L. facility, the local rink has no sharpening equipment, just two workers drinking sodas in an otherwise empty building.
Prominently displayed behind the register were Boston Bruins player shirts. The walls were covered with images of famous hockey moments, none featuring women. Remembering that she also needed tape for her sticks, Knight reached into her wallet and paid $11.66.
Occasionally, she feels burned out, but she is unshaken in her commitment to building the game, grateful for the opportunities to travel the world.
And yet for all that hockey has given Knight, it has also taken away. She intentionally avoids reading Facebook updates from her closest friends.
“It almost feels like I’m stuck in time in some way when everyone else is continuing on with their life,” Knight said. “It’s not a bad thing; it’s just when you sit there and think about that, you’re like, Oh my gosh, maybe I should start a family.”
Until the 2018 Olympics, Knight said, she will maintain the same rigorous schedule. If the N.W.H.L. takes off, her time will become even more constrained.
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“I’m hoping that because I’ve unlocked these doors, that it’s going to be easier for my other teammates and the younger generation to come up,” she said. “It’s so sad that girls who are national-level players have to stop playing hockey. Most of them do because there’s no career, there’s no good and happy ending for them.”
Through Knight’s influence, women’s hockey may be drawing the attention of new audiences.
One of Hilary Knight’s biggest fans is Hilary Knight – the illustrator of the “Eloise” books. One day, Knight, the author, Googled his name and noticed that Knight, the hockey player, received the top hits. “She’s so famous,” he said. “I am way down there in the line. It’s really impressive.”
Knight, the 88-year-old artist who never played sports, would like to meet Knight, the hockey player. This year, she was invited to a screening of the HBO documentary “It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise” but could not attend because of national team obligations.
For now, Knight, the author, will settle for learning all he can about Knight, the hockey player, whose goals and accomplishments he has become envious of, the kind of “precocious grown-up” his books were intended for.
“I just found out two of her favorite things, something I have never heard of: Goblet squats are exercises you do, and fire cupping, it’s applying jars to your skin and you end up looking like a leper with all these spots,” Knight the artist said. “She’s remarkable. I like being confused with her. I won’t ever look like her because of the goblet squats. I like the name goblet squats.”