BEIJING – Even behind the protective face covering, there’s no masking Hilary Knight’s excitement. With all the wide-eyed exuberance and joy of a newcomer to the Olympic stage, this four-time Olympian is soaking in every moment and basking in the spotlight that seems to only shine on women’s hockey every four years.
Knight is determined to change that by showcasing all that the women’s game can be if only given the chance. She did that on Saturday in leading Team USA to a 5-0 victory over the Russian Olympic Committee while adding two more goals against Switzerland on Sunday.
And if that means wearing a mask around the Olympic village and subjected to daily testing, so be it. And she’ll do it with a smile on her face, even if you can only see it in the sparkle in her eyes.
“Having an opportunity to be a part of this group and to be in that room is extremely special and one that you can't take for granted. So if it means wearing a mask on the ice for practice or in the room, you're just going to do it,” Knight said.
“You're at the Olympic Games and you wake up and the sun is shining and you get to go to the dining hall and get to go practice, play hockey games and do the thing that you signed up to do a long, long time ago.”
What she signed up for a long, long time ago was just to play the sport she grew up loving in places like her hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho, at the Choate Rosemary School in Wallingford, Conn., at the University of Wisconsin and all the stops in between.
Along the way Knight became more than just one of the most dominant figures on the ice. She became the spokesperson for a movement to move the sport forward to create more opportunities for the next generation of little girls to love the sport as much as she does. And to do that, she is willing to stand in front of a bevy of media people, many of whom have never seen women’s hockey before to make her case.
“I want more money and more eyes on the sport and in the sport,” she said. “The game’s getting a lot faster and that’s only because we now have more opportunities to train and especially from the grassroots level all the way up. It’s really important to invest in women’s hockey and see other countries doing it as well.”
Knight has also bolstered her cause through her actions on the ice. After being kept off the scoresheet in the team’s opening win against Finland, she was a dominant force here tonight.
One of the beneficiaries of Knight’s on-ice acumen and skill against the ROC was Savannah Harmon, who was the recipient of a behind the back no-look pass that Knight put right onto the 26-year-old defenseman’s stick. All she had to do was tap it in to give the U.S. a lead they would never relinquish.
“Savannah’s a great talented player. She’s a wonderful person and I’m so happy she’s a representing our country and obviously executing on a world stage like she did tonight.”
The pair teamed up again in the second period as Knight showcased the soft hands that can also generate one of the hardest shots in the women’s game by tipping Harmon’s point shot. It was her 19th Olympic point, which put her ahead of her idol Cammi Granato for fourth place all-time in Olympic scoring for American players.
It is just another notch in the championship belt that a career that was set in motion by watching the 1998 U.S. Women’s Team strike gold in the inaugural Olympic competition in Nagano, Japan.
“I didn’t even know that was a thing, to be honest,” she said. “Obviously Cammi Granato and this number holds a special place in my heart. The ’98 team is where it all began. I remember being a little kid jumping up and down when they won and that sparked a dream for me.”
Joel Johnson has been coaching women’s hockey for the better part of 20 years. In addition to helping grow the sport at the college and international level, he’s enjoyed a front row seat to what Knight can do on the ice.
“She’s a gifted player in terms of advocating for the growth of women’s hockey and on the ice she’s still remarkable,” said head coach Joel Johnson. “She’s just a special hockey player and a special influence on women’s hockey, and we’re all lucky to be here and see it.”
As she basks in the moment of her fourth Olympics, which ties her with American icons Jenny Potter, Julie Chu and Angela Ruggiero, Knight is looking to make hay while the sun shines. Not only does that mean leading the march to another gold medal but taking the next generation of hockey players along for the ride.
“I understand the importance of what we do on the world stage, even though for us, we’re playing a hockey game,” she said. “It obviously means a lot because we train all of our lives for it, but to have some sort of small impact in someone’s life is tremendously important too.”