Hilary Knight has been the main name associated with the NWHL, a a perhaps peripheral celebrity in the world of sports and one of the biggest stars in the world of women’s hockey. Her decision to move from the CWHL to the NWHL during the offseason was, fairly or not, heralded as something that could make or break either league.
Today’s Slapshot spoke with Knight recently to discuss her season on the Pride and in the NWHL, some ups and downs in her first year in the league as well as what changes she would make going forward.
Part I touched on a season retrospective while Part II will take a closer look at the impact the addition of the NWHL to the women’s hockey post-collegiate scene has produced.
Kaitlin Cimini for Today’s Slapshot: Are you still happy you and so many former CWHL players made the switch to the NWHL?
Hilary Knight: I think we forced a lot of progress in our sport and it’s frustrating when you know you’ve got a great product but you’re hitting the wall every time and it’s not evolving in any way. So I think that it was really our only option, was to force growth.
Now that we have two separate leagues and we’ve proven that there’s a spark and an interest in women’s hockey, how do we now collaborate? I don’t know what that collaboration looks like in the future but I know it especially needs to happen and I’m certain it needs to happen on behalf of the sport to grow to the level that it can.
There’s been a lot of talk the past two months about how there is going to need to be one league. Have you thought about what that would look like? If you have, what specifics have you been hoping for?
Yeah. Um, I think you get rid of a couple of teams out of each league and play. [laughter]
To be honest, you can’t go too big because we still are in the infancy stage of our professional leagues but at the same time there needs to be a respect for both leagues and there needs to be a collaboration. Whether that starts out as Isobel Cup winners playing the Clarkson Cup winners or something like the [Women’s Outdoor] Classic, but making it a three-period stop time game that’s legitimate. We do sort of a cross-border exhibition series.
I think you start small and you build into something greater but it also needs to have both sides working together to collaborate and make this sport even greater than it is now.
What do you think is going to be key to that growth?
I think we just need to put our lines in the sand aside and figure out if we truly are interested in women’s hockey: in the growth, in the development and the players themselves, that they’re getting paid and getting the opportunities they need to get. Not just the National Team players but all the professional hockey players. We need to work together and we need to figure out what that looks like.
So what changes do you think you would make to the NWHL going forward?
I honestly would work to collaborate with a few other big brands aside from Dunkin’. This is obviously easier said than done. I would do exhibition games against the CWHL teams and I would collaborate for an ultimate North American Championship. But logistically I’d change other things, but that’s…
When you were in the CWHL last year you frequently had back-to-back games and sometimes you even had three games if it was a long trip. With one game a week in the NWHL this season, has that been a positive for you?
No, it’s painstakingly frustrating not to play back-to-back. You get one crack at it and you don’t play your best game or, I don’t know, they win in overtime. It’s always great to beat the team the first night – you kind of poke the bear. Can you finish them off the second night?
And, two, as a hockey player you want to play games.
That’s what you want to do, that’s what you train to do, but at the same time I understand where the league was coming from, where Dani [Rylan] was coming from. You want to build that demand for this great product, so I think Dani has done a great job of organizing and structuring our schedules that way to really build the buzz for each team
We talked back in August about why you were comfortable making the jump without a whole lot of proof, and you said that you were “a handshake kind of person” and you were comfortable with that. Looking back, knowing what you know now, would you have made the same choice?
I think there’s two parts. The first part is that, if we didn’t switch over to a new league as a group, the promises that were made for many years, prior to us playing in the previous league, I don’t know if those would have been fulfilled. I think that’s where a lot of my frustration stemmed from, thinking: wow, we’ve got a great product but it’s not going anywhere. We’re not giving access, we’re not using free opportunities to promote or cross-promote ourselves and a lot of that responsibility was landing on our shoulders.
When you look at any other professional organization that’s been successful they have someone in charge of those things, in charge of marketing, raising money.
And then obviously the frustration of having to pay to play, that was like, [laughter] you know, I started right out of college and I’m really now a grizzled vet, I was upset and frustrated.
If you’re looking from that standpoint I wouldn’t change my decision, I would definitely hop over because it has forced so much growth among women’s hockey whether people would like to admit it or not. Just having more visibility. I think having two leagues and fighting each other, especially in the media, coverage in itself, the different Canadian outlets versus the American outlets, it’s just, it’s gone back and forth.
Now, as a fan and as a player I don’t want anyone to choose. The best players want to play the best players night in and night out. How can we make that happen as we move forward in the future? We’ve proved that women’s hockey is marketable and sustainable so now we’ve got to figure out how to restructure and move forward.
Before Julie Chu retires for good.
[Laughter] Yeah! I’m not too well-briefed on the business aspect but I think it was important for me to meet Dani in person and just sit down with her and kind of hear her out. Where we move forward in the future is up to the people who actually structure this organization and manage it and I think that’s sort of out of my hands.
I think if anything, it was a really good first year and it’s forced a lot of growth across the borders.