Hilary Knight has been the main name associated with the NWHL, 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 unfairly – heralded as something that would make or break both leagues. 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 focuses on the 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 Slaphsot: How has your season gone?
Hilary Knight: I think as a team we’ve done really well coming together at the right time of year and now we’re approaching the second season, so it’s 0-0 and we’re chomping at the bit to play for the Isobel Cup.
And what about you personally? Have you enjoyed how the season’s gone?
Whenever you start something new there’s a lot of work that goes into it, not only on my behalf but on other people’s and obviously other players’ as well. I think it’s been a really successful season developing a presence in different markets and giving fans the opportunity to be able to have a camaraderie around their favorite player or club.
So when you signed back in September, August, what expectations or hopes did you really have for the first season?
To be honest, my only hope was that it would be competitive and visible. I think the competition level’s going to grow as we get more bodies in the league and more graduate from various institutions. And for visibility, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. There’s been more coverage and use of social media really motivating different fanbases and their respective markets to get people to come out to the games.
Before you’d have 30-60 people in the stands when it was a regular-season game and over half those people would be family or friends. [Laughter] Now, you have fans that are not related to you just coming to the game because they want to watch good hockey, or they’re fans of the game or fans of the club, of a specific player.
That’s extremely special, especially when you can multiply that by a hundred at least, getting a thousand or 900 every night. It’s great to play in front of people.
Do you think the meet-the-players opportunities afterwards have a lot to do with that?
Yeah. I think the biggest thing was, first the first couple weekends it was new and exciting and we had a lot of people coming through the autograph line and wanting to meet the players. The next concern is, okay, how do we keep these people coming back. I think a lot of it speaks to the character and attitude of the players’ willingness to interact with people, and understanding their roles as positive role models in fans’ lives.
Hayley Moore, our GM, has done a great job of providing the supply but also not overextending the players. We’ve done odd numbers coming up one night, even numbers coming up the other so that keeps fans continuing to come back. So there are those little tricks of the trade that the Boston Pride has been extremely successful at doing.
Looking back at the season, has it differed much from what you expected when you first signed?
Aside from the last two bus rides with no bathroom, no! [Laughter] Those rides were really hard, but when you take away some of the small conveniences that are necessary at times it can be a little bit harder.
Jokes aside, I had expectations of marketing and visibility. I think those have been met. I’d like to see those opportunities increase next year. I also would love to see partnerships with more and bigger companies but the business side isn’t what I’m in. I just manage what I can control on the ice in my small 30- 45-second shift but I think in terms of expectations, it’s the first season. I couldn’t have too many expectations. The shortcoming with any women’s sport is marketing and putting dollars behind female athletes. I’d love to see that support increase as we progress.
I was reading an article a few months ago about – I think it was about Adidas [Author’s note: it was not Adidas, it was a Player’s Tribune article], how they are a sponsor of the WNBA and the NBA and there’s the Michael Jordan shoe and whatnot. And there’s nothing on the women’s side of the equation; there’s no Tamika Catchings shoe, there’s no Maya Moore shoe [Author’s note: there is now a Maya Moore shoe]. Would you be interested in something like a Hilary Knight stick?
Absolutely. I think my voice has always been sort of equal opportunities. And if you’re the best at your craft I think you should have the opportunity to be respected and such. The greatest honor is having the opportunity to have the trust and respect and also the marketing power behind you of one of these big companies.
There’s a lot of fun things in the works with the brands I am fortunate enough to be partnered with right now but I think as a hockey player the biggest legacy and testament to your career is if you have a curve named after you. You’ve got a stick or some piece of equipment. That would be a tremendous honor.
It would also be a great showing of where women’s hockey has come as a sport.
What’s been a good surprise for you this season?
For me personally, one of the coolest things is coming up after a game and seeing somebody wearing your jersey. There hasn’t been that level of acceptability before. I’m sure in college a lot of people would love to have a Badger jersey but they’re not allowed to sell them with the name on the back because of NCAA rules and stuff.
To have people buy the Boston Pride jersey and it has your name on the back, it’s extremely special.
And league-wide, I think, is people’s willingness to grow this game and realize that they’re just a part of something bigger than something playing hockey or bigger than something that big, that day. It’s nice to see all the life stories that have been woven, obviously by the media but also throughout the league –– seeing someone that I know of but don’t really know her, but I’ve played against her –– and seeing the storyline behind it. It’s extremely special as well.
Everybody expected you guys (the Pride) to come roaring out of the gate but it seemed like you were a half a step off until November or December. A few people have been recently saying to me that they thought Denna’s injury was kind of a coalescing point for you all, that you had something to rally around, as horrible as that might seem. What would you say to that?
Whenever such a tragic injury or event happens it definitely gets people’s gears going and you can definitely rally around it, and Denna is definitely a huge part of our team even if she’s not on the ice, she continues to still be a huge part.
The hockey season’s long as well, too. With this new season, yeah, a lot of us were on the Boston Blades previously but we’re still vying for spots and trying to figure out where we fit and how the pieces all work together. I think with any season you go through this growth and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to win all year. I think it’s great and that it really builds our teams character and chemistry; now people are getting lines and put into different positions. It just speaks to the development of our teams personnel and really paving a good story-path for us to come together at the right moment.
I would also be somewhat lying if I didn’t say Denna’s injury definitely impacted us in a tremendous way and it’s something that it’s extremely difficult to deal with and see someone go through that but we continue to gain inspiration from her every single day. I guess that’s the silver lining of it.
To be continued…