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Knight Moves: Ex-Hanover Resident Skates Her Path in Pro Hockey

  • Hanover native Hillary Knight practices with her Boston Pride National Women's Hockey League teammates on Thursday, February 16, 2017. (Alan MacRae photograph)

  • Hanover native Hillary Knight on Thursday, February 16, 2017. (Alan MacRae photograph)

  • Hanover native Hillary Knight practices with her Boston Pride National Women's Hockey League teammates on Thursday, February 16, 2017. (Alan MacRae photograph)

  • FILE - In this Feb. 8, 2014, file photo, Hilary Knight of the United States celebrates her goal in front of Finland goalkeeper Noora Raty during a women's ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Knight will practice with the Anaheim Ducks in training camp while spotlighting her drive to bring more young girls into the sport. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2017

 

Since her days with the University of Wisconsin women’s ice hockey team, Hilary Knight has won everywhere she’s been.

The winger and former Hanover resident captured two NCAA championships in four title-game appearances with the Badgers from 2007-12 — leading the nation in scoring twice during that span — and has won two Olympic silver medals and six IIHF world championship golds with the U.S. women’s team.

Success has continued at the professional level, first with the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, to whom she was drafted in 2012. After winning two Clarkson Cup championships in three years with the Blades, Knight joined the Boston Pride of the nascent National Women’s Hockey League, a four-team organization now in its second season.

Knight was the NWHL’s regular season scoring champion during its inaugural campaign (2015-16), scoring 15 goals and 18 assists in 17 games before the Pride went on to win the first Isobel Cup league championship. After missing the first seven games this year because of a leg injury, she has nine points (five goals, four assists) in seven games since returning.

Knight had a shorthanded goal and two assists at Connecticut on Friday night for undefeated Boston (14-0-0), which appears well-suited for another championship run. The season ends on March 18-19 with single-elimination semifinals and finals at Tsongas Arena in Lowell, Mass.

“The winning has come because of the kind of player she is,” said Pride coach Bobby Jay, whose team plays home games at Warrior Ice Arena, the Boston Bruins’ newly minted practice facility in Boston’s Allston neighborhood.

“She’s been a prodigy since a young age and succeeded everywhere she’s been. She has a very unique combination of size (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) and speed. I look at her like a Mark Messier. She’s big, but she’s always one of the fastest and most skilled players on the ice.”

The Pride features seven players from last year’s U.S. world championship roster and six from its silver medalists at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Knight and Boston co-captain Brianna Decker (10 goals, 11 assists) have been teammates since playing together for two years at Wisconsin. That pair, plus forward linemate Jordan Smelker (three goals, five assists), have developed chemistry and execution their coach deemed unstoppable.

“All three are unselfish and play with a lot of confidence,” said Jay, who’s worked with Knight since he was an assistant for the U.S. women’s team in 2011. “Getting Hilary back was huge because she has a way of gravitating to the puck and being at the right place at the right time. You have to defend her, but she’s also a very good passer and finds holes in the defense off the rush. She had a beautiful pass to set up a goal and another beautiful wrist shot for a goal (during a recent win over Buffalo). That’s when I started thinking, ‘OK, she’s back 100 percent.’ She can beat you in a lot of different ways.”

The Pride have slowly made in-roads in the Boston pro sports scene, drawing sporadic coverage from NESN and celebrated at City Hall Plaza after winning the Isobel Cup last year in a ceremony led by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. The team regularly fills the 750-person (seating plus standing room) Warrior Ice Arena for home games.

“The seats are really close to the ice, so it’s sort of an old-barn type atmosphere,” Jay said. “The fans have been awesome.”

Even Warrior Ice Arena’s modest capacity represents by far the highest attendance figures in the league, according to Boston general manager Hayley Moore. Due largely to that low attendance, the league’s already-humble player salaries — typically ranging from $10,000-$26,000 — in November were cut 38 percent league wide, according to a New York Times report.

With no collective bargaining agreement in place to block the cuts, the league’s players association issued a four-part list of demands to the league’s front office, requesting transparency and open communication between the league and its players.

The sides subsequently negotiated to shorten the season by eight games, so that it now concludes prior to the IIHF tourney that begins March 31 in Plymouth, Mich. — NWHL play was originally scheduled to resume after the IIHF ends on April 17 — and the Isobel Cup playoff format was reduced from a best-of-three to single elimination for both rounds. The players and league have also agreed to distribute all gate proceeds after $500 for each game to players, according to Moore.

The NWHL recently announced it will return for a third season.

“It looks sustainable the way it is now, but obviously not ideal,” said Knight, who lived in Hanover for six years as a teenager in the 2000s, but attended high school at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. “We’re trying to move the sport forward and create new conversations about women’s hockey, so of course you don’t want to be dealing with financial difficulties at the same time.”

Many of Knight’s teammates work second jobs or full-time jobs on top of their Pride commitments. Smelker, for example, is an engineer who works for a Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech lab, while defenseman Marissa Gedman is a school teacher, according to Jay.

The earnings of Knight, Decker and others are supplemented by stipends from the United States Olympic Committee. Some, including Knight, also have personal sponsors.

In her free time, Knight is an ambassador for women’s hockey and female sports in general, working with girls at various camps and clinics.

She also regularly utilizes her visibility to encourage female empowerment. A YouTube video produced in 2015, titled “Strong is Beautiful: Ice Hockey With Hilary Knight,” delves into the well-toned Knight’s training regimen and has received nearly 500,000 views.

Knight spreads similar messages on social media platforms and through her website, www.hilary-knight.com.

“Having a player the caliber of Hilary means so much to us, on and off the ice,” said Moore, a former Brown University player. “She’s a huge role model for younger girls and a pioneer for our game, and she doesn’t take that role lightly.”

Knight considered retiring from the game after the U.S. team’s gut-wrenching overtime loss to Canada in the 2014 Olympic gold-medal game in Sochi, Russia. Knight had an assist to help stake Team USA to a 2-0 lead, but Canada scored twice in the final 3½ minutes of regulation to force overtime before winning, 3-2, on Marie-Philip Poulin’s second goal.

“It was such a heart-breaking loss, and training for this game takes so much commitment,” sad Knight, whose three younger brothers, Jamie, Remy and William, all played various levels of hockey for Hanover teams. “But I certainly have no regrets about sticking with it. We all play for the love the game, and I feel like I’m just now reaching my prime.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.