Q&A with Boston Pride’s Hilary Knight on Making History in the NWHL

'It's something that should've been done 10 years ago.'

Photo via AP

Photo via AP

There’s a reason why hockey fans so eagerly awaited Hilary Knight’s decision where to play this year. As one of the best women’s hockey players in the world, Knight could change a franchise’s—or league’s—fortunes with a flourish of a pen. Appropriately, the good folks at Stanley Cup of Chowder took to calling the phenomenon #KnightWatch.

Knight, 26, signed with the Boston Pride in late September and quickly became the de facto face of the fledgling National Women’s Hockey League in its inaugural season. When the Pride took the ice for the first time last Sunday, Knight potted the first goal in franchise history and added another for good measure. The Pride downed the Buffalo Beauts, 4-1.

When Knight was five, she told her grandmother she would play Olympic hockey someday. “Girls don’t play hockey,” her grandmother replied. In 2014, Knight won a silver medal in Sochi, but only after playing on countless all-boys teams and overcoming her share of bullying and doubt. The Illinois native’s journey is chronicled in KNIGHTER, the latest installment of espnW and sibling directing team the Mundo Sisters’ documentary series What Makes Us.

Knight spoke with Boston magazine about making history with the Boston Pride, silencing critics, eating Chipotle, and those snazzy yellow sweaters.

BOSTON MAGAZINE: You had a hell of a game in the Pride’s debut, notching two goals, including the first in franchise history. How did that feel?

HILARY KNIGHT: It was wild, to be honest. Obviously, you don’t go into a game thinking you’re going to make history with a goal and there’s a lot of other things that go into play. And obviously, pretty much a simple a tap-in for me. When you look back on it in a few years, I think it’ll definitely be one of those memories that I’m happy to be a part of, especially being in our inaugural game.

Going into it, you really weren’t hungry for the first-ever goal? Was there competition amongst the team over who’d have it first?

No no no. No, it’s not amongst ourselves. Whenever you go into a game, you want to win and you want to come out victorious in any way. I think my role on a team is I love to put the puck in the back of the net. If that opportunity presents itself and it happens for me, I get really excited. But I think the added bonus of it being the first goal for our team was pretty special.

The Pride’s home opener is a little over a month away. What will that mean for young girls playing hockey in the Boston area?

It’s going to mean a lot. This is the first time we have a paid professional league. We’re breaking ground as we go along here, especially being in a hockey hot-bed on the East Coast, being in Boston, such a sports town. It’s going to be a phenomenal atmosphere and honestly, the date can’t come soon enough. I’m waiting for November 22. So I’m really excited for when I can come through and very interested in interacting with all the young fans that are going to come out and support us, and hopefully, see that their dreams can come true.

It takes time for a team to develop its identity, its style of play. Leading up to the Pride’s debut, it seemed speed would be one of your team’s strongest assets. Do you think a fast, finesse game is what “Pride hockey” will be?

Yeah, we’re extremely fast. Whenever you get Brianna Decker on the ice, and Emily Field and Amanda Pelkey, people are just going to go fast and push the pace.

That goal Pelkey had was ridiculous.

Yeah. [laughs] It was sick, right? They’re just going to push the pace. It’s going to be one of our signature things. Obviously, we have so much talent on one team and it forces your practice to be at a whole other level of competition. I’m excited for the final product as we progress throughout the season.

We’re only one game in, but before the season kicked off, Commissioner Dani Rylan had mentioned plans for expansion into Minnesota. Do you think you’ll see an NWHL franchise in your native Chicago?

I hope so. It’d be fun to go back out west. I’ve been on the east for a few years now, did the whole boarding school thing out east, but a lot of roots are still in the Midwest. There’s a lot of girls training out there right now. And I think whenever you can expand, you’re doing something right, especially if it’s successful expansion. So hopefully, those are plans that are to come pretty soon.

So how were you first approached to do this espnW miniseries?

To be honest, this is interesting. I don’t even know how I can stack up against all the other amazing athletes that are in the miniseries. It was just another way to share a story and give people access to a stronger storyline than just, ‘We suit up in our equipment and we go play hockey.’ There’s really more to that than just playing a sport and realizing that it’s about a greater message and a greater purpose.

You endured a ton of bullying growing up. Did that ever make you question your desire to play hockey, or did that affirm it?

It definitely wasn’t easy growing up. But I think having a strong female figure in my mom as an in-house role model was huge and really motivated me to continue to pursue my passion and my dreams. But there was definitely a time when I was thinking, ‘You know what? I should just quit. I don’t know if it’s worth it.’ There’s something special about hockey. But just being able to share experiences through sport is special in its own rite. So I’m really glad she gave me the confidence to continue to pursue those passions.

Was she there at the first Pride game in Buffalo?

No, she was not. She was working.

Where does she work?

She works for a girls prep school, down in West Virginia.

Will she be able to make it up for the home opener?

I hope so. I’ll just have to put a lot of pressure on her to make it. But she’s seen a ton of games, so she’s really put in her dues for being at cold hockey rinks. I think she appreciates it now because we play in nicer buildings and it’s not 5 a.m. [laughs] No pulling me out of bed in my pajamas. You work your way up to those better ice times.

Was she there at the Winter Olympics last year in Sochi?

She was. My entire family was there. It’s really special because this isn’t just my journey. It’s really, along with my teammates, our families that go through this whole process with us. It’s important to realize that they are just as intricate a part of the journey and the puzzle of the grander scheme of bringing home a gold medal. It was so heartbreaking coming up short because here were all our families, traveling for us and putting so much of their own energy and losing sleep over our careers and dreams, and all of that to come up short. To be able to have them to come over to Sochi was memorable and a magical moment in itself.

I admit, I was streaming the gold medal game in my lecture, paying no attention whatsoever. 

Thank you.

And when Marie-Philip Poulin’s goal went in, I was livid.

Ugh, yeah. I knew as soon as I was chasing [Canadian forward Halyey Wickenheiser] down, and I was trying to get the strong side, and she’s going down like a bag of bricks. She went down, they called a penalty, and I’m going, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But that’s the way sports work, and that’s what so great about them—the 50-50, and it bounces here or there. You try to control as much of the game as possible, but sometimes things happen. And you try to figure how to pull yourself back up.

Have you spoken to other women’s hockey players who might be too old for the NWHL, who wish the league was around when they were in their primes? Do you get a sense they’re envious of the opportunity you have, and does that make you value it even more?

I don’t think they’re envious. Obviously, the older girls that came before me, a lot of them are my mentors and really have mothered me within the program. I think they’re just excited. It was something that took time to develop, and somehow the planets aligned and everything’s working out great now. But it’s something that should’ve been done 10 years ago. It’s unfortunate they didn’t get this opportunity, but I think they’re happy for all of us who have this opportunity. And likewise, I’ll be happy when this league continues to grow and people coming up in 10 years, young girls now become women and are able to play and get a bigger salary and have more exposure and be on TV and really just be able to live that professional athlete life. Not worry about getting a second job or anything else.

Was the road trip to Buffalo the first time the team’s done some bonding? 

Everything’s been so busy and chaotic with the launch that it’s been hard to corral everyone together. So it was a fun bus trip. We stopped at Chipotle. It’s fun. That team camaraderie, that team chemistry is usually built on the road because you’re stuck traveling together. Those are definitely the moments you’ll remember—not the first goal of this or that game.

Be honest. How sick are those Pride sweaters?

They’re cool. I’m pumped. [laughs] I think we lucked out. I think we probably have the best jersey game, for sure…I’m excited to see the goalie helmets too. I know Otter just got hers painted and it’s coming sometime in the next few weeks. We tried to help her design it. Everything’s exciting. It’s brand-new. Sometimes it’s really overwhelming, but it can be really cool when everything settles down and we can just play.

KNIGHTER debuts Thursday at espnW.com. The Boston Pride take on the New York Riveters in Brooklyn this Sunday. Here’s the full NWHL schedule.