NEWARK, N.J. – Shortly before Game 1 of the NWHL’s Isobel Cup Finals on Friday, Boston Pride forward Hilary Knight, one of the best women’s hockey players in the world, took a trip to Starbucks. While there, she overheard someone talking about how they can’t wait to leave work and just get home.
The 26-year-old found herself thinking, “Really? I can’t wait to get to work every day!”
Ever since joining the National Women’s Hockey League, the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary, Knight has been the league’s highlighted player. In addition to her on-ice accomplishments—including an MVP award from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, an IIHF Women’s World Championship Media All-Star Team selection and even her own day in Sun Valley, Idaho—the two-time Olympic silver medalist has also been tasked with helping to put the sport and a league on the map.
But while the burden of being the face of a new league can be tiresome, Knight looks at it as a blessing.
“It’s been a responsibility, but I love what I do, I love my work,” Knight told SI.com after leading the Pride to the inaugural Isobel Cup with a two-game sweep of Buffalo Beauts last weekend. “I’m very grateful to be able to play hockey for a living.”
The NWHL isn’t able to pay fully livable wages yet (the maximum salary is $25,000), but that’s not as important to players as the principle of just being paid to play hockey. But if the NWHL is going to survive as a league—and it looks promising, as commissioner Dani Rylan said before the Cup-clinching win that the league plans to have a longer season next year—then Knight is exactly the face for the league to get behind.
Ever since she jumped from the CWHL to the NWHL last September, the 26-year-old has been in the spotlight. A two-time NCAA champion at Wisconsin, Knight was the youngest member of any U.S. team at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver at 20 years, 217 days old, but still racked up a goal and seven assists. Four years later at the Sochi Games, she followed that up by scoring six points, tied for the team high, on three goals and three assists, including the U.S.’s opening score in the tournament.
Despite her accomplishments, it would’ve been easy to fold under the weight of being the brand-name star of a fledgling league. Instead, Knight embraced it, as she finished the first season with a league-leading 15 goals and 33 points in 17 regular season games, and then shined even brighter in the postseason. In Boston’s semifinal sweep of the New York Riveters, the Pride won two games by a combined score of 13-4. Knight notched four goals and an assist, including a hat trick in the second victory. The California native scored a pair of goals, including a penalty shot goal in overtime to clinch Game 1 of the Finals for the Pride on Friday, then assisted teammate Brianna Decker’s tally by setting up a one-timer before adding a nifty backhander of her own to beat Buffalo goalie Brianna McLaughlin for Boston’s final goal in the 3-1 Isobel Cup-clinching win the following night.
“Getting your name engraved on the Cup is something that’s always going to be there and no one can take that away from us,” Knight said. “It’s a dream come true and we just made history, what a phenomenal job from this team all year.”
Standing at 5'10" and weighing 172 pounds, she has always been outspoken in her belief that she can one day skate in the NHL, and in 2015, she practiced with the Anaheim Ducks. Her brief stint with the team earned plenty of praise from the likes of coach Bruce Boudreau, captain Ryan Getzlaf and defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who said, “She truly did fit in. You really had to try on the ice to find her because she wasn’t out of place at all. She was snapping pucks right on the tape. She put it on the money every time.”
All of her success has young fans ooh-ing and ahh-ing over her and now, they can finally see their favorite player play more than once every four years.
During Saturday’s finale, there were young girls in the sold-out New Jersey Devils Hockey House holding up signs declaring their love for No. 21 in black and gold. Then, as Boston players walked from the locker room to the ice, fans freaked out after getting a high five or being acknowledged by their favorite hockey star. And as Knight and her teammates celebrated on the ice with the Cup, the same faces were jockeying for position at the rink exits, hoping to snag an autograph.
Luckily for them, and for women’s hockey in general, Knight isn’t going anywhere, especially with the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics now less than two years away. The one thing missing from Knight’s resume is an Olympic gold medal, but the throngs of screaming young fans don’t see it that way, and neither does the NWHL.
She’s already a perfect fit for the job she has.