Hilary Knight is one of the most talented players in the women’s game today. Her on-ice credentials are unassailable, highlighted by two NCAA crowns, NWHL and CWHL titles, seven World Championship golds, two World Championship MVPs and, most recently, a two-goal, three-point performance in Pyeongchang, where she helped Team USA to its first Olympic gold medal since the inaugural women’s event two decades ago.
But that’s not the reason Knight is the most transcendent star in women’s hockey. If it was, this might be a story about Brianna Decker or Kendall Coyne or Marie-Philip Poulin, whose accolades stack up well against those of Knight.
No, what has made the 29-year-old the face of the U.S. women’s national team and arguably the world’s most recognizable female hockey player is that she’s embraced the other side of superstardom: marketability. Beyond having her own website and a YouTube channel where she keeps followers updated on her travels, Knight has a deal with Red Bull, is sponsored by Nike and Bauer, has appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, graced the pages of Cosmopolitan and has lent her voice to Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign while delivering her “Strong Is Beautiful” message.
And while that’s what sets her apart, that wouldn’t be the case in Knight’s ideal world. “I’d love for every single one of my teammates to have two or three big companies that they’re partnered with, or one at the very least,” Knight said. “But it’s sort of a double-edged sword. We need the visibility, but because we don’t have it right now, the companies don’t want to spend the money. But if we have companies spending money, then we’re going to get the visibility. It continues this awful cycle.”
That the cycle exists at all is baffling to Knight, particularly when she sees the women’s game as a relatively untapped market that’s full of exceptional athletes. As she put it, the women’s pro ranks are teeming with talented, college-educated women who could be impeccable role models. Though she’d stop short of saying it herself, Knight is included among those, and when she speaks, the hockey world sits up and listens. “In some respects, it’s our responsibility to be more outspoken about what we’re trying to accomplish and raise the platform,” Knight said. “We don’t have the traditional setup like the guys do. Once we get there, I’m sure people will be more reserved with their opinions. But we’re trying to fight for our space among other sports, which is why a lot more people can be vocal.”
Knight has never shied away from using the platform she’s worked hard to build. Look no further than the equitable support battle between USA Hockey and the women’s national team, which Knight helped champion. Or consider her headline-making signing at the inception of the NWHL, or, later, when she was one of the voices of the NWHL players in the wake of salary cuts. She also hasn’t been shy in her calls for “one league” – one pro women’s circuit that brings together all the best players in the world – and made a point of calling her signing with Les Canadiennes de Montreal last season and ahead of 2018-19 an endorsement of the CWHL and what it offers players.
In that way, Knight is using the cachet her name carries, a respect she’s earned through her play and continued to build on by marketing herself, to change the game and take it to another level. She wants her marketability to lead to the marketability of others, her profile to help raise the profile of the entire game, and she wants to leave the game better than she found it and not just leave it up to the powers that be. “There’s accountability on both sides,” Knight said. “We need to make sure we’re continuing to push the women’s game as far as we can.”