Hilary Knight has been everywhere over the past month. From the top of the podium in South Korea to the set of Saturday Night Live, Knight, regarded by some as the face of the program and inarguably one of the great women’s players in the game, has had a dizzying few weeks in the afterglow of USA’s gold medal victory at the 2018 Games. But as of Thursday, the Olympic gold medalist appears as if she can finally put down some roots — at least until the end of the season.
In a stunning bit of business, the CWHL’s Les Canadiennes announced Thursday that Knight will be coming to Montreal for the remainder of the campaign, and the announcement couldn’t come at a better time as the club is gearing up for the post-season and a defense of the Clarkson Cup. Knight isn’t going to be wasting much time getting into the lineup, either. She’ll make her debut in Montreal on Sunday in a nationally televised contest against the Calgary Inferno.
“I better shake the rust off really quick,” Knight laughed after learning her first game in a Les Canadiennes sweater would be broadcast across Canada.
For Knight, getting back on the ice will be a welcome return to what is most familiar to her and an opportunity to finally, maybe, catch her breath after being whisked back-and-forth across the United States as part of the celebrations that followed the women’s national team’s golden accomplishment, their first Olympic victory since 1998 in Nagano. “It’s been such a whirlwind, living in this ultra-reality dream phase, but it’s been wonderful to see how hockey has captivated the U.S.,” Knight said. “But also now being on the other side of the border and seeing how professional ice hockey is still exciting. I’m just excited to get out there and play on Sunday, get in front of fans and have fun.”
To be sure, this isn’t an opportunity that simply arose overnight, even if it seems as though Knight made a swift decision to head to Montreal. Truth be told, Les Canadiennes' deal with Knight has been one of the best-kept secrets in the sport. While she didn’t pinpoint a date, Knight said talks with the team have been ongoing for “a very long time” and the decision to come aboard was made well in advance of Thursday's announcement in order to giver her eligibility in accordance with league guidelines. And Montreal is a team Knight has been intrigued by for some time.
“Even when I played against them, the way they manage the business aspect and their partnership with the (Montreal Canadiens), I was always looking over saying, ‘What are they doing? We need to do that,’ when I was with my former clubs,” Knight said. “I like the way they approach hockey, their fans are ecstatic and give electrifying support to the team and that’s what you want. You want people to get even more excited, especially after an Olympic year, so it’s a special moment to be able to go, have fun playing and elevate the platform at the professional level.”
This is, of course, a new journey for Knight and her adventure with Les Canadiennes is a departure for Knight in a couple of ways. First and foremost, this is the first time Knight will have played a professional season outside of Boston, which has been her stomping grounds since she began her pro career with the CWHL’s Blades in 2012. Maybe more significantly, though, it sees her depart the NWHL for the CWHL two seasons after her signing in the upstart women’s league, which was the first to pay its players, made waves. Last season was a tumultuous one for the NWHL, however, and controversy struck off-ice when players had their salaries slashed. Knight didn’t expand on her reasons for leaving, saying only that, “there are probably a few reasons.” Knight did, however, add that, “if I’m playing somewhere, I view it as I’m endorsing that league and what they provide not only to the players and the fans, but the development of the game at that level.”
Undoubtedly, her presence in the CWHL is a massive win for the league, its fans and not least of all Les Canadiennes, even if the potential Knight-Marie Philip Poulin duo won’t be a possibility this season. Poulin, regarded as the greatest Canadian women’s player, has decided to take the rest of the season off following the end of another Olympic cycle, which dashed the dreams of seeing arguably the greatest players from both the American and Canadian women’s teams skate alongside each other and form what quite possibly could have been the most lethal pairing in the women’s pro circuit. Knight will still have her share of impressive teammates, mind you. Caroline Oullette will be, for many, the most notable name, but Knight skating with Ann-Sophie Bettez or Sarah Lefort could result in some magical moments. And there’s no reason we should count out the possibility of a Poulin-Knight duo altogether.
“I kind of smile at the thought of that,” Knight said. “When you get to play with a group of great players, it’s a dream come true. That’s why I almost fan-girl every time I’m with the US team because you’re on the ice with amazing players. Now, if you can bring the US-Canada collaborative back to a club team, that’s really exciting, not only for the fans but for the all of us to play with great players. Wouldn’t that be a dream if that could work out and happen?”
In order for that to become a reality, though, Knight would have to remain in Montreal beyond this season, and while she’s not denying that possibility, she’s not committing to it, either. Instead, Knight is focused on adding another Clarkson Cup to her already remarkable resume while continuing to have her long-term sights set on growing the women’s game in whatever way possible while continuing the fight for equitable support. “The work is definitely cut out for me,” Knight said. “But I’ve never been as hungry as I am now to accomplish those things.”
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