Hilary Knight loves to play hockey. It’s why she is one of the few players to return to professional hockey after the Olympics, as she will this Sunday when Les Canadiennes take on the Calgary Inferno.
But this isn’t a decision she just made. She actually made the decision “a while ago” so that Montreal was able to add her to their reserve roster to make her eligible for this season.
And while she didn’t commit to anything past the final game of the regular season (she will miss Saturday’s game) and playoffs, she has - like so many others since the signing was announced on Thursday - thought about the prospect of playing with Canadiennes captain Marie-Philip Poulin at some point down the road. Poulin, along with Lauriane Rougeau and Mélodie Daoust, have announced that they will not return this season.
“It’s great when you could play with great players. I have a tremendous amount of respect for [Poulin],” Knight said. “I think it would be amazing if we could share the ice together wearing the same colours, playing for the same team. How fantastic of a duo would that be and how exciting would that be to play with another great player.”
Knight admitted that she was surprised when the team handed her a jersey with number 21 on it (“I was planning on being another number”) but she says that she did talk to former Canadienne and Team USA captain Julie Chu about wearing her old number.
“I guess I like to follow great players and their numbers,” Knight said referring to the fact that she wore #21 on Team USA after Cammi Granato. Of course, Granato and Chu have another connection in Montreal. Granato played university hockey at Concordia University, where Chu is now the head coach of the Quebec champion Stingers.
Knight has thought about playing for Montreal for a while, and has always spoken highly of the organization. She says it was a great feeling to pull on the jersey yesterday.
“It was really cool,” she said. “There’s a deep legacy of great players that have thrown on that jersey. I felt like a little kid again when the general manager [Meg Hewings] handed me the jersey. It’s always great when you get to play hockey and when you get to play hockey at a high or professional level. It’s never a moment I take lightly.”
“I’ve been up there visiting a lot and know a lot of people on the team so I sort of thought if the opportunity ever presented itself I would try to make it work so luckily everything fell into place and now here I am.
“I think first and foremost that the team has been amazing and gracious for opening up an opportunity for me to come up there but also the other part is just agreeing with their vision and trying to grow the game and I think they have taken tremendous steps especially with the Habs partnership but we’re all trying to push this sport we love to the next level and I think this is a great start.”
Knight has previously played in the CWHL with the Boston Blades, beating out Canadiennes star Ann-Sophie Bettez for league MVP in her first season (2012-13). She has 29 goals and 33 assists (62 points) in 41 career CWHL games over two seasons. She had 23 goals and 25 assists (48 points) in 27 games over two NWHL seasons before taking a year off for these Olympics. She has won the Clarkson Cup twice, in 2013 and in 2015 - both times beating Montreal in the final.
She came back after the 2014 Olympics to the Blades and their first two games after the Olympics were in Montreal in front of some of the largest crowds that the then-Montreal Stars had up to that point. The Blades lost the Clarkson Cup final in a shootout that year, but she still holds that year in high regard.
“I remember, and that’s one of the memories that I look back on, having the opportunity to come back after the last Olympics and play professionally. For two reasons, one I love the game and two, it helps attract more attention to the game and grow the profile of it and also the fans. The fans are the reason I came back and it’s a memory that I’m quite fond of. Obviously we didn’t win the Clarkson Cup that year but just to try to feel the support and feel the energy even if they probably weren’t cheering for us, it was quite incredible and they’re still paying to buy a ticket to see you, no matter what jersey you wear so it’s pretty special.”
Since the Olympics, Knight has been part of a victory tour with the rest of her Team USA teammates, with Knight even appearing on Saturday Night Live, among other places.
“The only thing we’re missing is a parade, to be honest,” she said with a laugh. “We’ve kind of hit every stop and it’s fantastic. It’s fantastic for our sport but also for young girls and young boys that are looking up and trying to figure out what they want to do when they’re older and setting dreams. The more we could elevate the platform and lend voices to people who don’t have voices and inspire the next generation then we’re doing our job.
“This gold, obviously for us, it’s a hockey tournament, the Olympics... it’s part of our legacy but I think more importantly it’s also this intangible success that we can now go and share with people.”
Knight took to the ice on Thursday for her first practice with her new team and it was the first time she was on the ice since the Olympics in PyeongChang.
“It was fun. The girls are great. But [there are] always nerves. You’re coming into a new team, everyone has their set roles at this point of the season so I’m just trying to figure out where I fit in but they’ve welcomed me in with open arms and I’m just excited to contribute in any way I can and hopefully bringing back the Clarkson Cup again.”
Tickets for this weekend’s games at the Complexe Bell in Brossard are available here. If Montreal wins one of the two games, they will be hosting a playoff series next weekend as well.