Hilary Knight has been down this road before. Having her name attached to a movement is nothing new for her. She may not only be the face of women’s hockey — she may also be the face of its conscience.
She was instrumental to the Boston Blades two-game forfeit in 2014 from which you can draw a line towards the creation of the NWHL. She was one of the many players to go to the NWHL, and her silence and absence after the league cut salaries was forceful and with purpose. She was one of the main voices attached to the Team USA boycott in 2017, and one of the more outspoken players against the NWHL over the past year.
When she talks, the hockey world listens - or at least, it should. She has shown a knack to have her finger on the pulse of the sport. And when she was one of the 200 players to voice their involvement in the latest movement in women’s hockey, her tweet was the one most shared, most visible, and most embedded.
She says timing was a big factor, but the hashtag For The Game, speaks to a larger purpose as well.
“Collectively we decided to unify our voices,” Knight said. “Yeah, we could conveniently have a place to play tomorrow if we really wanted it but we’re not really looking for convenient.”
“We’re standing on the shoulders of strong, powerful women who came before us and fought for us. We’re the benefactors of the generation that laid the foundation for us. Now we’re united as a voice that’s going to take the next step forward [...] You have more confidence in what you’re doing when you’re doing it for a bigger purpose.”
The Be Bold For Change movement in 2017 in some ways is the ancestor of this movement. It’s not quite the same, but it’s not all that different, either. Like a fable or legend spoken of from a past time. Only this time, the principal actors are mostly the same.
“It gave us the confidence, it also gave us the experience,” Knight said about the boycott threat with Team USA prior to the World Championships. “We were part of a successful battle to establish better resources and support and marketing in our sport. We’re going to take what was successful there and apply it here. It’s totally different in some ways but very similar in the process.”
She noted the time-frame is a little bit different. The boycott in 2017 was a month prior to the games. Now they have a bit more time.
“We don’t have a World Championship coming right up,” she laughed. “So I’m not having my ear phones in when I’m at the gym and people aren’t having their headsets on while they’re on the ice but there’s a lot to learn.”
“The one takeaway that we had is collectively our voices are so strong and so powerful and together we can amplify one another.”
The collective voices is a phrase that comes up a lot. The way they orchestrated the social media shockwave showed the amount of planning that went into this. Several players have been throughout the media amplifying the message and making sure their message and goal doesn’t get misconstrued.
“The goal is not to destroy a league,” she said. “We’re just not going to play in any league in North America unless it’s sustainable. The 200 players who are on board don’t see a sustainable league right now. We can continue to perpetuate a cycle out of convenience or we can stand up and do what’s right for the game, and also spark change to build something bigger and better.”
Knight acknowledges that the future is murky. She said three years ago - before #OneLeague became the hashtag du jour - that women’s hockey was at a critical time. Asked where women’s hockey is now, she thought for a moment before answering.
“I kind of look at it like when you’re playing Mario Kart and you have that opportunity to take that ramp that speeds everything up and launches you in the air to get you across the finish line of where you want to be,” she said. “We’re looking for that speed ramp.”
Speed ramps - especially sustainable ones - don’t just appear out of the edge of a mountain when you need it most. So the players acknowledge they may not have a solution by the start of the next hockey season. But they are looking at every scenario.
“We don’t necessarily know what next year’s going to look like and it’s going to provide a unique opportunity and a different way to view the sport,” she said. “Logistically we’re still ironing those things out but the support is there. We can practice and train and play and that’s why we all signed up for the sport - because we absolutely love the game. So we’ll figure it out and whether that’s Montreal driving down to Boston to play a Boston team those things are still to be determined but we have a really good group of women that if we want something done we’re capable of doing it.”
The statement was significant on its own but it showed a blurring of the lines of the Canada-USA women’s hockey rivalry with players on both sides of the border - and even beyond - coming together. There has been a hostility between the two nations (even among fans of either of the two leagues). Knight mentioned in the past that when she said she would be playing for Les Canadiennes, some American fans said they would no longer cheer for her.
“The fans see either US or Canada and for many years the US-Canada rivalry has carried our sport and I think that we’re at a point where that’s going to change,” Knight said. “The rivalry is always going to be the most beautiful rivalry in sport and it’s one of my favourite games to play but I think once we figure out this league situation, it’s going to change the landscape of women’s hockey and it’s going to be better for everyone.”
She, like many others, says that there are more similarities to differences between players on both teams.
“We all have the same fabric. The rivalry between the two teams, that’s real. But when we take our competitor hat off, and get away from the rink, we’re accomplishing the same thing. Our goals are aligned. There are too many similarities to ignore.”
In many ways, women’s hockey is still playing catch up. The WNBA started play in 1996. Women’s hockey has never had something that stable.
“For many years, women’s hockey when you look at traditional sports in many ways we’re behind the times,” Knight said. “I’d love to have something similar to what the WNBA has and obviously there are pros and cons there but to have somewhere that’s sustainable to play and know that we’re continuing to build these platforms, and increasing visibility, and we have the right people involved. I can’t emphasize that enough. Those are the things we need.”
“That’s not to say we haven’t had amazing people thus far, but there’s a certain level of knowledge that it’s going to take for the next iteration and what it grows into,” she said. “We cannot be more thankful to all the volunteers that have been with us, continue to support us, and stand with us through this movement.”
Also standing with them through this movement is someone with a lot of experience in standing up for what they believe in and looking for a better future: Billie Jean King.
For a lack of better words, [it’s] one of the coolest things,” Knight said about King’s support. “To have someone so iconic... A trail blazer, a pioneer, many powerful words can be associated with Billie Jean King and she’s been instrumental not only to us but to many women and men around the world. The things that she has accomplished and the support and guidance that she can provide... We’re very grateful to have her and have her insight. For her to give her support is a huge honour.”
The statement has been made, the gauntlet has been set. Now it’s time for the work to begin.
If you would like to support the players, there is a Go Fund Me set up here. All money will go to the #ForTheGame movement.
(full disclosure: Jared Book is one of the campaign’s creators)