Gold or bust for hockey ace Knight in PyeongChang
A two-time Olympic silver medallist (in 2010 and 2014), Team USA’s ice hockey star Hilary Knight has won seven world championship titles, but she won’t be satisfied unless she and her team-mates reach the top rung of the podium in PyeongChang.
California-born Knight is just 28 years old, but has been a mainstay of the USA team since 2007. “I've loved ice hockey from the moment I started, aged five. I went to bed wearing my kit and I slept with pucks under my pillow because I was convinced it would bring me luck. For me, there’s nothing more exhilarating.”
Knight has always been a prolific forward, starting in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with the University of Wisconsin, before moving on to Canada (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) with the Boston Blades, and then to her current club Boston Pride (National Women’s Hockey League) in 2015, where she ended her first season as the league's top goalscorer.
Her international career and competing at the Olympic Games remain her primary focus, however. “I've always wanted to go to the Winter Games,” she says. “In high school, I realised I had the talent to do it. When I failed to make the Olympic team in 2006, I told myself 'Okay, this is the last time I fail’.”
Two bittersweet silver medals
Her first World Championships were in Winnipeg (CAN) in 2007, where the host nation beat the USA 5-1 in the final. She then won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009 with 4-3 and 4-1 victories over the Canadians in Harbin (CHN) and Hämeenlinna (FIN), scoring the winning goal in the latter.
At her first Olympic Winter Games, in Vancouver in 2010, the USA and Canada once more battled for the gold at Canada Hockey Place. Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin scored twice in three minutes to secure a 2-0 victory for the host nation, leaving Knight’s USA to settle for silver.
Knight was crowned world champion again in 2011 in Zurich (SUI), where her golden goal in overtime gave the USA a 3-2 victory over Canada. They repeated the feat, and the scoreline, against Canada in the 2013 final in Ottawa (CAN).
The two rivals met yet again in the Olympic final at Sochi’s Bolshoy Ice Dome in 2014. “I remember the month leading up to the Games. It was like, ‘I’m ready; let’s go do this thing right now.’ It’s also about managing your expectations and your emotional load to make sure that you're not too ready before the Games actually begin, because you want to peak at the right moment.”
The USA went into the Sochi final as favourites, and they opened up a 2-0 lead in the third period, their second goal coming via an assist from Knight. However, the Canadians mounted a valiant comeback, and with just 55 seconds of regulation time remaining, they equalised through Marie-Philip Poulin, and the same player then scored a dramatic winner in overtime.
“If we don't win gold, we've failed”
A second Olympic silver medal was scant consolation: “The only word I can really use to describe it is ‘heart-breaking’,” muses Knight. “You invest so much, and it’s not only you, it’s your family, and there’s so much emotional baggage that goes into it. And on top of that you’re playing for your country and you’re representing them. It took some of us a few months to get over it. But then we were like, ‘Okay, we have one more shot at this and we need to bring back a gold medal.’ So, it’s gold or bust in PyeongChang for Team USA.”
“Everything I do on a daily basis is for PyeongChang,” says Knight. That includes collecting three more world championship gold medals. Her fifth came in 2015 in Malmö (SWE), where she was top goalscorer and MVP; the sixth in Kamloops (CAN) in 2016; and the seventh in Plymouth (USA) in April 2017.
These latest triumphs merely help to highlight the glaring absence of an Olympic gold medal. “Every single choice is like, ‘Is this getting me closer to PyeongChang? Is this getting me closer to not only our team goals, but personal goals as well?’” reflects Knight.
When she and her US team-mates arrive in the Republic of Korea as reigning four-time world champions, they will do so with a steely determination to avoid another Olympic heartbreak.