Hilary Knight, in the conversation the last few years for world’s best female hockey player, considered stepping away from the sport during the prime of her career.
Knight was “crushed and heartbroken” after losing a second straight Olympic final to Canada in 2014. This one was in heart-wrenching fashion. The U.S. led 2-0 with four minutes left and ended up losing in overtime.
She spent about six months after Sochi “trying to figure out what the next step would look like.”
“I never was committed to retiring, per se, but there was definitely an I don’t know if I can go another four years kind of feeling,” Knight said last week. “I never stopped training, but I think my heart might not have been there for a few months.”
Understand that Knight was 24 years old at the time and already very decorated.
She was the leading goal-scorer at the 2009 World Championship (age 19, youngest player on the U.S. team), recorded eight points at the 2010 Olympics (youngest on that team, too) and led the 2011 Worlds in goals and assists (and scored the golden goal in overtime of the final against Canada).
In Sochi, Knight was one of two Americans voted to the media all-star team.
Another silver medal stung. Knight needed those months after Sochi to determine if she was still in love with the game she found at age 6 in Chicago.
Come August, Knight trekked to Lake Placid, N.Y., to coach 12- and 13-year-olds. The U.S. under-18 and under-22 teams were training at the same arena, on the very rink where the Miracle on Ice took place.
Knight remembers those potential future Olympians putting on USA jerseys. It reignited her passion.
“I remember what that felt like,” Knight said. “It’s something that I’m not ready to give up yet. That amazing feeling of being that little kid again in that jersey.”
Two months later, Knight practiced with the Anaheim Ducks. If any female skater could make it a men’s pro league, it’s Knight. She is women’s hockey’s consummate power forward, listed at 5 feet, 10 inches, and 172 pounds.
She considered playing in a men’s league in Sweden after Sochi. Knight learned Swedish at the University of Wisconsin and fell in love with the culture.
The timing wasn’t right to leave the U.S., where women’s post-grad teams were in development stages (they still are).
“I couldn’t just leave, even though I really wanted to go and play men’s pro,” Knight said. “It just wasn’t the right move for the sport.”
No U.S. minor-league team reached out to her. (Female goalies are generally better candidates to play in men’s leagues. and Canadian Shannon Szabados did so for two full seasons with the Columbus (Ga.) Cottonmouths.)
Knight continued to thrive for the national team, earning world championship tournament MVP honors in 2015 and 2016. Then she scored another world championship overtime winner against Canada on April 7.
She hopes with the new labor deal with USA Hockey that she can play through 2022. Knight stated before Sochi that she wanted to become the best player in the world.
Has she met that goal?
“Never,” Knight said. “I think when I feel that way it’s time to retire.”
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