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Hilary Knight discusses the past, present, and future of professional women’s hockey

SB Nation logo SB Nation 9/6/2019 Jared Book
a close up of Hilary Knight wearing a black shirt © Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images,

After an uncertain summer, women’s hockey players are finally preparing for action on the ice as opposed to the issues that faced them off of it. After the CWHL folded, close to 200 players formed what ended up being the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.

The PWHPA is choosing to not play in any professional league in North America, and last week announced the start of the Dream Gap Tour. On Wednesday, details on the first showcase event in Toronto on September 21 and 22 were announced.

Hilary Knight will be playing on Team Poulin, which is essentially Les Canadiennes from a year ago, with the additions of Olympians Emily Clark and Laura Stacey and defender Josiane Pozzebon.

“This is going to be a highly touted, highly skilled event that you’re going to be able to see right off the bat.”

“To be honest, we couldn’t wait for the Dream Gap Tour, the announcement to get kicked off,” Knight said. “Just because there’s been so much work and organizing and figuring it out.”

“We were pretty much months behind on this buildout, technically, so we wanted to make sure that we had all the boxes checked before we went public with anything, and that we could deliver the right product to the fans.”

The 100 weekend passes they made available for the Unifor Showcase in Toronto sold out the day they went on sale. Single game tickets are still available.

The other two events that were announced are in Hudson, New Hampshire and Chicago in October. There has been no announcement for Montreal, but rest assured the best players in the world will be coming to the city at some point this season.

The showcase events will have regional chapters as the base rosters so that teams can put their best foot forward. These aren’t exhibitions; they will be competitive, and chemistry will matter. Teams will be practising within their region most of the season but it will provide fans with the opportunity to see some of the best players in the world in a club team format.

“I mean, from a fan’s standpoint, you’ve never seen that before, outside of the US-Canada national team jerseys, so this is going to be a highly touted, highly skilled event that you’re going to be able to see right off the bat. So we’re excited — I’m excited from a player standpoint, just because they’re going to be extremely competitive games.”

“This year is about making sure that we’re trying to find something that’s sustainable and beneficial long-term for the sport at this level, but then also providing a competitive place for all of us players to play in. Trying to continue the momentum that we’ve done such a good job of building off for years before. There’s a lot of different roles that I think we’re all playing and trying to make sure that we’re checking all the boxes to make sure that it fits everyone’s needs not only the elite players, but also for a greater vision for the game itself.”

When you look back at the history of pro women’s hockey in North America over the last few years, Knight is front and centre. She was part of a vocal group that not only forfeited two games in a contract dispute, but she was one of the most vocal supporters of a new league starting up: the NWHL.

“I actually sit back and when I want to reflect, I think about that. And, you know, I think at the time, [the NWHL] was a promising new endeavour,” she said. “The people involved from the get-go, it looks like it was going to be what we needed it to be and what we wanted it to be. And then as time goes on, you kind of realize that you’re not really sure what you signed up for. And I think that’s what the unfortunate part is, it had a lot of promise. Now it is what it is and players are not playing in it and we’re trying to create a different type of future for the game. Some things work, some things don’t work. And for whatever reason, it just didn’t work.”

“Sometimes I sit down, I’m like, ‘I must be crazy’. When you have 200 of the best players in the world saying that this is what they’re going to do. How do you not trust their vision and what we have going on?”

Knight doesn’t have any regrets about the choices she made, including jumping over to the NWHL.

“There wasn’t a good growth model [in the CWHL]. It was what it was, and it wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe it was us thinking we were the left-out team [the Boston Blades], being the only team in the United States, but I think that’s what opened up the window for [the NWHL] to captivate us. Obviously, a series of decisions are made, and it led us to where we are now. And that’s why I can look back and be like, ‘I don’t think your business model was great’ because the CWHL is no longer around. You know, we’re not playing in the NWHL. But there’s a lot of decisions that led to where we are now. It’s not something that happened overnight. It’s tough, because I do sit down, I think back like, ‘man, did we make a big mistake years ago?,’ but I don’t think so. Because I think, you know, at the time, both leagues forced growth out of one another.”

Back to the present, Knight thinks one of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand what they are fighting for.

“It was sort of a glorified beer league. What made it professional was the volunteers and the people involved.”

“I think it’s mislabelled,” she said. “Boycott would mean that we have a solution and we’re intending not to play in it. I don’t see that we do have a viable, sustainable solution right now. So I think a lot of it is just misinformation. There’s always going to be haters and naysayers and whatnot, but I think this group definitely believes in something bigger than ourselves. We believe in a brighter and better future for the sport. And that’s something that we’re going to go out there and create for ourselves.”

“Part of it is education and having a conversation. I love the volunteers, I love the template that we had. I enjoyed playing in the CWHL as many years as I did. However, if we’re going to really peel back the layers of it, it was sort of a glorified beer league. What made it professional was the volunteers and the people involved. So it’s just ... it’s frustrating that you kind of have to continue to have these conversations over and over again. But at the same time, that’s our job. We need to educate people, and we need to make sure that the right information is getting to the appropriate people. Overall, I think we’ve done a really good job. As I said before, there’s always going to be people that are marching the other direction, but I’m pretty confident with the group that we have, and what we’re trying to strive for collectively.”

Aside from the Toronto showcase on September 21-22, the Montreal chapter has a golf tournament to raise funds on September 27. They also announced an exhibition game on October 10 against the University of Montreal. More details can be found here.

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