By Jim Diamond
One of the players in Nashville this past weekend as part of the All-Star Game festivities possesses an impressive amateur and international hockey resume that includes two Olympic silver medals, five IIHF World Championship gold and two silver medals, a decorated collegiate career including one NCAA Championship and another national runner-up as a University of Wisconsin Badger. As a four-year professional, that player has already won a league most valuable player award.
But the player did not take to the Bridgestone Arena ice as part of the All-Star weekend however. Instead, Hilary Knight was in Nashville as a guest of Discover, meeting and greeting fans at the Music City Center.
After three years in the CWHL, Knight now plies her trade with the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League. Women’s hockey received tremendous exposure at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The gold medal game drew nearly five million television viewers in the United States, a huge number for a sport that has traditionally struggled to attract American viewers regardless of gender or level or competition.
There was just something about that American team that drew the fans to them.
“We went to Russia as hockey players and we came back as America’s sweethearts,” Knight said. “And now everybody wants a piece of us, which is great because we just launched a new league and there’s another league that’s continuing to sustain itself. I can’t think of a more exciting time to be in women’s hockey.”
In that gold medal game, the Americans lost to their archrival Team Canada in overtime. Despite the loss, the foundation for major expansion of women’s hockey, especially in the United States, was set.
“We’ve really sustained that attention because of the storylines and the way the fans attached to that game,” Knight said. “It was obviously a heartbreaker for us, but I still get people approaching me randomly when I’m in the grocery store and they are like, ‘Oh my God, you were in that game. I’m so sorry, but man, can I tell you about that game?’ Taking a step away from the actual losing part, you just realize that you touched on something with the fans, and it resonated with them and they feel attached to it, and also attached with our successes and also our failures. Now they want to focus on us.”
Many of those fans lined up in Nashville Saturday at her appearance on the autograph stage at Fan Fair. A sign at the entry to the corral for autographs stated, “Please no photographs,” but Knight was happy to ignore that suggestion and obliged all who asked for a photo, even jumping down from the stage for some, flashing her signature smile for each and every picture.
“Coming to Fan Fair and just interacting with people and seeing how many fans are here supporting and also the player’s perspective, it’s a fun city to be in,” she said.
It’s all part of growing the game. Another part of that growth is having major companies align with players. Those companies investing in women’s hockey is vital to keeping expand the game.
“I get to participate and interact with fans, which is the best job ever, so it is kind of a dream job,” Knight said. “It’s awesome to be able to work with bigger companies because I’m here on behalf of them and interacting with fans, but at the same time, fans then get to interact with us and showcase the women’s hockey platform.”
Knight’s busy weekend didn’t end with her time at Fan Fair. After Saturday’s appearance, Knight had to get back to her day job. She caught an early Sunday morning flight from Nashville to Connecticut for the Pride’s game against the Whale that night. Knight collected a goal in Boston’s 5-2 victory.