Team USA's Hockey Star Has a Higher Goal: Equal Pay
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your daughter should be paid for those slapshots … if she wants.
By Matt Foley
Whether wowing thousands of fans at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition or battling USA Hockey in a quest for equal pay, Hilary Knight has no problem making her presence known.
Now, as Knight and her USA Women’s National Team squad have headed to Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Olympics, she’s on a mission to not only capture the eighth world championship of her 12-year tenure, but also to build on recent progress in the fight for equitable support for female athletes. And she’s not looking to get a foot in the door — she wants to kick it down. “Last year was a breaking point,” Knight tells OZY. “We needed to stand up for ourselves. It’s sort of a miracle that we’ve even been this successful with the resources that we’re lacking.”
Knight’s team made waves in 2017 by threatening to boycott the World Championships if USA Hockey didn’t increase its financial support of the women’s program. After a months-long battle, the team reached a four-year agreement with the parent organization in March. Guaranteed terms include annual compensation of approximately $70,000 per player, performance bonuses of $20,000 for a gold medal and $15,000 for silver at the Olympics and marketing and public relations improvements. And with an immense amount of work remaining, Knight knows that continued success on the ice will advance her demands. What would help the most? An Olympic gold medal, a prize that has so far eluded Knight. After silvers in 2010 and 2014 and a 2017 slowed by injury and boardroom negotiations, the face of women’s hockey is ready to cement her legacy in Pyeongchang.
Not unlike Billy Jean King, the women who stood against USA Hockey clearly understood that this was far greater than their own situation.
Mary Jo Kane, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport
Once those negotiations were concluded, USA Hockey congratulated the women’s team while remaining somewhat standoffish, seemingly aware that this holdover agreement is merely that. “This process has, in the end, made us better,” the organization’s executive director, Dave Ogrean, said via statement. According to Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, the team’s ability to convert frustration into actionable progress has major historical significance. “Not unlike Billy Jean King, the women who stood against USA Hockey clearly understood that this was far greater than their own situation,” says Kane. “They advanced the puck on behalf of all women who came before them and those who will come after.”
Knight’s passion for equitable treatment follows years of battling boys on the ice as a youngster in Lake Forest, Illinois. When she started competing at 5 in boys’ leagues, there were doubters, even among her relatives. Knight’s grandmother balked at the idea of a female hockey player. “My mom stuck up for me,” says Knight. “She told her to get with the times, because I was playing hockey. From then on, I knew I could chase whatever dream I wanted.”
As a kid in the 1990s, Knight grew up at a time when Chicago Blackhawks games were rarely televised. So she cheered for the Chicago Wolves — a minor-league team she mistakenly believed was in the NHL — and became obsessed with the Detroit Red Wings. Her favorite players to watch were the goalies: “I loved the way they moved, everything they did,” says Knight. “Maybe I have an advantage now as someone who scores on them.”
After a standout prep career at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, Knight led the University of Wisconsin Badgers to two NCAA national titles. Meanwhile, she’d begun to make her mark on the international scene. In 2006, at just 17 years old, Knight was the youngest player to compete for Team USA in the Four Nations Cup and, by 2009, she began to flash superstar potential. At 20, Knight left college for a year to train for the 2010 Olympics, becoming the youngest player to play for the men’s or women’s side. She logged eight points (seven assists, one goal) in Vancouver, helping America to another silver medal.
Heading into her third Olympics, Knight has a chance to establish herself as the greatest American women’s hockey player ever, a title that can only be claimed with gold in hand — and the 28-year-old’s clock is ticking. After beginning 2017 with a gnarly knee laceration, Knight suffered several setbacks in her rehabilitation. Knight notes that “2017 was my work-in-progress year. This is a tough sport, and your body only holds up for so many years. I gained a new appreciation for playing, and I plan on playing for as long as I can be a contributor for my teammates.”
Still, more than personal accolades, Knight is focused on building a legacy while she still has the authority to do so. Using her voice for positive change inspired the rest of the team to push for equitability, and it remains Knight’s passion project. She’s currently exploring options for law school, knowing it can equip her with the skills to fight for equal rights. In their standoff with USA Hockey, Knight and company partnered with Ballard Spahr, the same firm that assisted the USA Women’s National Soccer team with its contract negotiations. “I wish I’d already had the legal knowledge to help our team out,” says Knight.
When asked what else must be done to strengthen women’s hockey, Knight cites the need to more effectively market the sport in between Olympic cycles. “There’s this huge disconnect where the public sees us for the Olympics and then we disappear for three years,” she explains, also noting that America’s two professional women’s leagues — the NWHL and CWHL — must work toward a partnership rather than splintering their fan bases. Still, she knows that women’s hockey is in its infancy, trailing a men’s game with nearly a century’s head start. “I just want things to move faster,” Knight admits. “But I didn’t learn to skate and make the national team the same year. It takes time to build something sustainable.”
Nothing like a little gold to stand the test of time.