Nothing but Olympic gold in hockey will glitter for Knight

Hilary Knight (21), of the United States, battles for the puck with Rosa Lindstedt (4), of Finland, during the second period of the semifinal round of the women's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Monday.
Hilary Knight (21), of the United States, battles for the puck with Rosa Lindstedt (4), of Finland, during the second period of the semifinal round of the women's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Monday. AP

Hilary Knight calls it a "beautiful rivalry", the war on ice that is United States-Canada women’s hockey.

"I think it’s the best rivalry in sport right now," said Knight, a forward for the U.S. team.

It’s also a bittersweet one for Knight and the U.S. women. They were moments away from a gold medal in a hard-fought championship game at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, when Canada tied the score in the closing minutes of the third period.

The Canadians won the game 3-2 in overtime, securing their fourth consecutive gold medal.

The U.S. women haven’t won an Olympic gold medal since 1998, the year women’s hockey debuted at the Winter Games.

Hilary Knight Andre Ringuette Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images

Knight, a Sun Valley, Idaho, resident, has been itching for a rematch for four years and will have it Wednesday night when the world’s best two women’s hockey teams once again battle for Olympic gold.

"We came so close last time; we beat ourselves," Knight, 28, told reporters last fall. "The most crucial parts of the game, to kind of have it fall through your fingertips, but to also have the opportunity four years later to potentially right the wrong, so to speak, with a new group of women on the world stage, it’s so exciting."

She said that beating Canada isn’t just about bragging rights. It’s about exposure and helping to grow the women’s game in the United States, which has more than 75,800 female players, according to International Ice Hockey Federation figures.

"We understand what a tangible success does to women’s ice hockey and to other lives," Knight said. "We’re just going to have a greater reach winning a gold medal to impact people’s lives."

It’s not like Knight and her teammates haven’t had success. U.S. women’s national teams have won three straight IIHF Women’s World championships since the 2014 Winter Games, defeating their Canadian rivals in the final each time.

Knight has enjoyed personal success on and off the ice, winning two professional Canadian Women’s Hockey League championships with the Boston Blades and a National Women’s Hockey League title with the Boston Pride.

She went pro after a stellar career at the University of Wisconsin where she tallied 143 goals and 119 assists in 161 games at the NCAA Division I school.

She’s become the face of American women’s hockey. Knight was featured in NBC promo ads for the Pyeongchang games and she’s in commercials for Visa and Xfinity X1.

All that’s missing is an Olympic gold medal to remove the bitter taste of 2014.

"It’s still there," she said. "So it’s ‘You win a gold medal, you lose a silver medal’ kind of thing. You have to lose to win a silver medal. It’s tough to go out in the final game with a loss.

"Obviously, when you take a couple of steps back and look at it from an Olympics standpoint, any medal is a huge honor," she added. "So not taking anything away from it in that respect, but in terms of tournament play and ice hockey, gold is what we’re looking for."

Knight said that this year’s U.S. women’s Olympic team is in a good position win it, despite losing to Canada 2-1 in the preliminary round of Olympic play last week.

She believes that the team is mentally tougher and more cohesive because of a united front it presented during a labor dispute last year with USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body.

The women threatened to boycott the 2017 IIHF world championship in Plymouth, Mich. if USA Hockey didn’t increase their wages and improve its support.

Their grievances were heard all the way to Capitol Hill where 20 senators signed a letter supporting the players’ call for equitable treatment and conditions compared to their counterparts on the U.S. men’s national team.

The women players and USA Hockey signed a four-year deal last March which ESPN reported would pay them $70,000 per year and a chance to make $100,000 if they win an Olympic gold medal.

"It’s almost like a team-building exercise without being a team-building exercise," Knight said. "It’s just something that becomes part of the fabric of your group and translates well on the ice. We know we can go through anything together off the ice. We’re certainly going to be able to gut out any situation on the ice.”.

Knight’s 2018 Olympic stats are modest, a goal and an assist in four games. With a gold medal on the line, current and former teammates predict she’ll be a force on the ice.

“She’s a fierce competitor who rises to every occasion,” said Blake Bolden, a defenseman for Switzerland’s HC Lugano and a former Boston Pride teammate of Knight’s. “She is now a three-time Olympic athlete with an amazing pedigree and experience to potentially break the 20-year gold medal drought.”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas