As national rivalries go, they don’t get much more heated than the one between the U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey teams. Their matches have been known to erupt into bench-clearing brawls, fueled by the fact that the Canadians have taken gold ever since the 2002 Games. A crushing overtime defeat in Sochi, four years ago, was the latest humiliation for the Americans, who went home with their third highly bittersweet silver. “We were the best team in the world,” Hilary Knight, the U.S.’s power forward, recalls. “Never for a minute did I think we were going to lose that game.” The two countries are expected to meet again in the finals in Pyeongchang, a grudge match that Knight is eagerly anticipating. “They’re a great team, we’re a great team,” she says. “These are the games you live for.”
If women’s hockey can be said to have a superstar, Knight would be it. She appeared in the buff in ESPN the Magazine in 2014, made headlines when she led a wage-equality protest against USA Hockey in 2017, and recently scored a Visa sponsorship.
Growing up in Illinois, she started playing hockey in middle school. At 20, she became the youngest member of the U.S. team during the 2010 Vancouver Games. Lean and muscled, and weighing nearly 200 pounds when geared up, she’s formidable on the ice and has gained a reputation for her quick, powerful shots on goal. Her strength as a hard-charging forward has helped her lead the U.S. to seven World Championship victories, beating Canada in the finals each time, and she has twice been voted World Champ MVP and four times led the tournament in scoring. “She’s never satisfied,” Reagan Carey, USA Hockey’s director of women’s hockey, says. “Her awareness that there’s always room for improvement is what has kept her at the top of the game for so long.”
So what about the U.S.’s chances at Olympic gold in 2018? The team, Knight says, is playing precise, cohesive hockey, and she’s trying hard not to let the pressure get to her. “I don’t think any game means less than the other ones,” she says. “You always want to win.” But in the next breath, she admits that in Pyeongchang the stakes will be high, with the whole world watching. “We understand how important tangible success is,” she says. “To bring back and share it with everyone would be just a huge honor.”