Spend five or 10 minutes talking with any woman who has been fortunate enough to play for the United States national hockey team. At some point in that discussion, they will share why the need to make time for others remains so important for their sport because they understand the value of having a personal connection with someone they idolized.
Hannah Bilka knows what it means to be a young girl from a state such as Texas, where girls hockey exists, but not like it does in Massachusetts, Michigan or Minnesota. Eight years before Bilka became Boston College’s captain, she went to a camp in Buffalo, New York, where she hoped she could develop her skills and maybe meet one of her heroes.
Bilka met her hero and they took a photo together. Her hero then posted that picture on Instagram, where it remains to this day.
That hero was Hilary Knight. The same Hilary Knight who is a linemate of Bilka on Team USA.
“It’s cool meeting your idols and getting to know her and see she is such a down-to-earth person,” Bilka said. “I remember her being very interested in hearing my story and that just made me look up to her even more when I was 13 years old. She is such a really good person.”
Players such as Clair DeGeorge, Abby Roque, Haley Winn and Bilka represent something of a convergence point for Knight. They are part of the generation that grew up watching and idolizing Knight, and they all have pictures with her too.
That Knight continues to influence the group, now as a teammate, is a testament to how much of a fixture she has been within women’s hockey.
“Oh yeah, she’s seen the photo. We have a Tik-Tok of it and I think I told her before I did have this photo at one point in life,” Roque said. “I remember we ran into each other at a tournament. I was in the high school division and she was in the post-grads. It’s funny because now I look at her and she’s one of my good friends here.”
Knight posed for a picture with Roque, who was wearing a red USA Hockey baseball cap when they were at that tournament. In 2014, DeGeorge was at the same camp in Buffalo as Bilka when she took a photo with Knight while holding her Olympic silver medal from the Sochi Games.
Winn was also at that Buffalo camp. In her picture with Knight, she wore Knight’s medal while holding an autographed picture of her and standing next to the real thing.
Bilka, DeGeorge, Roque and Winn each spoke about Knight while they were with Team USA during the Rivalry Series with Canada. DeGeorge, Roque and Winn were part of the US roster that swept Canada in all three games of the series in November. Bilka along with Roque are part of the American roster that will resume the series this month with Game 4 set to start Thursday at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, N.V.
All of them spoke fondly about the memories that came from those pictures and the new memories they have forged with Knight. They talk about Knight as an all-time great on the ice and one of the nicest people they have ever met.
Impact and longevity are not promised in life or in sports. Knight has had both. So what is it like to establish relationships at this point in her storied career with teammates who once idolized her?
“I definitely don’t think I’ve been around long enough to have a full generational moment,” said the 33-year-old Knight, who is also an ESPN analyst. “But clearly I have. I started at the program when I was super young and we did not have a U-18 program. The senior team was the only team. But it’s so funny because (her younger teammates) are really shy at first and they don’t want to come over. Then, finally we get into a training camp and they’re like, ‘Hey! Do you see this picture? Do you remember this picture?’
“Then, it’s like, ‘Oh gosh. Here it comes.’ It’s a picture of me and them when they were super young.”
DeGeorge said she was extremely nervous approaching Knight and telling her about the photo because, well, she’s Hilary Knight. DeGeorge still remembers the moment of how her picture with Knight came together.
The camp was coming to an end and Knight was about to leave for the day. DeGeorge said her dad urged her to ask Knight for a photo.
“I got the courage to go up and ask her, which is so funny because she is so nice,” DeGeorge said. “I’m not nervous anymore. But at the time, I was terrified.”
Now here’s the funny part. DeGeorge has shown the photo to everyone else on the national team except Knight.
“I’ll show her at some point,” DeGeorge smiled.
Being teammates with Knight, of course, creates new memories. DeGeorge said Knight is always doing something nice for her teammates and expects nothing in return. She said there was a moment when the team was getting ready for a practice and there was some sand on the dressing room floor.
DeGeorge said Knight, without anyone asking, found a broom and cleaned up the sand so it would not damage anyone’s skates.
“Oh my God, someone noticed that?” Knight said with a laugh. “I think there are so many things that go into being a successful team. Every little thing matters. That’s so cliche, but everyone has to do something to make someone else better. I’m not here by mistake. I’m here because of other people’s sacrifices. You have to realize where you are in everything and make someone else next to you better.”
Being such a revered figure is something of a full-circle experience for Knight. The way her younger teammates talk about her is the same way Knight talks about her hero: Cammi Granato. Knight usually speaks with the poise and polish of someone who has done a lot of interviews. She delivers each word with a steady pace and tone.
Talking about Granato, however, made her speak with excitement, as if she were waiting to meet Granato for the first time. Knight spent part of her childhood in the Chicagoland area. So did Granato. Living in the Chicago suburbs gave Knight, who wears No. 21 because of Granato, the chance to attend Granato’s camp.
“I went to that camp, my stick broke and I got to use her stick,” Knight recalled. “That was so big for me in understanding that we are a small version of that in other people’s lives. It is pretty unique.”
And yes, Knight definitely took a photo with Granato when she was a child and still has a hat Granato autographed for her.
To know she could have that connection with Granato played a pivotal role in Knight’s youth and in her becoming the person and player she is today.
Reminiscing about her childhood made Knight think about another experience she had years later. At that time, she was still new to the national team. She was just Hilary Knight and not “OMG, it’s Hilary Knight!” One day she was walking to the rink with Caitlin Cahow and Angela Ruggiero when some young fans stopped Cahow and Ruggiero for autographs.
“I was like, ‘You want them. You want their autograph,’ and Angela roped me in and said, ‘No, you’re giving this young girl your autograph,'” Knight recalled. “It was that ‘You’re one of us’ kind of moment. That was such a powerful, impactful moment for me. It was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m representing our country! I’m here! I’m with these guys! This is my squad!'”
Knight said that moment helped her appreciate the importance of empowering young girls and giving them the encouragement that if “she wants to do it, then go out and do it unapologetically.'”
Knight is now passing down those same lessons to the next generation of players with the aim that those values can continue to help young girls for years to come.
Speaking about the future leads to the inevitable question of how much longer Knight will continue playing.
“As long as I can remember for example, that picture, she’s been kinda the face of women’s hockey, especially USA Hockey,” Winn said. “It is crazy to think there is going to come a day (when Knight retires) and I feel like she is still going so strong that her body is performing at an elite level. I can’t imagine a day when she does not have that jersey on and isn’t leading this team. I just know she is going to go as long as she can and everyone is going to support her.”
Knight said she has “definitely” thought about how much time she has left in her career while noting she gets asked that question a lot.
She initially thought she was done playing after the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, where the U.S. took home silver, the third of Knight’s career to go with one gold. But there was a discussion among the team’s veteran core that led to the realization that they want to keep playing.
Knight said she does not have a timeline in mind in terms of determining when she will retire. Her goal, for now, is to stay healthy and continue to chase “the 60 minutes of perfection none of us are ever going to truly have,” which still serves as motivation for her.
“I feel like I have so many years to do other things,” Knight said. “This is the only time I can do this right now.”
Hilary Knight’s impact on a generation of Team USA players