When you’re considered by some to be the biggest star in the ever-growing world of women’s hockey, one of the most instantly recognizable names and faces the sport has to offer south of the border and an Olympic gold medalist with championships at every level of play, it stands to reason that there isn’t much left to accomplish. That’s not the case for Hilary Knight, however, who enters this season facing a new challenge with Les Canadiennes de Montreal: the French language.
“I can get around. I can order food and stuff. But anything after pleasantries, I’m a little lost,” Knight laughed.
She’s not kidding, though. Tackling the language is one of her goals for the upcoming season, which will also be her first full professional campaign in Canada and what she calls an opportunity to “embark on an adventure.” But the rest is all business — unfinished business, truthfully — after Knight got her first taste of life in Montreal last season.
Following the 2018 Olympics, at which Knight scored two goals and three points in Team USA’s top-of-the-podium finish, she joined Les Canadiennes in a move that rocked the CWHL. In an instant, a Montreal team that was already a safe bet to repeat as Clarkson Cup champions given their first place finish in the standings became the odds-on favorite. There’s a reason they play the games, though, and the fourth-place Markham Thunder swept Les Canadiennes in the opening round before moving on to win the whole shebang.
That hasn’t stopped Montreal from entering the coming campaign facing high expectations, and well-earned expectation at that. Knight herself can be a game-changer for the franchise, but the star-studded lineup looks more like an all-star squad or super-team than it does a CWHL roster. One loaded-up power play unit alone could contain Knight, Marie-Philip Poulin, Melodie Daoust, Lauriane Rougeau and Ann-Sophie Bettez. To those unfamiliar with the women’s game, that’s comparable to whatever video game offense Mike Babcock chooses to throw over the boards when the Toronto Maple Leafs have a man advantage. For Knight, it’s nice to be on the same side as those players, who are usually her rivals when Canada squares off against the U.S.
“It’s good to have the opportunity to see people on the same team versus when we’re opponents all the time,” Knight said. “You really get to understand people’s skillsets better and how yours compliments theirs. There’s a lot of people who don’t get the recognition, but we’re stacked with a ton of talent. We have a lot of expectations this year and we just need to execute.”
Of course, there’s more than just talent that drew Knight to Montreal. After all, any team in any league would have loved to have her, so she had her veritable pick of the litter. Previously, back before her three-year stint with the Blades out of college, she had thought about suiting up for Toronto. But what she saw last season in Montreal as part of the home team instead of the opposition, plus its relative proximity to her new home in Boston, helped Knight make up her mind.
“As a competitor you come here and you play against them and the way that they’re treated and respected, the fans, how passionate everyone is about the organization, it really speaks volumes,” Knight said. “That’s something I wanted to be a part of.”
It should be made clear, however, that Knight had her sights set on the CWHL and the CWHL alone. She had previously spent two campaigns in the NWHL with the Boston Blades, and was the first high-profile signing in the fledgling league ahead of the 2015-16 season. It’s what the CWHL brings to the table that drew her back to her professional roots, though.
“I feel good about the way the (CWHL) is run and their true core values have always spoken to me,” Knight said. “Granted, I don’t think they’ve been as progressive as I’d like them to be, but at the end of the day, they really have the athletes top of mind and want to cater to preserving the best professional women’s ice hockey experience…At some point along the way, I was like, ‘If I play in a league and I don’t believe in it, then I’m still endorsing it even if I don’t believe in it,’I figured it was good to be wholehearted and play somewhere that I believed had a good opportunity and a way to shape the game at a professional level.”
Few players can shape the women’s game quite like Knight, either, and winning a championship this season in Montreal would only make her star sign brighter. And alongside Les Canadiennes star-studded roster, Knight has the belief that Montreal, whose pursuit of another Clarkson Cup begins when Calgary visits Laval’s Place Bell on Saturday night, can get back into the winner’s circle after last season’s playoff hiccup.
“We’re in really good shape to deliver,” Knight said. “Obviously, the expectation is there, and in such a hockey-rich history city, there’s a lot of pressure but a lot of fan support, as well. What better way to reward their support at the end of the season than with a victory at the end of it?”