Hilary Knight on women’s team boycott: ‘USA Hockey didn’t take us seriously’

On Wednesday morning, members of the USA women’s national hockey team made a splash when they announced that they would not be participating in the 2017 World Championships later this month unless they received “equitable support” from USA Hockey.

Considering the 2017 Worlds tournament is being hosted by the United States (in Michigan) and the American team has made the gold medal game every year since the competition’s inaugural event in 1990, that’s a pretty big deal for women’s hockey.

For the national squad to come together and agree to sit out their biggest competitive event on the calendar this year, the relationship between the team and the program had to be seriously strained.

In their uniform statement released to the public on Wednesday, the women’s team asks for “fair treatment from USA Hockey” in areas such as compensation, equipment, youth team development, travel expenses and accommodations, and more.

After that announcement, FOX Sports spoke to Hilary Knight, two-time Olympic silver medalist and one of the more notable and outspoken American stars on the current roster, to get her extended thoughts on the situation and where they’ll go from here.

How long has this been seen as an issue for your group? Was there a tipping point or was it a gradual frustration that just finally hit this point?

These issues have been talked about for probably over 10 years now. The former players tried to do something about it before but came up to a couple of roadblocks. Now, we’ve assembled a group that’s unified enough to carry on for what we’re asking for, which is equitable support.

We tried to negotiate this out for the last 14 months and USA Hockey didn’t take us seriously. Recently, especially, we haven’t made any progress in our negotiations so we’re putting our foot down.

The World Championship is on home soil and it means a lot to the players and the organization. They need to come up with a suitable solution for both of us.

Considering this year’s event is being held in the U.S., you’re reigning champs and the women’s team has never not been in the final, was that looked at as a little bit of extra leverage?

We’re hoping so. They responded earlier saying they’re going to put together a team anyways and how much they paid us and stuff. I think their response was a bit inaccurate and dishonest, at best. We’ll see what happens. I’m hoping we can make strides and change the sport for us but also the future generations.

But definitely [sitting out] a world event here at home, as the No. 1 seed, is a pretty big statement. I think that speaks volumes to our group — how passionate we are, how strong we’re going to stand. We trained for this event. For us to say “this is a great opportunity — we’re competing on a world stage, we prepared for this, but we might not be playing in this because of the way we’ve been treated” – it just speaks volumes to what we’re trying to accomplish.

When did the boycott become a legitimate possibility and how hard of a decision was that to make?

Last week, to be honest. We were hoping it wouldn’t come down to that. USA Hockey did not want to make any advances on progressing our negotiations and taking us seriously, so unfortunately it came down to this.

We announced this publicly [Wednesday] but we were talking it over for a long time internally. We asked what if it did come down to this, are we willing to hold out from World Championships? Are we willing to hold out from other world tournaments? The answer was yes, and unanimously.

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

As one of the more high-profile female athletes in the program, how much has the wage issue been a burden for you personally? And where do you think it would need to get to for a solution?

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a wage issue, I think it’s a support issue. What we’re asking for is equitable support, and it’s been a huge burden.

When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, I was highly encouraged to move to Boston to train as a hopeful for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. I remember packing up my car, traveling out here to live with other teammates and share an apartment.

I remember calling my mom in a grocery store parking lot and bawling crying because my funding essentially wasn’t enough to live out here in Boston. My mom was like, “you know what, you’re going to have to get a job” and I was really upset about it.

Here I am peaking, at the pinnacle of career and I’m going to have to get another job to train at my best? And I said “no, mom, you don’t understand what it takes to be a world-class athlete. There is no way I can really put my best foot forward if I am sacrificing the time I should be training with another job to supplement my income to afford being able to train in the first place.”

From that day, I’ve tried to create a foundation to speak upon. Here this day is years later and our group is so unified and passionate about asking for equitable support.

Where do you think the biggest differences lie between the men’s side and the women’s side, in terms of support?

To put it in perspective, for the Olympic year we make $6,000 total from USA Hockey. That’s one.

At the [2014] Olympic jersey announcement, we had no women representation at that announcement. The Olympic jerseys were supposed to have all the gold medal symbols inside the collar and 1998 was left off of that jersey. They continue to sell jerseys without the 1998 on the inside of the collar.

USA Hockey spends $3.5 million a year to fund their boy’s national team development program and provide them a 60-game schedule. We get nine games.

There’s a lot of different issues that kind of come together. I got off the phone with someone earlier today and they were a local Plymouth (MI) news source and they were like “oh my gosh, we didn’t really know much about the World Championships and here they are in our back yard” and I was like “yeah, that’s because of visibility and what our organization thinks of the women’s side.”

So hopefully this changes that.

(Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

What’s the reaction to the boycott been like, both inside and outside of the program?

Everybody inside is fired up, but in a good way. I think a lot of the girls know we’re a part of history. This is something we’re going to look back on and say we changed the future for younger generations, not only for our sport but for women in sport in general.

There’s been great outside support. I’ve had friends trying to connect with me that I haven’t talked to for a little while, family members checking in, but also icons from other sports supporting us. When you get something that transcends your sport specifically, I think that’s a big deal. We’ve definitely put our message out there and have gotten a lot of support for it.

You’ve obviously seen the response given by USA Hockey earlier in which they said it’s not their role to employ players and they’re not going to do that. What was your reaction to that and their statement as a whole?

I’ll leave it at “interesting.” It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out. I can’t believe they released that statement using different choice of words. That’s how I would leave it.

So it would be fair to assume that you’re not in any better position with USA Hockey than you were at the beginning of the day?

I think that’s fair to assume.

At this point, what do you think the chances are you play in Worlds?

I don’t know. Do you think that they’re going to realize they’re in 2017 and they could have equitable support? I hope we play, for many reasons. I’m hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. That’s kind of been my motto recently. I’ve hoped we could come to an agreement for the past 14 months but we haven’t. This is where we are and we just have to see how it plays out.

How may this affect Olympic participation? Are you looking that far ahead?

In terms of a training standpoint, I’m not concerned about our athletic capabilities or our mental composure. From a support standpoint, things need to change. It’s tough to be the best group of players in the world every time when we don’t get the support that we need.

If we can change the way that this is going, I can’t imagine what our team is going to look like. It’s going to be incredible. I think that’s the exciting part about this whole thing, there’s a lot of attention, a lot of hope and a lot of promise.

But if they stand pat, would you consider skipping the Olympics?

We’ll have to see.