PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Hilary Knight’s moment of clarity came in a grocery-store parking lot in Boston, when the sticker shock set in after only a few days in that very expensive city.
Knight, a member of the U.S. women’s hockey team, didn’t move there by choice. She needed to be in Boston to play and train in 2012. But the lack of funding for her sport sent her there with empty pockets, and that trip to the store left her worried she would have an empty stomach, too.
“I called my mom, and I was crying,” Knight said. “I told her, ‘I can’t afford to live in Boston.’ And she said, ‘You’re going to have to get a job.’ She didn’t understand that if I’m going to do what I want to do in this sport, I can’t have a job.
“That’s when it really clicked for me, that this needs to change. It’s not OK anymore.”
Knight and her teammates made a risky choice last spring, threatening to boycott the world championships unless USA Hockey gave them more funding and resources. They got what they wanted, along with a surprise benefit. The solidarity that made their ultimatum work also tightened their trust and devotion, sending them to the Pyeongchang Olympics with more unity than ever before.
The U.S. opens play Sunday against Finland looking to win its first Winter Games gold since 1998. As part of the agreement it struck with USA Hockey in March, players now receive increased stipends, larger bonuses for winning medals and benefits that equal what the men’s national team receives. Its pre-Olympic residency period was held in Florida, where the team lived at a resort and trained at a state-of-the-art facility.
The deal also includes more marketing and promotional support, which players believe is vital to growing the game. They realize that nothing would gain more attention than an Olympic gold medal, which they feel better equipped to chase after what they gained last spring.
“To have these contracts is a huge weight off our shoulders,” said three-time Olympian Monique Lamoureux-Morando, a native of Grand Forks, N.D., who played for the Gophers and North Dakota. “Now it’s not a financial burden to continue playing post-graduation. You’re not worrying about trying to get work; your sole focus can be on just being a hockey player, which is what we deserve.
“We had such a good bond before that carried over onto the ice. The [boycott threat] deepened that trust. It’s a special group to be part of.’’
The Olympic team includes 19 players who were part of last year’s team for the world championships, which won its fourth consecutive title after averting the boycott. Six are three-time Olympians, including Knight, Lamoureux-Morando, her sister Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Warroad native Gigi Marvin. Two other Minnesotans, Maddie Rooney of Andover and Kelly Pannek of Plymouth, are among five players who are still in college.
The U.S. has won eight of the past 10 world championships, outdueling archrival Canada in each. Canada has won four Olympic golds in a row after losing to the U.S. in 1998, when women’s hockey made its Winter Games debut.
Under the guidance of coach Robb Stauber, a Medina resident and former Gophers goalie, the Americans have scrutinized their overtime loss in the 2014 gold medal game in the hopes of avoiding a repeat. The stand they took last spring revealed what they could accomplish with a united front. To take on USA Hockey and win, every player had to buy in — even youngsters who didn’t yet know the struggle of living on $1,000 a month while training toward the Olympics.
All of them put the collective good ahead of their individual ambitions, then took the same attitude when they returned to the ice at the world championships. They went 5-0, outscored their opponents 28-5 and beat Canada twice, including a 3-2 overtime victory in the title game.
“I don’t know of many other groups that could come together like we did,’’ former Gophers forward Amanda Kessel said. “And it brought us that much closer.”
In the gold medal game at the 2014 Olympics, the U.S. led Canada 2-0 with 3 ½ minutes to go and lost 3-2 in overtime. Looking back, Knight said, her team didn’t have enough poise and strength of will over the final eight minutes.
If it encounters the same situation in Pyeongchang, she expects a much different response.
“What we went through last spring made us much more powerful internally,’’ she said. “That trust and camaraderie we formed, you can’t replicate that in any sort of team-building. This team is so much stronger, so much different from any team we’ve had before.”