Newcomer Knight aided by veterans
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Midway through the second period of Team USA's 5-0 win over Finland on Thursday afternoon, 20-year-old Hilary Knight leapt over the boards, took a cross-ice pass from Natalie Darwitz and put the puck top shelf for her first Olympic goal. Typically, Knight would have embraced Darwitz, said "Great pass," and headed back to the bench. But this time was different.
"I just kept saying, oh my gosh, that's my first goal in the Olympics!" says Knight, whose entire family was on hand to witness her goal. "I had this huge smile on my face, and all these emotions overcame me."
In the celebration that ensued, veteran Darwitz thankfully remembered to pick up the puck. "I would have been too shy to pick it up for myself," Knight says. "So I'm glad somebody else did."
Knight was Team USA's leading scorer with 30 points in its 22 pre-Olympic contests, but she wouldn't be where she is today without Jenny Potter. The two are an unlikely pair. Potter is a mom and, at 31, is the oldest member of Team USA. At 5-foot-4, 145 pounds, she is a petite blonde. Knight is Team USA's youngest skater and, at 5-11, 170 pounds, is a towering brunette.
Knight was heavily recruited for her size and skill while she was a student at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. She chose to attend the University of Wisconsin where, as a freshman, she scored 20 goals and made the WCHA All-Rookie team. But Wisconsin lost the 2008 national championship game to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. "It was hard, so I made it a goal to get better and to get stronger so I could keep up with the play and dominate on certain parts of the ice," she says. Knight, who always dreamed of playing for Team USA, also knew she would need to improve to make the national team.
So the Hanover, N.H., native accepted an invite to spend a few weeks training with Potter, a three-time Olympian, in summer 2008 in Minnesota. At first, Knight bunked with the family of a Wisconsin teammate. But Potter persuaded Knight to stay longer, so she moved in with Potter; her husband, Rob; and their two young children, Maddy and Cullen. Knight became a regular at the Potter's Pure Hockey training camp in Coon Rapids, Minn., where athletes work on all aspects of their game, both on the ice and off. Knight entered her sophomore season at Wisconsin more confident and in better shape than ever. She more than doubled her goal total that season, leading the NCAA with 45 goals, 38 assists and 83 points. She helped Wisconsin to the 2009 national championship and was named WCHA Player of the Year.
The spring, Knight and Potter were reunited on a line at the 2009 world championship in Hameenlinna, Finland. "In my first two world championship experiences, I barely saw the ice at all," Knight says. "But Jenny's program and her sort of mothering me off the ice in little ways really helped me feel more comfortable on the ice." The two skated together on a line, with Knight at right wing and Potter at center. Knight led the tournament in scoring with seven goals, and the U.S. defeated Canada for gold for the second consecutive year. They've skated together on Team USA ever since.
"Hilary is a very talented player," Potter says. "She already knew how to bury the puck, but she improved hugely that summer. Each time we play together, we seem to get better together. The longer you play with someone, the more you know their tendencies and where they're going to be."
Knight and Potter's on-ice chemistry is aided by their off-ice relationship. Despite the 11-year age gap between them, they're roommates, and each names the other as her best friend on Team USA. "I don't feel an age difference at all," Knight says. "We just talk like friends. She took me under her wing. You can't imagine how complicated it is trying to compete at this level. She definitely eliminates all of the off-ice distractions for me."
That way, Knight can concentrate on scoring goals.
Lindsay Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.