Jan. 14, 2011
MADISON, WIS. – Hilary Knight, Madison Packer and Carla Pentimone were among a handful of UW women’s hockey players still on the ice following Thursday’s practice. Knight, Packer and Pentimone humored themselves by alternately checking each other while moving the puck along the boards in what Knight called a game of “everyone for themselves” which in application has never been her game.
Watching the 5-foot-11 Knight and the 5-9 Packer playfully toy with the 5-3 Pentimone, you could envision Knight jousting with her three younger brothers – Jamie, Remy and William – all of whom tower over her. At home, they engage in a family “Two-on-Two” tournament pitting Hilary and Remy versus William and Jamie, a 6-4, 225-pound defenseman in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League.
“They accelerated my drive to learn and play hockey,” she said.
UW coach Mark Johnson believes her steadfast commitment to improving and getting better, along with her willingness to learn, is what separates Knight from others and put her in a very elite class. “She’s a presence on the ice,” Johnson said. “When you watch us play, she’ll stick out.”
Knight, a 21-year-old junior, has already carved out her own niche in the Wisconsin record book with 91 goals in 102 career games -- topping the 89 that Jinelle Zaugg scored during her four-year run with the Badgers. Zaugg-Siergiej and Knight were teammates on the U.S. national team that won a silver medal in Vancouver. Knight still has a warm spot in her heart for her 2010 Olympic experience.
“I turned to my grandmother when I was about 5 and told her that I was going to be in the Olympics and she wasn’t one of those ‘Why are girls playing hockey?’ types,” Knight said. “It was the greatest thing – the most magical thing that could have happened – and a dream come true; a dream that I had for 15 years. Now every shift, every practice is geared up for the next Olympics.”
You can see that in her game. Knight is currently leading the nation with 26 goals. She had 45 last season. She can make it look so easy. But, trust her, it hasn’t always been that way.
"Not at all,” she said. “I remember the first time I scored in a shootout. That was my highlight. I was in the eighth grade and that gave me confidence. It was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ When I learned how to lift the puck (off the ice) I liked it and I just tried to figure out ways to excel and make my shot and my release faster. Right now, I’m working on accuracy.”
At the end of Thursday’s practice, she was also working on taking faceoffs. Johnson, who was planning on using Knight as a center against St. Cloud State, was giving her some pointers.
“I was just trying to teach her a couple of things in regards to how to win a faceoff and what her strengths and weaknesses are,” he said. “She’s willing to learn and I think that’s what makes her so special.”
When it was mentioned to Johnson that Knight telegraphed the appearance of someone who was unwilling to leave the ice anytime soon after a practice, he smiled and said, “She’s a rink rat.”
That was later relayed to Knight who also smiled and agreed, “Yeah, definitely.”
You’re usually the last one off the ice, right? “Yep,” she said contently.
Cynthia Knight was responsible for driving her daughter and three sons to hockey practice. “And she was always shuffling us around to different rinks,” Hilary said. “It was, ‘Ok, I have to drop you off two hours before practice.’ That was ok with us because we became accustomed to being at the rink.”
Hilary Knight was also very accustomed to being on snow skis at a very early age. Sun Valley, Idaho has been one of the mailing addresses for James and Cynthia Knight and the kids. They have also lived in Palo Alto, Calif., the Chicago suburbs and Hanover, N.H. “Skiing is a big thing in our family,” said Hilary, whose cousin, Chip Knight, was a three-time Olympic alpine skier.
Johnson acknowledged that Hilary Knight is a very gifted athlete – someone who was the most valuable player in hockey, lacrosse and field hockey at Choate, a boarding school in Wallingford, Conn.
“She has the tools,” Johnson said. “But you’ve seen a lot of kids in hockey, football and basketball who have a lot of tools in their tool kit. But what are they going to do with them?”
That triggered a flashback for Johnson.
“I remember having a great year in Hartford when I made the all-star game,” he said of his stint with the old Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League. “I also remember my assistant coach, John Cunniff, coming up to me as I was leaving for the summer. He said, ‘Hey, next year is going to be a lot harder. You’d better take this summer seriously and come back a better player then you were.’
“And I did take it seriously. Hilary is no different. After her freshman year (20 goals), a lot of people might have taken things for granted. But not Hilary. She was determined to keep improving and getting better and becoming an Olympian. So she spent that summer with Jenny Potter, who was obviously a great role model and became a real mentor to her. That was her springboard.”
Jenny Potter is a three-time Olympian and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer. One of the most dominant players in her sport, she has been sharing her expertise with skaters like Knight – a product of Potter’s Pure Hockey, a rigorous summer training camp in Anoka (Minn.) that Potter runs with her husband Rob.
“Jenny has been my mentor all the way through the process of being on the national team,” said Knight. “She’s 32 now, she has two kids and she’s still dominating on the international stage. She’s the best in the world. Training with her – feeding off her energy – has been a big deal.
“The biggest thing you learn from her is hard work – that’s how you gain respect – and how to train properly. Training with her in the summer is not an easy task; it’s daunting at times, both physically and mentally. But she’s a great friend and I’m happy she was my mentor.”
Johnson has seen a steady growth in Knight off the ice, too. “You can see that in the locker room,” he pointed out. “Now she can mentor young players just like she was brought along.”
Pausing to reflect on how far she has come in her development, Johnson added, “When she was a young player and we were up at the Four Nations in Kitchener (Ontario), you knew she was going to be a good player, but you didn’t know how great she was going to become. As she started to get involved with the national team, she progressed and became not only a good player but an elite player.”
Johnson then singled out the UW trio of Knight, Meghan Duggan and Brianna Decker who were linemates for the U.S. select team in the 2010 Four Nations Cup in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
“These kids are good hockey players for a reason,” he said. “They do all the things as a coach you’d like young athletes to do. They take care of themselves, such as nutrition. They look at school seriously. And they each want to become better players and the best they’re capable of becoming.”
And it’s no coincidence that they’re all doing so under Johnson’s guidance.
“Just listening to him – anything he says – is a learning experience,” Knight said.
Mark Johnson made goal-scoring look easy, too.
“He doesn’t even have to look at the net when he’s shooting,” she said in awe.
But she’s working on that.