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Hilary Knight happy to be the face of women's hockey in the United States

Whether it's fighting for equal pay or challenging how body image is portrayed, Hilary Knight's work is, in many ways, just beginning. MARKKU ULANDER/AFP/Getty Images

On the cusp of breaking the record of the most appearances for Team USA at the women's hockey world championship, Hilary Knight caught up with longtime USA star Angela Ruggiero.

"I don't know when," Ruggiero joked, "but you got old. It kind of just happened."

Knight, for the record, turns 30 in July. But she is at the point in her career -- which now includes a fifth-straight world championship gold medal, plus the once-elusive Olympic gold -- where she is beginning to think about how she wants to be remembered. Somewhere along her journey, Knight became the face of women's hockey in the United States, a title she doesn't take lightly.

"I hope I'm obviously remembered for my on-ice legacy," she says. "But equally, too, for what I've done off the ice. Sparking change, not just in hockey, but sport and other industries. Whether it's fighting for equal pay or changing the game in how gender or body image is being reflected, my work is just beginning in many ways."

These days, everyone wants to hear Knight's voice. Shortly after returning home from April's worlds in Finland, she worked as a guest analyst for NBC during the NHL playoffs.

"To be honest, when those opportunities came along [in the past], I shied away from them," Knight says, citing in-season commitments and not knowing how much she'd enjoy it.

In sum: she had a blast, found the work challenging and would be open to doing more broadcasting.

Fans are often curious about Knight's thoughts on the state of women's hockey. On one hand, growth is tangible. There's record participation in the U.S. Other countries have allocated more money and resources to help their programs develop. For the first time in 18 worlds, it wasn't a U.S.-versus-Canada final. Instead, host Finland made the gold-medal game and almost won in overtime before its goal was called back for goalie interference.

"I understand the frustration for Finland, and as a person, you're like, 'Oh, that's a bummer,'" Knight says. "But as a competitor, we don't control the calls, and we were able to get a victory."

An expanded 10-team field also meant breakout performances from upstart teams like Japan.

"I've never faced a more disciplined team than Japan," Knight says. "U.S. and Canada play a lot, so we know a lot of each other's tendencies. But for Finland to present one of arguably their best teams ever in their home barn, it was fantastic. Then there's Japan, the Swiss, Russia -- there's so many great things happening in women's hockey."

And yet, there's still a question of sustainability for women's professional hockey. Knight made waves when she joined the CWHL's Montreal Canadiennes after the 2018 Olympics. She explained, in a mini-documentary she produced with Red Bull, she left her teammates and all her friends in Boston and crossed enemy lines to get everyone on the same page and form relationships with Canadian players. After this past season, the CWHL shockingly announced it would cease operations. Knight found out the news the day she was flying to Finland for the world championships.

Knight is taking time off as she mulls her options, as are many top players. She is relying on her relationships both in the U.S. and Canada before deciding where she wants to play next year. There is one thing for certain: She wants to play in a league next season.

"I've got a handful of teammates [with Team USA] that didn't play professionally, and it just depends on what you're comfortable with," Knight says. "I personally love training with a group. I don't always love going to the gym, so training with a group and the support system of a team appeals to me. Plus, I absolutely love playing games. That's why we train -- to be ready for games and play games. There's value I find personally in game situations, when your reaction time is different than a skill session or practice. So I find a lot of value in playing professionally."

Before the league folded, Knight didn't have her best season with Les Canadiennes. She tallied just nine goals and 17 points in 23 games, low marks by her standards.

"This year was tough," Knight says. "The year before that, when we weren't centralized, I was injured for the majority of the year. Then I was cleared obviously for international tournaments. Then I moved to Montreal. It was a little different style than I was used to, and I was very much trying to figure that out. I always want to make sure that I'm ready for our international tournaments with the U.S. team. A lot of the time, in the back of my head, that's what I'm really training for. It's a big part of my focus. I think there's just something special about our group that ignites a different kind of energy and a different kind of chemistry when we're all on the ice together."

That bond, Knight says, was never more evident than in the gold-medal game at worlds in which Team USA rode out a wave of emotions to win the game in a shootout.

"The fans in Finland -- it was almost as if you were watching a soccer game, it felt like they were on their feet the entire game," Knight says. "It wasn't like something we had experienced before. It was such a surreal experience. On top of that, the goal they scored, there's gloves everywhere on the ice, they're putting down the device that raises the flag for the tournament, now things are going to video review, the officials are meeting, there was so much chaos going on."

Knight helped her teammates manage their emotions as they fought off a Finland power play before overtime ended, in a hostile environment, no less.

"You kind of forget how successful our team has been, because we're always focusing on that 1 percent, that extra category to get better in," Knight says. "So when you step back, you kind of say, 'Wow, we've done some incredible things on the world stage.' But we're never getting complacent. We collectively established a culture where we can rely on each other when things get tough, and you saw that in the Finland game."

As Knight figures out her next steps as a player, she is conscious of her messaging off the ice. She understands how far she has come. In the Red Bull video, she talks about her struggles early on as a professional athlete. She assumed once she got signed in Boston (then with the CWHL), she would sign with an agent, get sponsorships and partner with a bunch of companies.

"It couldn't be further from the truth," says Knight, who recalled having to give lessons for financial viability, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as she trained for the Olympics, and visiting Dunkin Donuts at close to get free donuts and bagels. Now, she's at a stage where, when she tweeted about the lack of peanut butter in Sochi during the 2014 Olympics, an anonymous admirer sent a shipment of jars to the Olympic Village. Brands are eager to partner with her, and Knight is choosy about which sponsorships to take on.

Like many hockey players, she has a personal rule to never take on a deal that would compromise her team dynamic. She chose to do a lot of work with Red Bull this season because she admired the brand's commitment to storytelling.

"The visibility for women's sports in general is lacking, so a lot of the elite women's athletes have to take on extra work just to make sure we are getting our stories out there," Knight says. "So you're understanding what opportunity it is, if done tastefully, and the impact it can have on other people."

Knight says when she reflects on her career, posing for ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue in 2014 "was pivotal."

"In general, it highlighted women's hockey and showcased the type of woman's body that plays professionally," Knight says. "I'm kind of a shy person, though. I wouldn't necessarily walk around my own house naked. I have three younger brothers and my family was like, 'What are you doing?' But it was great for our sport because it increased the visibility of women's hockey."

Whatever her next steps are, they will come with that goal in mind.