Hilary Knight: Pushing boundaries

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- After Hilary Knight skated with the Anaheim Ducks, the two-time U.S. Olympian emerged confident she can play hockey with anybody in the world.

Knight practiced with the Ducks on Friday as part of her work to raise the profile of women's hockey. The skilled forward is thought to be the first non-goalie to practice with an NHL team, and everybody in Anaheim thought Knight fit in perfectly.

"I'm one of those women who just like to push boundaries," Knight said. "I've got a frame and stature that can blend in sometimes with some of the guys, and it's a great opportunity to go out there and skate with them."

Indeed, the 5-foot-10 Knight's speed and size allowed her to blend in seamlessly with the two-time Pacific Division champion Ducks. Her whip-quick wrist shot impressed Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau, who has never watched a women's hockey game live.

"I was really pleasantly surprised at her skill," Boudreau said. "Once she got over the jitters, I think she was really good. I'd be pretty nervous if I walked into an NHL room and had to practice with them, and I thought she handled it really well."

Knight joined the Ducks for the first 25 minutes of their workout, going through skating and passing drills, and she returned later for 20 minutes of shooting. Knight also dropped in as a guest coach for a Ducks-affiliated women's team on another rink in the training complex.

The day was a dream fulfilled for Knight, one of the world's elite players. She won an NCAA title during a decorated four-year career at Wisconsin, and she has Olympic silver medals from Vancouver and Sochi, where the U.S. team lost twice to Canada in the gold-medal game.

"She is clearly the best player in the world right now," said Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy, an avid fan of women's hockey along with his wife. "In her element against her peers, she is clearly dominant. ... She truly did fit in. You really had to try on the ice to find her, because she wasn't out of place at all. She was snapping pucks right on the tape. Precise passing. She put it on the money every time."

Lovejoy and Knight both grew up in New Hampshire, and Knight lived in Lovejoy's hometown for several years. They discussed their roots on the ice, and Knight also had in-depth conversations with Boudreau, center Nate Thompson, captain Ryan Getzlaf and fellow U.S. Olympian Ryan Kesler.

"I was just trying to pick their brains," Knight said. "I was like a sponge out there: 'OK, what can I learn?' Watching Ryan Kesler, how does he shoot? Getzlaf was teaching me things about the sticks. All of them were really friendly, and I'm just so fortunate to have this opportunity. I was like, `OK, don't smile too much."

Knight's shot didn't look out of place among the Ducks, even if the targets are smaller when 6-4 Frederik Andersen and 6-3 John Gibson are the puck-stoppers.

"Goalies here are huge," Knight said with a laugh. "I knew they were tall, but there's no holes in that net."

The Ducks approached Knight last month about participating in practice, and she eagerly agreed. She hopes the publicity benefits the IIHF World Girls Ice Hockey Weekend next week, when thousands of girls will get a free chance to play hockey at rinks across the world.

Women's hockey is fairly robust in North America, which dominates the sport on the international level. Olympic officials periodically express public worry about the slower growth of the game in Europe, where Sweden and Finland were the top teams until Switzerland grabbed bronze medals in Sochi.

"I want to grow the sport, and this is a step in doing that," Knight said. "I want to get another invite in the future."

Knight is stepping into the skates of pioneers including goalie Manon Rheaume, who signed with Tampa Bay in 1992 and played in exhibition games for the Lightning. Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada's five-time Olympian, played with a men's pro team in Finland in 2003, while U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero became the first woman to play in a North American men's pro league with the CHL's Tulsa Oilers in 2005.

For her next feat, Knight would love to play in an NHL exhibition game. Boudreau and Lovejoy won't be surprised if it happens someday, although most NHL teams are winding up their preseason schedules in the next few days.

"That would be huge," Knight said. "Hopefully someday I'll get that opportunity."