Last month, while visiting New York City, Hilary Knight went to her first NBA game. The Madison Square Garden crowd bustled around her, but not because of Knight's presence. It was Charles Oakley's finger-mushing MSG security that triggered the excitement.
Most fans won't remember that Knight, the face of the U.S. women's ice hockey team, was in the building that same night. She can walk through America's most populous city unrecognized. There's no hard feelings. She gets it.
"I remember coming out of college thinking, 'OK, I'm gonna get an agent and I'm gonna make money, I'm gonna make millions of dollars,'" Knight says. "And that never happened. So it's like how do I make a living to compete, to play in the Olympics now? I started as a college kid, like, 'Yeah, I'm good enough to be like the guys. I'll make millions of dollars.' That's just not reality."
Fast-forward to last Tuesday. Knight and the U.S. Women's National Team announced via Twitter that they will not play in this year's IIHF Women's World Championship in Plymouth, Michigan, until "significant progress" is made with USA Hockey over fair wages and equitable support. The tournament starts March 31, and the U.S. is the host. Knight, with roughly 67,000 followers, essentially delivered the news, garnering 3,900 retweets in a week.
— Hilary Knight (@Hilary_Knight) March 15, 2017
Knight spoke with ThePostGame on Feb. 9 in an interview arranged by USA Hockey to commemorate the one-year mark before the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Knight was born in Palo Alto but grew up outside of Chicago. She went to boarding school at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, the alma mater of former USA Hockey stars Angela Ruggiero and Julie Chu. She headed back to the Midwest for college, leading Wisconsin to a national championship. She went to her first Olympics at 20, winning a silver medal. She won another silver in 2014, tying for third in points for the tournament. In the National Women's Hockey League's inaugural 2015-16 season, she led the league in points, and teaming with fellow USA Hockey star Brianna Decker, brought home the first Isobel Cup to the Boston Pride.
But her salaries from NWHL and USA Hockey weren't enough, and Knight had to get sponsorship deals with Chobani, Red Bull, Bauer and GoPro, among others.
"Obviously they help supplement my income to train and be a contender for the Olympics, but I also get to pump up women's hockey," she says.
Such promotion for her sport included going nude in 2014 for ESPN The Magazine's "The Body" issue. "My brothers hated me for it," she says with a laugh.
But something like that is a win in the USA Women's Hockey community.
"When I got there, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, am I going to be able to do this?' Knight says. "And I thought, 'You know what, it's going to be great for not only our sport, but for millions, billions of females out there to be strong and confident in their own body.'"
While Knight has the benefit of endorsement money, not all of her teammates do. Identical twins Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, also made their first Olympics at 20 in 2010. But unlike Knight, they've had to take jobs, as strength and conditioning coaches, to compensate.
"We live at home and normally, a typical day, we rotate the morning group at 5:30 a.m," Jocelyne says. "We rotate so we don't each have to be up at 4:20 a.m. every day. One of us is up working for two hours. Then we train, then we skate, then we both go back to work. They're long days. Some of them longer than others. The day isn't easy, but it's not like we're going to get a good sweat in because we need to sweat to work out. It's really trying to get better every single session, get stronger and get faster."
The sisters have spent most of their lives in Grand Forks, North Dakota. They had a brief stint at Minnesota prep hockey power Shattuck-St Mary's and then the University of Minnesota before transferring to North Dakota after their freshmen year. North Dakota reserves morning ice time at Ralph Engelstad Arena for them. Their boss at Altru Sports Advantage powered by EXOS is Anthony Morando, Monique's husband. He understands their unpredictable schedule.
— Jocelyne Lamoureux-D (@JocelyneUSA17) March 16, 2017
To maintain a competitive edge between tournaments for USA Hockey, the Lamoureux twins play on an amateur team in another state -- the Minnesota Whitecaps.
"We commute to games and we have players on the national team who come in for games, some former players on national team," Monique says. "There are over 30 people on the roster. It's whoever can play on the weekend. We had someone who flew in from Denver last game."
The twins have opted to stay out of the Eastern-based NWHL, because they would make less money doing that than staying in North Dakota for their coaching jobs. They will keep working until six months before the Olympics at which point they will take a hiatus to focus on playing with the national team. That means they will take a financial hit.
"As it stands right now, with our contract that we get from USA Hockey and our stipends from the USOC, we actually make less money in an Olympic year," Monique says.
The USOC will help bridge the gap through its program of matching official partners with individual athletes. But the Lamoureux sister say they don't know how much money they'll get or from which company.
"If we're able to get a sponsorship -- one sponsorship typically makes up for that difference, which financially, is a big burden off our shoulders," Monique says, "because we both have husbands who work long days and work long hours and are successful at their jobs, but it's also stress off of them."
— Monique Lamoureux-M (@moniquelam7) March 17, 2017
In the six months leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, each U.S. Women's National Hockey Team player was paid $1,000 per month. Last week, with the players protesting, USA Hockey offered an increase to $3,000 per month, but the players turned it down, noting that the salaries for the other three and a half years of the Olympic cycle weren't addressed.
— Monique Lamoureux-M (@moniquelam7) March 18, 2017
Whatever improvements are negotiated, many current players will not be the ones to benefit the most because they are already in the latter stages of their career.
"Hopefully what we're able to do with women's hockey is give girls another dream to play professional hockey and get paid to do that," Jocelyne says. "I think that's our goal. You want to leave everything better than when you got there. What we do is growing girls' hockey, growing women's hockey. It's good for the sport. I think the world can use a little more of that these days -- to give girls the opportunity to do something that's fun."
Last March, the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team filed a federal complaint against U.S. Soccer for wage discrimination. The USWNT was coming off a World Cup title and followed with a lucrative victory tour. Games were not boycotted and officially, only five players were part of the complaint, although they were the team's most recognized players: Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo.
"What women's soccer has done the past 15-20 years, in terms of getting contracts, they've really paved the way for other sports and female athletes and we're hopefully trying to catch up to them a little bit in that regard," Monique says. "I feel like you see the fruits of their labor from their early generation of [Julie] Foudy, Mia Hamm, Briana Scurry, Kristine Lilly. You see what they did. They boycotted a friendly game in order to get contracts because they weren't getting contracts from U.S. Soccer."
Shortly after the 1999 World Cup, the USWNT boycotted three games until they were given higher wages.
"You saw what they did to push their game forward and risked a lot to be able to accomplish what they have," Monique says. "Now, you see how much they're getting paid, what they get for their bonuses. They can make pretty good livings and be solely focused on being women's soccer players and we would like women's hockey to get to that point one day."
The U.S. Women's National Hockey Team won its only Olympic gold medal in 1998. The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team won the dramatic 1999 World Cup on American soil and forever became remembered as the "99ers." Both championships inspired a new generation of girls. In 1998, when Cammi Granato led Team USA to Olympic gold, Knight and the Lamoureux twins were 8.
"I was in second grade," Jocelyne says. "My mom woke us up for that game. They really set the stage for hockey in the U.S. I watched that and said, 'Hey I can do that.'"
Not surprisingly, Granato is supporting the hockey players and their protest.
Standing behind you all! https://t.co/X50sMx40pd
— Cammi Granato (@CammiGranato) March 15, 2017
"Cammi continues to be an idol to me," Knight says. "She's from the greater Chicago area. I went to her camps and that's part of the reason I wear number 21 now. There was something about her, watching her compete, hold herself, I was like I want to be just like her.
"She reaches out here and there and sends along messages. It's pretty cool."
To be just like Granato, Knight needs one specific piece of hardware, and she only gets a crack at it every four years. Granato's legacy is not just that of a goal scorer, but of a champion.
"When we lost [in 2014], I asked myself that question for weeks," Knight says. "'Would your life be that much different if we got first? Second's pretty cool. Would it be that much different?' Yeah, it would be. It would speak volumes if we could bring that back. I think we'd get more registration numbers, a lot more eyes on us. America wants a winning team and we want to be the team that brings that victory back. It would just open up so many more opportunities inside and outside our spot. No one remembers second place."
Financially, it would not hurt either. In Sochi, U.S. players received a $15,000 bonus for winning silver. However, a gold medal would have provided a $25,000 bonus. The Olympics is about playing the game the right way on the greatest stage at the highest level of sportsmanship. But it is also about making a living, especially when such a difference in potential is at stake.
That's where the raise in base salary comes back. Guaranteed money, along with high bonuses, makes the sport attractive. And it makes things easier for girls to dream.
"I think we're pretty close," Knight says of women's hockey becoming a viable standalone career. "A lot of that comes from consumer decision. Are you going to choose to watch the women play or are you going to make the right decisions when you're managing a business or are you going to put more dollars in marketing? There's a bunch of other factors that go into play here, but I think we're really close. It's 2017. It's about time we get ready to pay people equally for what they're worth."
How much is a women's hockey player worth? With just about a week before the World Championships, that question may be answered very soon.
Peacefully, of course. No Charles Oakley finger-mushing necessary.