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Hilary Knight leads all-stars of new women's league

by Joe Yerdon

BUFFALO -- Getting a professional league off the ground is difficult, but for the National Women's Hockey League, having a player like Boston Pride forward Hilary Knight has made it a little easier.

Knight joined the NWHL after winning a silver medal with the United States at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Knight being part of the Pride has helped put the spotlight on her team and given the NWHL the star power it needed to attract fans in its first season.

"It's been quite a whirlwind," Knight said Saturday, one day before the first NWHL All-Star Game. "I think I spent the first few months leading into the season trying to grab people to come into the league, and that was really stressful. And once we finally got into the league, we were just figuring out our bearings and how to really calm things down, but also appreciate things at the same time and understand that this is a first for everybody and we really are building the plane as we're taking off, so to speak."

Knight's role in being the face of the NWHL could've been viewed as daunting for the 26-year-old, but after her success in international play -- she helped the U.S. win gold at the IIHF World Championship six times -- getting a new league off the ground offered a different kind of challenge.

"People are really scared; it's a high-risk move," Knight said. "We don't really know anything about the league and we've been told our whole life that we'll never get paid to play women's hockey, and then someone comes up, a little blonde-haired woman [NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan], saying, 'Yeah, I'll pay you to play women's hockey,' you're not going to believe her. So there's a lot of, kind of, arm-twisting and saying, 'Guys, you need to take this leap and step over,' and fortunately everybody did, we all did it together, and it's one of the best feelings."

Knight was named one of the NWHL All-Star Game captains, along with Buffalo Beauts defender and captain Emily Pfalzer, who is a Buffalo native.

"It's everyone's first time being a professional hockey player, so I think everyone is learning what that means and what that feels like," Rylan said Saturday. "Emily's done a great job of getting out in the community, doing the interviews, and really becoming the face of the Buffalo Beauts, and I think that's going to translate to her growing and maybe becoming a face of the U.S. National Team or in the National Women's Hockey League. It was a no-brainer to pick her as the captain of one of the All-Star Game teams, and she's done a great job of promoting herself both on and off the ice."

Team Pfalzer defeated Team Knight 9-1 at the NWHL All-Star Game on Sunday at HarborCenter. Buffalo's Kelley Steadman was named most valuable player after she scored two goals, helping to make the day more special for Pfalzer.

"All the Buffalo fans and the fans from all over [made it everything I dreamed of]," Pfalzer said. "But here in Buffalo it was an amazing experience."

Even though Knight's team lost, the experience at the All-Star Game made up for missing out on the NWHL-CWHL exhibition against the Montreal Canadiennes as part of the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic festivities at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Knight and other U.S. players on the Pride, including NWHL all-stars Jordan Smelker, Amanda Pelkey, Kacey Bellamy, Brianna Decker, Alyssa Gagliardi, Zoe Hickel and Gigi Marvin, were unable to participate because of a prior commitment to take part in USA Hockey training camp.

"It just so happened it was bad timing," Knight said. "When the dates are set with USA Hockey, I think everyone's dream at the end of the day is to play in the Olympic Games and win a gold medal, so that takes priority. Whenever your professional team is doing something, you want to be a part of that, so it was unfortunate the timing didn't work out, and those guys had an incredible experience. We were following along from our bunk beds at camp and really jealous, but at the same time, other players were able to come in and fill in our places and have fun as well and share in the camaraderie."

Ultimately, the success of the NWHL comes down to building a fan base.

"We had projections for our attendance and we're pretty on point for what we expected this year," Rylan said. "We're continuing to grow, and actually every game we're getting more and more fans out. We put a huge focus on attendance. We're actually crushing our merchandise expectations out of the water, our projections, so where we're lacking in one, we're making up in another, and we're on point."

Rylan said more than 1,000 jerseys sold in the first month the NWHL online shop was open. The excitement for a women's professional league in which the players are being paid was there right away, and the All-Star Game helped put the best talent in the league out there for the fans.

Knight took a moment out of the postgame autograph line and made that point.

"Whenever you can interact with your fan base, it's a lot of fun and it really puts things in perspective," Knight said. "Sometimes you forget that you're not only an Olympian, one time you're a little girl trying to do the things we're doing now, so it's something special when you can interact with the people."

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