International Ice Hockey Federation

These women want more

These women want more

Knight & Schleper skate with NHLers

Published 10.11.2014 16:36 GMT+1 | Author Andrew Podnieks
These women want more
Anne Schleper and Hilary Knight celebrate with the trophy after a gold medal game win over Canada at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Two women from the U.S. national team skated with NHL teams in early October, and not only did both have the time of their lives, they didn’t feel out of place.

“I think with my size and stature I can definitely compete with the guys,” said Hilary Knight, who started with the team in 2007. “I always feel I have something to prove every time I step on the ice.”

Knight skated with the Anaheim Ducks on October 3, and ten days later Anne Schleper skated with the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend celebrations. “I did kind of feel like I fit right in,” she said with pride.

It was through a friend of Knight’s that the chain of events started. “I knew someone within the Anaheim organization who knew it would be a great idea to have a woman play with the team, so she pushed my cause,” Knight explained. “The Ducks are a great organization, and they were able to make it happen. It was a wonderful day, and as it happens, I was out in L.A. for a photo shoot for a magazine. And, the following week was World Girls Weekend, so the timing was perfect.”

The logistics were simple, and Knight simply took her equipment to the rink as she has done a thousand times before. “I treated it as a normal practice. I showed up and was ready to go. I think the coolest part of the experience was that I just felt like one of the guys. They respected me for being a hockey player, and I respected them in the same way. The only thing that was left to me was to go out and skate. At the end of the day, hockey is hockey.”

Knight skated with the boys for about 45 minutes and noticed, of course, some aspects of the NHL game were more difficult to adjust to than others. “The goalies are a bigger, and my shot was a little slower for them. I think just finding an open space at the net was challenging, but I was surprised that I could keep with the pace.”

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The 4 Nations Cup plays out this week in Kamloops, British Columbia, after which Knight will return to Boston and play for the Blades in the CWHL. Life is different than it was for her as an NCAA student.

“As soon as you leave college, you realize how broke you are,” she said with good natured humour and absolute seriousness. “You have to try to salvage or sustain your training. You have to structure your own schedule. You have to make ends meet while you pursue this goal of winning a gold medal at whatever tournament you want to play in. We used to charter to games; now I don’t even have time for anything. I need to sleep because I have to get up early to train. You really have to figure out how to make it work. It’s much easier in college, but you don’t realize that until you’re out.”

Knight makes ends meet by doing speaking engagements and, “trying to grow women’s ice hockey. That’s at the top of my list.” But she sees the CWHL as nothing but a positive experience.

“The CWHL is really all the NCAA players who have graduated. It’s a lot better. It’s sort of U.S. versus Canada every weekend. It’s great to see players grow and develop outside of NCAA.”

It was Knight who scored the overtime winner to give the U.S. a victory over Canada at the 2011 Women’s Worlds in Zurich, but she sees her NHL invite as just another step in the right direction.

“A bunch of girls from the team texted me and were super supportive. They know my goals and how hard I work to accomplish things. They were saying how amazing this was for women’s hockey. And sure enough, Tampa Bay called the Ducks and asked how they did it, and all of a sudden Anne had this opportunity to skate with the Lightning. I’m glad this opened other opportunities. My biggest fear was to have Anne and I look like a travelling circus show because I think I can play at that level. We want to be taken seriously. We compete. We’re phenomenal competitors.”

Indeed, the opportunity for Schleper (who pronounces her first name as “Annie”) was similar but different from Knight’s.

“I moved to Tampa after the Olympics, in March,” she started, “so I’m training there full-time now with a USA Hockey coach and junior league boys. This summer, Tampa Bay’s head of community development contacted me and found out I was training there and said they wanted to do something to grow women’s hockey in the Tampa area. So on the Saturday the Lightning played Ottawa, and we had a panel with some Girl Scouts, we played street hockey before the game on the plaza, we did a scrimmage afterwards. They loaded it up. It was so much fun. It was cool to see girls there excited about hockey. So to finish off the weekend to celebrate Girls’ Hockey Weekend, they had me practise with the team Monday morning before their game that night.”

From the moment she walked into the arena, she knew she wasn’t in Kansas anymore. “They had equipment for me set up in the locker room. They gave me a jersey and gloves and a couple of sticks. They made me feel like part of the team. That was super-special to me. I can’t say enough about the organization and the coaches, and the players we so encouraging and supportive of women’s hockey, which is exactly what we need.”

Although the experience was enjoyable, Schleper, like Knight, tried to take tangibles away from the day to help make her a better hockey player. “I kept in mind they had a game later that day, but I was still trying to learn from them. Yes, they’re big, they’re fast, they’re strong, but for me, I was just out there playing the game I love. The thing I kept getting compliments on were my crisp passes and my ability to recognize the play. It was really encouraging to hear that from the coaches and players.”

As for a highlight, it was, ironically, an off-ice moment that stood out for Schleper. “Meeting Steve Yzerman before practice,” she laughed. “I was joking around with him, and I really enjoyed that. Obviously, he was a great, great player, so that was really cool.”

Schleper, who has played on the senior team since 2011, is still on the Boston roster in the CWHL, and hopes to play in a few games this year, but ultimately she’ll spend most of the current season training in Tampa Bay and hopefully earning a spot on the team that travels to Malmo, Sweden next April for the Women’s Worlds.

“I see results and improvement here, which is exciting. This is the best opportunity for me right now,” she said.

In the end, both players had fun but conveyed one great yearning: “My goal from that day?” Knight asked, rhetorically. “To get invited back.”

Is that realistic? “Yes, I think so. Their coach was walking out of the locker room, and he said, ‘Hey, if you ever want to come back, let me know.’ So I hope I get another invite.”

Schleper was on the same page. “I hope in the future we can practise with them more often. I hope more organizations catch on and allow some of our other players to do similar things.”

How about 30 players for 30 NHL teams at next year’s World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend? That’d be the coolest day on ice!


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