Hilary Knight didn’t hesitate when U.S. women’s hockey teammate Haley Skarupa, a Rockville native, asked whether she would be interested in participating in the Washington Capitals’ initiatives in conjunction with the NHL’s celebration of Gender Equality Month. Knight has been an Alex Ovechkin fan for years, and although she grew up in the Chicago suburbs, she has had a fondness for the Capitals since they invited her to a game after her first Olympic appearance in 2010.

“I’m really excited about it,” Knight said of her upcoming return to the D.C. area, where she will provide instruction during a youth hockey clinic at the Capitals’ practice facility March 13 and serve as NBC Sports Washington’s inside-the-glass analyst for Washington’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks the following night. “They rolled out the red carpet for us in 2010. I just had a phenomenal experience and was like, ‘I love this organization.’ ”

Knight was in Philadelphia last weekend as part of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association’s “Dream Gap Tour,” a barnstorming showcase designed to advocate for a sustainable women’s league in North America. The six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League ceased operations in 2019, after which Knight, who played for Montreal, and more than 200 other players vowed not to compete in any North American league under the current conditions. The five-team National Women’s Hockey League continues to operate but is doing so without many of the sport’s best players.

“We’ve always known that we had a phenomenal product on the ice,” said the 30-year-old Knight, who won gold with the Americans at the 2018 Olympics. “It’s just missing that visibility component. We’re continuing to search for a league that’s larger scale and better and more sustainable long term. You’re selling something that you call professional, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. I think that’s the frustrating part. … The infrastructure and everything you have to go through as a player and as a team, all that stuff doesn’t line up with the caliber of talent on the ice. It’s not good enough. We were playing in glorified beer leagues.”

During the PWHPA’s stop in Philadelphia, Knight’s U.S. teammate Kendall Coyne Schofield talked about earning $7,000 and sleeping on air mattresses at friends’ apartments the night before games during her one season in the NWHL. Given the lack of options available to aspiring women’s professional hockey players, Coyne Schofield told the Philadelphia Inquirer she felt “it was hypocritical” to encourage young girls who said they wanted to grow up to be like her.

As a kid, Knight figured she would play in the NHL because that’s all she knew.

“It wasn’t until ’98, when the women won the gold [in Nagano], I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s cool; women play hockey in the Olympics,' " Knight said. “I think it just goes back to the notion that, ‘If she can see it, she can be it.’ If we don’t have that visibility in the sport, how is that young girl going to know that she can go make this a career path? We’re trying to break through, and I’m confident we’re going to get there. It’s the reason we went on this tour.”

In recent years, the NHL has taken steps to increase exposure of the women’s game. At the league’s 2019 All-Star Weekend, Coyne Schofield became the first woman to participate in the fastest skater competition. This year’s All-Star Weekend festivities included a three-on-three showdown between stars from the American and Canadian women’s teams and a $100,000 donation from the NHL to girls’ hockey organizations.

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He did it. 🙏🏼 #StanleyCup

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“[The NHL has] always been a great supporter of women’s hockey,” said Knight, who scored the Americans’ only goal in a 2-1 loss to the Canadians in the three-on-three event. “This past year, it was just a phenomenal opportunity. They value us, and they want to continue to support us, which is good.”

Gender Equality Month, which the NHL introduced last year, is another opportunity to showcase women’s hockey. Skarupa, who joined the Capitals as a hockey ambassador in September and helps lead the team’s efforts to engage with the local youth hockey community, including through female-focused programming, will coach at next week’s girls’ clinic at MedStar Capitals Iceplex alongside Knight and former U.S. teammates Dana Trivigno and Taylor Wasylk.

Knight and Skarupa will participate in a ceremonial puck drop with fellow Olympian Hannah Brandt on March 14 before Knight dons a headset for the NBCSW broadcast. Knight was a guest studio analyst for one night during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, but supplementing Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin’s call of the live game action will be a new experience. She said she plans to ask Coyne Schofield, who joined the San Jose Sharks’ TV broadcast team as a part-time analyst this season, for some advice.

“To be honest, I want to just make sure I don’t get hit with the puck,” Knight said with a laugh. “But I’m excited to be at ice level and see how the game unfolds. That’s why we play it. We love the rhythms and the ebbs and flows of the game. It’s a lot of fun when you can see it up close. … I’m just excited to be in D.C. and watch a good hockey game."

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