Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Raty and Knight looking for chances to break ground by playing with the boys

Rivals at the collegiate level in the WCHA and at the international level in the IIHF, Hilary Knight and Noora Raty are looking to extend their careers in a most unique way. Following in the footsteps of ground breaking women such as Manon Rheaume, Erin Whitten, Danielle Dube and Hayley Wickenheiser, they are looking for the chance to compete in competitive men’s leagues.

With possible opportunities in Finland and Sweden, the involvement of Raty and Knight may not only help increase the awareness of the sport, it could help create other opportunities in North America. Considering some members of the CWHL’s Montreal Stars have participated in intergender games, there is no question that Stars competitors such as Caroline Ouellette and Charline Labonte are worthy of consideration for AHL or ECHL play.

The greatest female goaltender in the history of Finland, Raty shocked hockey fans throughout the world when she announced that Sochi would represent her last foray in female hockey. Having accomplished so much between the pipes, the thought of Raty, only 24 years old, no longer competing seems premature and sadly abrupt.

For so many years, fans have associated Finnish hockey with Raty guarding their net. Her greatest legacy was backstopping the Finns to a bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Considering that she was also the winner of the Most Valuable Player Award at the 2008 IIHF Women’s World Championships, it is a tremendous loss of talent. 

While the bronze medal represents a sparkling legacy for Raty, her greatest contribution may have come a few years later. After a dream season in 2012-13, when she backstopped the Minnesota Golden Gophers to an undefeated season, an historic first in NCAA women’s hockey, it seemed like the future had endless possibilities for Raty. Popular hockey periodical, The Hockey News, actually listed Raty in their Top 100 People of Power and Influence in Hockey for 2014.

After graduating from Minnesota, there was speculation she may remain a student and pursue a chance to compete for the golf program. With the existence of the Minnesota Whitecaps women’s hockey club, it seemed like Raty had a promising future. There is no question that a nearby club such as the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals definitely could have given her a chance to play. Opting to return home to Finland, Raty will look for a roster spot with Kiekko-Vantaa, a second-tier club in her homeland.

Definitely America’s girl next door for women’s hockey, Hilary Knight is one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. Her resume is one that is the envy of female competitors the world over. Already the proud owner of IIHF gold, the Clarkson Cup and an NCAA Frozen Four title, a gold medal at the Winter Games would bring her a unique grand slam in women’s hockey. Although she has no plans to retire from the national team after Sochi, there is no question that she is looking to add a new dimension to her game.

Speculation about the opportunity to compete in a lower-tier men’s league in Sweden would present the next logical step for Knight. The reality is that Knight has nothing left to prove in the female game. She has not only been dominant in every league that she has competed in (WCHA and CWHL), scoring titles and league championships are synonymous with the high quality hockey that defines her storied career.

Considering that former Canadian national team member is competing in a female league in Sweden, the opportunity to travel abroad and play in a different culture provides with it a great personal growth for North American players. With Knight competing in a men’s league, it will certainly bring with it a significant amount of exposure from North American media outlets.

Clearly, the aftermath of Sochi brings with it the opportunity to shatter barriers that may not have seemed possible after the first women’s hockey event at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. As the presence of girls are very commonplace on the roster of boys junior hockey teams today, the possibility of women regularly competing alongside men in semi-pro or minor league play could evolve into a very common aspect of the game tomorrow. 

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