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Gophers freshman Matthew Knies making a quick adjustment to college hockey and Minnesota weather

In college hockey, it is not uncommon for freshmen to struggle for a time, and take months to get used to the game. That is not the case for Matthew Knies, a 1st-generation American who has made an immediate on-ice impact for the Minnesota Gophers.

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Minnesota Gophers forward Matthew Knies was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. University of Minnesota Athletics photo.

MINNEAPOLIS — Having spent much of his life in the dry heat of the desert southwest, you will not hear any “the cold doesn’t bother me” tough talk from Matthew Knies, as the full brunt of his first Minnesota winter approaches quickly.

He has experienced some snow and cold winds while playing junior hockey in Nebraska, but the Arizona kid has heard all about the depths of winter in the State of Hockey, and he knows there is a literal storm coming.

“I’m nervous. I’m really scared actually. I got a little taste of it in Nebraska, but I’ve heard nightmares about this place,” said Knies, a freshman forward for the Minnesota Gophers, after a recent practice at 3M Arena at Mariucci. “I’m getting ready. I know my parents have shipped way too many clothes, and I can’t fit them all in my closet anymore.”

If Minnesota weather has been an adjustment, the switch from juniors to college hockey has seemingly come easily for the Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, who leads the Gophers’ rookies with four goals and three assists in his first 10 collegiate games. While the numbers are impressive, Knies admits that the step up from the USHL, where he played for Tri-City, to the Big Ten, has been steep.

“For sure it’s been a huge adjustment, playing less games and having more intense games versus great opponents like St. Cloud and Duluth,” he said. “It’s been a huge jump.”

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Phoenix native Matthew Knies, who committed to the Minnesota Gophers program last season, will skate for Team USA in the 2019 World Junior A Challenge, to be held next month in British Columbia. Carmo Photography / Phoenix Jr. Coyotes.

Blossoming in the desert

This season’s Arizona Coyotes are perhaps the biggest mess in the NHL, having needed a month just to win a game and literally on the brink of being evicted from their rink in suburban Phoenix. But nearly a decade ago, at roughly the same time as Matthew and his older brother Phil were getting interested in hockey, the Coyotes looked like the team of the future. In 2012, the Coyotes made a run to the Western Conference Final and ignited hockey interest, briefly, in the desert, before sinking back to mediocrity or worse.

But the Knies brothers were hooked on this sport that otherwise seems so out of place among the saguaro cactus and the daily high temps in the triple digits that are so common in the desert. Shane Doan, a Coyotes legend, coached Phil and Matthew in the youth hockey ranks and helped develop a pair of college hockey players. Phil skated at Miami (Ohio) for four years and was the RedHawks captain last season before transferring to Bentley for his “COVID year.”

Matthew’s body grew as his game progressed. He was 5-foot-6 and around 150 pounds when the Tri-City Storm drafted him out of Junior Coyotes youth hockey ranks. By the time he arrived at the U of M, his size was notable. He turned 19 in October, which is young by modern college hockey standards, but Knies is listed at 6-3 and 205 pounds.

“He’s physically not young, when you have that kind of size and skating ability and strength,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said.

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Minnesota Gophers forward Matthew Knies got tangled up with St. Cloud State right winger Kyler Kupka during a game versus the Huskies on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn. Jason Wachter / The Rink Live
www.jasonwachter.com

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From European roots

While Knies wears 89 — the highest number ever worn by a Gopher — in honor of former Coyotes winger Mikkel Boedker, he had a poster of Zdeno Chara on his childhood bedroom wall and always rooted for players like Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik in a nod to family heritage.

Phil was 3 years old when Miro (an engineer) and Michaela (a pediatrician) Knies immigrated from Slovakia to the United States. Matthew was born not long after that and is the first American-born member of this family that still speaks Slovakian at home quite often. Matthew’s grandmother comes to live with them for months at a time and would take care of the boys and cook for them, then return to Europe to escape the intense heat of Arizona in the summer, making her a transatlantic snowbird of sorts.

Matthew said adjusting to the independence of college living has perhaps been the biggest adjustment involved with his move to Minnesota so far, and he admits missing the home-cooked Slovakian meals of his youth. But on the ice, his size and his tools have made him the freshman seemingly best-suited to college hockey.

“I played juniors with him down in Tri-City his first year and I saw it then too. He is so strong on the puck and with his edges he can go any way at some point,” Gophers defenseman Mike Koster said. “He can play fast, he can play slow and switch speeds. He has a quick release, he can stickhandle around you, he can pass. He’s the complete package. As defenseman you think you’ve got him shut down and then he makes something happen.”

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Minnesota forward Matthew Knies (89) and Minnesota Duluth forward Noah Cates (21) chase the puck during the second period on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Flying freshman

Knies seems to shy away from individual credit, giving a stick salute to Mason Nevers and Ben Meyers, who have been his linemates most of the season. He notes that both he and fellow freshman Aaron Huglen scored in the first period of their 4-1 win at Wisconsin last Saturday.

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“I think this freshman class is really dangerous and we’re going to be a big part of the success of this team in the second half,” Knies said.

Of course, the season’s second half is when the snow starts to pile up, the sun makes rare cameo appearances, and the temperature gauge can feature a minus symbol for weeks at a time here in the Bold North. Knies has enjoyed the mild fall in Minnesota, and with a good start underway on the rink, feels he’s ready for whatever is thrown his way.

“I enjoy this place a lot. I think it’s a ton of fun,” he said, dropping a truth bomb. “I think I’ll like winter for the first few days, and then it will get old really quick.”

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