Back in Florida with the Maple Leafs, Matthew Knies is getting a crash course in NHL life
From Tampa to Minneapolis to Miami back to Tampa and then on to New York City in a span of four days, Big Ten most valuable player Matthew Knies is learning the fast way about the grind of NHL life.
TAMPA, Fla. — When you live in a nontraditional hockey area like Arizona and your child has a knack for the game, extensive travel to watch games and attend camps is a part of your world. But after more than a decade of chasing his son Matthew from rink to rink, even a veteran of the planes, trains and automobiles like Miro Knies was thrown a new challenge in the post-Frozen Four whirlwind.
The Knies family — Miro and Michaela plus their older son Phil and the boys’ Slovakian grandmother — along with Matthew’s girlfriend Ella (a member of the Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey team) and Matthew’s agent found themselves in the pitch black of Florida’s famed Alligator Alley in the middle of the night, in a pouring rainstorm just hours after watching Matthew make his NHL debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Florida Panthers.
Between Saturday night, when Matthew’s final game as a Minnesota Gophers ended in heartbreak with an overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the NCAA title game in Tampa, and Tuesday night when the family was back at Amalie Arena to see Matthew’s second NHL game versus the Tampa Bay Lightning, the family had seen the better part of the Sunshine State via a luxury van provided by Matthew’s new employer.
Meanwhile, Matthew had been racking up frequent flier miles as he traveled back to Minnesota with the Gophers following the title game loss. That trip provided some brief hope for Minnesota fans that he might opt for one more season in college, but it was not to be. Matthew spent roughly 14 hours in the State of Hockey while grabbing a change of clothes and signing the documents needed to officially become a professional hockey player before hopping on a Sunday evening flight to South Florida to join the Maple Leafs for real.
He recorded his first NHL assist versus the Lightning on Tuesday night (the public address person in Tampa called him “Matthew Knees” when announcing Toronto’s eventual winning goal). Afterward, surrounded by a throng of media that will be a fact of his life playing for a high-profile team like Toronto, Knies admitted that staying in Florida following the NCAA title loss was an option, but it would not have been the right thing to do.
“At that moment, with those guys, I thought it was best for me to be around them,” Knies said, of the shocking end to his college career. “It was obviously a devastating loss, so I just wanted to spend as much time as I could with all of them.”
With his new teammates in blue and white, Knies is fitting in right away. He started versus the Lightning and was less than an inch from his first pro goal, only to be “helped” by a teammate. After a turnover behind Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, Leafs forward William Nyander fed the puck to Knies who was in front of the net. Vasilevskiy got a piece of the rookie’s quick shot, but the puck bounced on the goal line and was about to slip across when Leafs forward Ryan O’Reilly swatted the puck in.
“I honestly thought it hit the back of the net and came back out, but I’m happy to just get on the board,” Knies said in the postgame scrum. “O’Reilly batted that in. He was apologizing to me but it was a good play.”
FIRST NHL POINT FOR KNIES.👏— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 12, 2023
Matthew gets his shot past Vasilevskiy and O'Reilly taps it in to give Knies his first assist. pic.twitter.com/kILxHu03FI
Knies comes from a Gophers program with a hungry fanbase after falling just short of Minnesota’ first national title in 20 years. He joins the Maple Leafs — arguably the highest-profile team in the NHL — as they seek their first Stanley Cup since 1967. Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas is under intense pressure from the fans and the media in Canada just to get the Leafs past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004. To show how committed he was to getting Knies in the fold after drafting him in the second round in 2021, some have joked that Dubas attended more Gophers games than the Knies family this season, and finally got his prized prospect wrapped up in the hours following Saturday’s final Gophers game.
So after his whirlwind tour of Florida, Knies was looking ahead to a day off on Wednesday. The Leafs flew to New York City following the Lightning game, and will face the Rangers on Thursday to close the regular season. His parents will be there, taking in as much of their son’s early career as they can, even if it means more travel adventures. When he finally gets to Toronto, the Leafs plan to pair Knies with a veteran player to show him the ropes of life as a pro in the microscope of Canada’s largest city. Toronto’s star player is Auston Matthews, who grew up in Arizona and learned the game in the desert, just like Knies. The team will also provide a hotel suite near the rink as temporary living quarters.
Next week Knies will make his NHL playoffs debut, and a first-round series versus the Lightning is on deck, which will mean more trips to Amalie Arena, and the bad memories of his final game in maroon and gold that now accompany visits to the Tampa waterfront.
“I don’t like this rink, to be honest with you,” he said with a grin. “It kind of stinks after what happened here. But I’m excited to be a part of this team and to show up here and grab the win.”