Defender Olivia Knowles brings Canadian influence to Gophers

Knowles has scored two goals in the past six games for Minnesota.

Olivia Knowles gets ready to take the puck on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 at Ridder Arena. The Gophers lost to the Wisconsin Badgers 2-1.

Elle Moulin

Olivia Knowles gets ready to take the puck on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 at Ridder Arena. The Gophers lost to the Wisconsin Badgers 2-1.

by Erik Nelson

The west coast of British Columbia has orcas, black bears and a rich hockey tradition. Campbell River, British Columbia, located on Vancouver Island, prides itself on being the hometown of Detroit Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman. This coastal city is also the hometown of Gophers defender Olivia Knowles.

Hockey has always been in her blood — when she was younger, Knowles attended Vancouver Canucks games with her family. Knowles said skating is the largest component of her style of play.

“I’ve always had a big emphasis on skating,” Knowles said. “At my hockey school, we worked on it all the time. My parents emphasized it too when I was little. Having a long stride is helpful to my game.”

Knowles could have stayed in Canada, but she chose to come to Minnesota. She knew she wanted to be a Gopher after visiting the campus during a tournament left her in awe of the program. On Sept. 29, 2017, she played in her first game for the maroon and gold, scoring her first collegiate goal in a 4-3 loss to Merrimack.

“That’s the first time I figured out that there’s a world outside of the island that I lived on,” Knowles said. “Seeing the rink and everything was amazing. I was excited. This is a phenomenal program.”

Head coach Brad Frost said the Gophers began to recruit Knowles during her sophomore and junior years of secondary school.

“It’s neat when a kid from Canada has a dream to play at the University of Minnesota and that’s able to happen,” Frost said. 

Right winger Amy Potomak is also a native of British Columbia. Potomak and Knowles met at the Canada Winter Games one year and have been close friends ever since, Potomak said. In 2016, Knowles and Potomak guided Team British Columbia to the bronze medal at the National Women’s Under-18 Championships.

Potomak said that having a connection with Knowles from the Canada Winter Games has helped them improve their play with the Gophers.

“It was always her dream to play for Minnesota,” Potomak said. “It was mine, too. Sharing that dream and always having someone from back home is cool.”

While defenders are usually responsible for shutting down the attack, Knowles has provided Minnesota some offensive support, having scored twice in the Gophers’ last six games. Knowles scored the overtime winner in Minnesota’s 4-3 victory over Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinal of the Minnesota Cup on Jan. 5. She also scored in Minnesota’s 5-1 victory over Minnesota State on Jan. 11.

Defender Emily Brown has been Knowles’ defensive partner for a portion of this season. Brown said she is more defensive-minded, while Knowles can jump up in the attack.

“If you have two offensive pairs and they both jump up at the same time, it makes it tough because no one is playing defense,” Brown said. “We read each other well. If I jump up, she stays back, and sometimes it’s the other way around. It’s important to have that balance.”

This year, the Gophers are hoping to win their fifth national championship since 2012. There’s a saying that defense wins championships, yet Minnesota knows Knowles can be a factor both offensively and defensively.

Frost said Knowles needs to be more consistent as Minnesota heads into the homestretch of the regular season.

“She has the ability to be one of the best defenders on the ice every game,” he said. “[She should] approach it that way and make an impact when she can.”