“Net Presence”: Henriette Behn, Färjestad BK forward

While she tells me that her favorite hockey players are a fellow countryman and arguably the most recognized player presently in women’s hockey, I liken Henriette Behn’s style of play to more of a robust forward who is not afraid to take a puck to the inside of the thigh or the shaft of a stick plastered across the back. Say, a Tomas Holmstrom. Or a Johan Franzen. She has net presence. “My hockey heroes are Hilary Knight and Mats Zuccarello. I wouldn’t say that I am a sniper, no. I would say that I am more of a hardworking type of player. A player who you can put in front of the opponent’s net to screen the goalie and make space for my teammates”. And thus far in her young career, Henriette Behn has done a very admirable job of that.

Born New Year’s Eve of 1998, Behn’s passion for the game was initially instilled in her by her father. “I was four years old when I attended my first hockey school, and then I joined an actual team later that same year. It was my dad who introduced me to the sport. The fact that he was a hockey coach at that time made me become interested in trying it”. Behn hails from the city of Oslo; the capital and most populous city in the country of Norway.

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Knowing her way most effectively around the front of the net, Henriette Behn is a highly promising player for Färjestad BK (Photo provided courtesy of Värmlands Folkblad; Photo credit: Håkan Strandman).

Though opportunities to play hockey may have been limited to a certain extent, that does not mean that the quality or competition was poor for Behn to partake in. Quite the contrary, actually. “In Oslo there are about five ice rinks so the opportunities to play are definitely there. However being a girl and playing in Oslo of course lessens those opportunities. But in my mind it has only been a positive thing for me. With fewer opportunities to play on girls teams, I have played on boys teams since I was five. This has only been for the better when it comes to my development”.

One of the top hockey clubs in the city of Oslo is Vålerenga, and Behn was able to grow through the ranks of their program since her earliest ages in the game. “I played for Vålerenga’s boys team from when I was five until I was thirteen”, at which age Behn was old enough to play in Norway’s women’s elite league. Having already been a member of Vålerenga for such a considerable length of time, it was only natural that Behn joined their women’s team. “There are six teams in Norway’s women’s league, in the elite series”, she explains. “Vålerenga performed good during the 5-years I played with the team. We always managed to put together a good group of hardworking players who all had a winning mindset. Often our results led us to leading the entire league”. Across those 5-years, Behn appeared in 46-career games in the Norwegian women’s league for Vålerenga and tallied 12-goals and 6-assists.

It was during this time with Vålerenga that Henriette Behn had the opportunity to represent her country in three consecutive Women’s U18 Division-I Championships as a member of the Norwegian national team; each opportunity having been a true honor for her. “It meant a lot to me. You feel a special type of pride when wearing your nation’s jersey, and you naturally always feel very honored when representing your own country by doing something that you love”. I like how Behn recognizes the value of this, and maybe sees it a step further than many athletes. Not only did she have three opportunities (thus far) to represent Norway on the international hockey stage, but she did so – and she was the one to say it – by doing something that she truly loves. Rarer of an opportunity still. When you can combine skill with love and channel it into one focus, one mindset, it is an experience that so few get to feel. And Behn has achieved a trifecta of sorts in that respect.

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Battling for position against Denmark, Norway’s Henriette Behn (in white) fights to establish position in front of the opposing net (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

Behn’s first go-round in this particular IIHF tournament was in 2014 for the games in Füssen, Germany.  Barely 15-years old at the time, Behn would play in all 5-tournament games for the Norwegian team. But seeing limited ice time likely due to her age and experience level, Behn more so utilized this first tournament to gain invaluable experience for future tournaments ahead; the likes of which she could not have foreseen the dividends it would eventually pay. “That first tournament was a motivation to me because it was my first time on the national team. The speed in the games and the tempo in general was much faster than I was used to in Norway. So this was definitely something that helped prepare me for future international tournaments”. In the 5-games Behn was held pointless and the Norwegians would finish fourth overall with 2-wins and 3-losses.

Then came 2015. And for Behn and Team Norway, it would be a tournament for the ages. A full tournament already under her belt, Behn tied for the team lead in goal scoring with 3-goals and a whopping 25-percent shooting percentage throughout the tournament. For a second year player on the national team who does not consider herself a sniper, she was on fire. Describing her mindset when she is in the game, Behn tells me “I’m a player who hates to loose; the coach can expect that I always give 100-percent in the games that I play”. The fire in her belly sparked Norway to a 3-1-1 tournament finish and the silver medal at the games in Vaujany, France.

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Seen here fighting for a lose puck against Slovakia, Henriette Behn (center in red) is routinely found at the opposing goaltender’s doorstop (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

Arguably though for Behn, the most exciting moment of the series came when she scored the game tying goal against Slovakia with only 32-seconds left in the game to send it to overtime; firing a loose puck past goaltender Olga Jablonovska. After an extra session was played and no decisive winner, the two teams went to a shootout which saw the Norwegians come away with 5-4 victory, well on their way to the silver. Describing that pinnacle moment in which she scored, Behn recalls, “That game was thrilling because the intensity was just so high! I remember I was put on the ice towards the end of regulation so that I could screen the goalie. I remember thinking that I just had to score. When I got that shot from my teammate and managed to score on that rebound, that is a feeling that I cannot even describe”.

And how could she? Once again, it comes down to rarity that few ever get to experience. A tying goal against another nation that keeps your own country’s medal hopes alive. But this is a prime example of Behn’s net presence and when it mattered the most. She also is able to put that medal run into perspective for me. “To win that silver medal was an amazing experience. That meant a lot to me and it’s something I will never forget. Our team was strong that season, and everyone was motivated to show what we really could do. I think this team spirit and the fact that I was in really good shape that season led me to having such strong tournament”.

 

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Henriette Behn in hot pursuit of the puck while playing for Vålerenga in the Norwegian women’s ice hockey league (Photo credit: Kenneth Myrhe).

2016 was Behn’s final U18 tournament appearance and Norway could not recreate their success from the year prior. For Behn, recognizing that it was her last tournament at this particular level was a slightly surreal experience even though she enjoyed it as a whole. “I thought it was a good tournament because that year there were many new players in the group. But of course, it was kind of weird knowing it was my final tournament with the U18 team”. Maybe even somewhat ironic too, that her final statistics from the tournament are incorrect, which she jokingly points out. “I had two goals in that tournament”, she laughs; “the stats are wrong”. Officially, the IIHF has her down as having 1-goal and 1-assist in the 5-game tournament. Norway finished fourth overall with another record of 2-wins and 3-losses.

Though these were Behn’s last U18 appearances on the Norwegian national team, they are likely not her last for Norway, nor does she expect them to be. “I was actually in Hungary with the Norwegian national team back in November (2016), so I hope that I will have the opportunity to play for them going forward. This is something I work hard towards and have in mind every time I workout, so it is definitely something that I am striving for”.

So while she is actively preparing herself for the next opportunity to play for her homeland, what is Henriette Behn’s current status in hockey? Färjestad BK; a hockey club in Sweden that is one tier lower than their Swedish elite women’s hockey league. Asked about the decision to leave the familiar confines of Vålerenga, Behn tells me that she opted for Färjestad BK to further develop her skill level. “I was looking for a more challenging season, and wanted to develop myself even more. As a hockey player this is naturally something you always strive for. Therefore, I was contacted by the Färjestad BK’s coach and received an offer to play there this season. I felt like this was an appropriate league for me where I could develop”.

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Here once again Henriette is jousting in front of the Slovakian net, anticipating a deflection or a rebound (Photo credit: Claire de Groot).

And does Behn hold out hope that Färjestad BK may even be promoted to Sweden’s top women’s league? “Yes, there is a possibility that my team will be promoted to the top league. This is what we are working for during the season, so it will definitely be cool to see how we will do in these qualifications. For my part, I definitely want to work hard to reach this goal. And that is to play in the top Swedish women’s league!”. In 6-games this season with Färjestad BK, Behn has 2-goals and 2-assists.

It is interesting to see how this young lady, who knows her way around the front of the net, has no issues with trudging through the trenches in order to better herself. She gets it. She has it figured out. I do not really like the adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It is far too overused and has lost its meaning. But there is something to be said about paying ones dues (to snatch a different phrase). It seems that Henriette Behn has found the proper niche where she can not only challenge herself physically on the ice, but where she also can have an attainable goal in her sights. And while that goal is an attainable one, it is not something that she can just skate right up to and take whenever she pleases. “Nothing comes easy”, she tells me. “You have to put in effort and hard work to get where you want to. And you have to sacrifice a lot of things to reach your goals. But hard work always pays off in the end”.

Thank you, Henriette! Very well stated.

 

 

 

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Andrea Rišianová: Team Slovakia U18 Women’s Goaltender

“Our team’s goaltending coach came to my mom one day with some goalie pads and equipment and said, “Okay, Andrea is going to be a goalie now. I don’t really know how, but I can tell that she knows it; she can play the position”. That is how her role as a goaltender started. Simple, but intuitive on the part of her goaltending coach. It’s Christmas Eve, and I am chatting with a 16-year old netminder for Slovakia’s U18 national team, Andrea Rišianová.

She hails from the city of Martin, Slovakia. Located towards the middle of her homeland, Martin is the eighth largest city in the country and home to a population of 61,000. Despite the small population, former NHL players Zdeno Ciger, Richard Panik, Robert Svehla, Radovan Somik, and Peter Smrek all call the same town as Rišianová their home. The region is incredibly picturesque, accompanied by strolling mountains, dark green woods, and even waterfalls. “In the city where I was born, the ice rink is located next to our grandparents’ house. I started to skate there, and then got involved with the MHK (Martin Hockey Club) training for children. From there, I just fell in love with the game of hockey”, she says.

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Soon to be 17-years old, Andrea Rišianová is a superb young goaltender for Slovakia’s national U18 women’s team (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

Though Rišianová is only 16 (she will be 17 in less than a month), she has actually been skating for a long period of time. “I was 3-years old the first time that I walked out on the ice, and then I started playing organized hockey on a team when I was 8”. According to Rišianová though, there was not a particular reason that she wanted to take on the goaltending position other than that their appearance was a lot more to her liking than a skating position. “I was just always interested in how nice goalies look out on the ice, and I kind of wanted to try it”, she says.

For Rišianová, she emulates and admires her fellow countryman, Peter Budaj of the Los Angeles Kings. Budaj is presently the longest tenured Slovakian-born goaltender in the NHL, and as of late has found a resurgence of sorts with the Los Angeles Kings; also Rišianová’s favorite hockey club. With top Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick on the shelf due to injury for almost the entire 2016-17 NHL season thus far, Budaj has taken over the reigns as the team’s number one backstopper, and is just about to pass the 30-games plateau for the season. “I love the L.A. Kings and Peter Budaj is my hero. I have watched his career for a long time, and it is unbelievable how much of a star he has become”, Rišianová tells me. By happenstance, I share with her that Budaj’s Kings were just in my hometown to take on the Buffalo Sabres, and I had the opportunity of seeing him play. Rišianová is jokingly jealous, and tells me “if coming to an NHL game from Slovakia were that simple, I would already be there!”, she laughs.

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Making a save while in net for her club team MHK Martin, Andrea Rišianová is constantly practicing and honing her skills (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

I ask Rišianová what she feels are her skills that have made her such an elite goaltender for her country. “I am not the kind of person who admires herself, but I believe that I have good stickhandling skills for a goaltender, and I believe that my movements in net are quite fast”. Even though she is humble, Rišianová has been able to demonstrate her talents on the international scene on multiple occasions during the past year, and the experience for her has been most memorable. “Tournaments with the national team are always so exciting, and I love that!”, she says.

Firstly, Rišianová and Team Slovakia captured a bronze medal at the 2016 Women’s U18 Division I Championships held this past January in Miskolc, Hungary. Rišianová went perfect with 10-stops on 10-shots against Denmark in Slovakia’s second game of the tournament. Sharing the goaltending duties with Adriana Stofankova, Slovakia took third place with a 3-1-1 record at the tournament.

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Andrea Rišianová in heavy action against the Czech Republic (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

After the Division I tournament, Rišianová was featured between the pipes at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. It was at this tournament where Rišianová particularly shined in net. In 3-games for Slovakia she put up very solid numbers of a 2.49 goals against average to go along with .889 save percentage. Included in that was a very tight 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic in which Rišianová stopped 32-shots, a 15-save performance against Switzerland, and a 9-save game against Sweden after she came in for relief of fellow Slovakian netminder Simona Lezovicova who was pulled after allowing four goals. And while Slovakia lost in the February 20th bronze medal game against Switzerland, the tournament was still a great success for Rišianová.

Putting her international experience into perspective for me, Rišianová says, “Every game that I played in Lillehammer was very special for me. To answer what my greatest achievements in hockey are thus far, I would have to say winning the bronze medal in Hungary for the U18 World Championships, and then definitely the Youth Olympic games in Lillehammer”. It would probably be needless to say that these first two international tournaments are the first of many that will come for Rišianová. She most assuredly has the passion and the desire to be a student of the game and the goaltender position, and to continue to hone her skills through constant hard work.

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Winning the bronze medal at the 2016 Women’s U18 Division-I tournament in Hungary is one of the major highlights to Andrea Rišianová’s young career (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová).

That being said, Rišianová has faced some struggles that she is intent on overcoming in this current season, 2016-17, playing in Slovakia 1st-Division women’s league. Rišianová is the starting goaltender for MHK Martin. Dealing with illness and injuries, her play has faltered at times but she has met these challenges head-on. In 7-games this season for MHK Martin, Rišianová’s numbers have been a 6.21 goals against average and a .773 save percentage in this early part of the season. And while such numbers and struggles could be discouraging to her, Andrea has forged onward and maintains a positive outlook on her game. “The most important thing that I have learned in hockey is that you have to have strong nerves”, she says. “And if something doesn’t go well for you, keep trying and working at it until its perfect”.

On top of that, Rišianová sees the importance of being an advocate and an example for other Slovakian girls younger than her even who want to play the game of hockey. She encourages them that if they have an interest in the game, by all means, pursue it. “Don’t worry about those who may tell you that hockey is a ‘boys’ sport’. There are a lot of girls and a lot of women playing hockey more and more each day, and it’s a really nice thing to see developing”.

It is refreshing to see a young lady like Andrea Rišianová who is not only passionate about hockey, but who also is capable of maintaining her composure and her cool through good times and in bad. The highs of winning a bronze medal and a successful solo performance on the international scene, while trudging through the lows of a challenging season for her club team. Rišianová does not “toot her own horn” over her capabilities, but she also doesn’t lose sleep because she is going through a rough patch. She is a focused and a determined young lady who is bound to be a cornerstone for Slovakia’s national team for many years ahead. Keep up the great work, Andrea!

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Andrea Rišianová will be a strong goaltender for Slovakia for many years to come, much like her hero Peter Budaj. (Photo provided courtesy of Andrea Rišianová; photo credit Piotr Synowiec).

 

 

 

The Fighting Dane: Debbie Andersen

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16-year old ball of fire for Team Denmark, Debbie Andersen taking the face-off draw. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

These days, the game of hockey stretches to all corners of the earth, and particularly throughout the European Union. While its Scandinavian brethren Sweden and Finland have long been hockey hotbeds, the game has also been embedding its roots into the country of Denmark. This current 2015-16 NHL season has seen seven Danish players crack NHL lineups, including regulars like Anaheim goaltender Frederik Andersen, Colorado’s Mikkel Boedker, the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen and Montreal’s Lars Eller. Possessing a strong interest in the women’s game, it makes me wonder as to whether women’s hockey has much of a presence in Denmark as well. I end up meeting a 16-year old ball of fire for Denmark’s national U-18 team, forward Debbie Andersen.

“My favorite hockey player is Sidney Crosby”, Debbie tells me. I am sure that even the NHL would be impressed to know that an aspiring 16-year old female hockey player in Denmark calls the face of their game her favorite NHL player. “My favorite team is the New York Rangers”, she says; even better. But Debbie has her own personal heroes too that fall a bit closer to home. “There is also a player on my team who never gives up, and I really look up to him; I want to be better than him someday; his name is Joah (Aalling)”. Debbie and Joah play for Denmark’s Aarhus IK hockey club. Speaking more about Joah, it is obvious that Debbie knows that in order to succeed in hockey and to remain at a successful level, she needs to work on her game constantly. “He is a player who wants hockey more than anyone else that I’ve ever met. He makes me want to fight even harder, and that is what makes a ‘favorite’ player in my eyes”, she expounds. “He trains six times a week and shoots pucks daily, and I’ve started to do that also. I get inspiration from him that I have not really gotten from anyone else other than my coaches”.

Located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, Debbie lives in the city of Aarhus, Denmark, which is also where her hockey club is from. The second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus’ own hockey club is not far from where she lives at all. “There are not many hockey clubs in Denmark, and most are pretty far away from where I live, but in Aarhus it only takes me five minutes to get to training. But if I play or train in another place, it usually takes me one or two hours to get there by car”.

Debbie began playing hockey at eleven years old, and has played as a forward right from the get-go. “Forward is my favorite position, because I’m a fighter *she laughs*, and I want to be the one who makes the goals and assists; I’ve always wanted to play forward for that particular reason”. I suppose that in a family where she is the only girl with three brothers, two of whom are hockey players as well, Debbie would indeed be a bit of a scrapper both on the ice and at home. Though Debbie does credit one of her brothers for starting her interest in playing. “My brother saw a hockey movie at school, came home and said, ‘Mom, I want to play hockey too; it looks like fun!’. I went with my brother and my mom down to the hockey hall to register him and me too, and since then I’ve never left the ice!”.

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Debbie Andersen being mobbed by her teammates after a Denmark goal. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

Her fighting spirit is what Debbie believes is the most important part of her game, and something that she would extend to other players wishing to learn the game as well. “I think that the most important thing for a hockey player is fighting!”, though she does not mean fisticuffs or brawling; more so, approaching the game with tenacity and ferociousness. “Fight for every puck. Fight against every opposing player. And never give up on that. Be there for your teammates and support them, just like you would want to be supported”. I love this spirit that Andersen embodies. She is that type of player that fits the old adage; you love having her on your team, but would hate playing against her. Andersen is a disturber to the opposition, battling in corners and creating scoring chances both for herself and for her teammates.

This “junkyard dog” style of play and her “never give up”-attitude are what garnered Debbie’s nomination for the Danish U-18 national team that competed in January 2016 at the IIHF Women’s World U-18 Division-I Championships that were held in Miskolc, Hungary. Denmark had actually earned entrance into the tournament by finishing first in the 2015 Division-I Qualification which took place in Poland. For Debbie Andersen, being selected to play for her country was the most meaningful experience of her young life thus far, though it took her strong sense of diligence and commitment to attain it. “All girls who were playing hockey in Jutland were invited to a training camp run by the national team coaches. After several trials with the team, they decided to bring me along for a tryout with the entire national team. They have not kept me off the team since, and I have just continued to fight and work hard to keep my spot on the roster”. There is that fighting spirit again from her. I like the fact that Debbie humbly acknowledges that there are no guarantees, and that if she wants to continue to represent her country and play the game she loves, that she cannot slow her pace; she has to continue being committed.

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Debbie standing tall on the Team Denmark bench during the 2016 Division-I U-18 Women’s World Championships in Hungary (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen).

But for at least 2016’s version of Denmark’s U-18 team, the hard work was all worth it and something that she will be able to revel in forever. “My favorite memory was when the team and I put our equipment on for the first time and our jerseys. You are just so happy to know that you are one of just a handful of girls who is going to fight for your country. After that, the next biggest memory was the first goal we scored as a team in the tournament”. Denmark’s first goal would come in their third game of the tournament, scored by Andersen’s teammate Michelle Almquist, during a 3-1 loss to Germany. “They were both memories that I will never forget”, Andersen tells me. “It was just so big for me, that even now I will sometimes feel a tear running out of my eye. I was just so proud!”. And while Denmark would not muster a win during their five games in the tournament, being able to represent her country is something that will forever belong to Debbie as she continues throughout her hockey career.

And Debbie already has goals for the years ahead. “I really want to play college hockey. I really just want to get to the highest level that a girl can. And then after that, I really want to coach a team of my own someday”. I love knowing that she has these goals, and we then discuss what it will take to get more girls in Denmark interested in hockey; how do we grow the sport from here. To me it seems that Debbie has thought the process out, and has a strong sense of what it will take to promote hockey interest among young Danish girls. “There really aren’t that many girls in Denmark who are interested in hockey”, she says, a little disappointed. “But I think that if girls started to play some hockey in school, and then at home too with their friends, they’ll see that it’s a lot of fun and they’ll want to play too. Make them feel the fun of playing hockey – just like I did”. And she is right. Give them the opportunity to see how much fun this sport is. I recall being a seven year old in Buffalo, whacking a ball around with my hockey stick in our frozen backyard… there is just nothing else like it, and a youngster can easily fall in love with the game.

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The diminutive fireplug for Aarhus IK , Debbie Andersen, fighting for puck possession against a much larger opponent. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Andersen)

There is no slowing Debbie Andersen down. This young lady is a Tasmanian devil of sorts, at least on the ice and with her dreams for growing women’s hockey in her home country. “I really hope that girls’ hockey can become much more popular”, she almost pleads to me. “Girls’ hockey is just as important as men’s hockey. Yes, we are girls, but we want to play just as much as the men do… at least me!”. I like this kid; she has got superb leadership qualities and some bite to her. I think that if you put Debbie Andersen at the helm of women’s hockey in Denmark, made her a spokesperson of sorts, that she could definitely rally young girls and get them interested in the game. She leads by example, and as this young lady gets a little older and begins playing for the national women’s team, she may very well have inspired a large grouping of young girls to fall in love with the game as well. Go Debbie!

 

 

“Have Purpose”: Olivia Knowles, Team Canada defender

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Olivia Knowles #27, defender for Team Canada, is a remarkable person and hockey player. (Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Olivia Knowles is wise beyond her years. Hailing from Campbell River, British Columbia, the seventeen year old defender for Team Canada’s U18 Women’s Hockey team has a good head on her shoulders, and has a strong sense of self-awareness; particularly when it comes to what she wants to achieve in her hockey career, what steps she needs to take to accomplish those goals, and where she stands right now. It is inspiring and thought-provoking to listen to her speak, and equally as captivating when watching her compete on the ice.

I was fortunate enough to see Knowles play regularly in January at the IIHF U-18 Women’s World Championships in St. Catharines, having made the drive up from Buffalo. It was well worth it, as the tournament was a great deal of excitement, and presented my first opportunity to see Olivia Knowles play in person. She was a stalwart defender for Team Canada during that entire tournament, and her strength and tenacity on the back end were instrumental in Canada’s run to the gold medal game against Team USA; unfortunately, a 3-2 overtime heart-breaker for Knowles and her teammates. And while I know that she wishes that the outcome had been different, the tournament was a tremendous success for Olivia in more ways than one. Knowles finished the tournament with 2-assists for 2-points in 5-games, while putting up a plus-3 for her plus/minus to go along with 4-shots on goal, two of which came in the gold medal game against USA.

Thinking back on the tournament, Knowles tells me, “There is no bigger honor than to be a Canadian, playing the sport that every Canadian loves. It’s bigger than yourself. I think back on that whole week, and sometimes I think I talk about it too much *laughs*. It is hard to actually try and relive the experience, but the memories from the tournament always come back. The little things, the little memories are the best”.

Olivia Knowles began playing organized hockey when she was about 8-years old. At the time, her older brother was already playing hockey, as well as two of her cousins (who are now both playing in the British Columbia Hockey League, BCHL), and with being at the rink with so much regularity it was perhaps only natural that Olivia would end up playing the game too. “The first time I had played was actually with the “ESSO Fun Day” program, which is a great event. I had done gymnastics for a long time, so I have always been very competitive and very athletic. At the time, there were not a lot of opportunities to play with girls teams in Campbell River, so I played with boys instead, and even then would have to often travel to Victoria or Vancouver to play. But you are starting to see a lot more opportunities now in the area for young players than what there were before”. Olivia’s grandfather played for the old Trail Smoke Eaters of the former Western International Hockey League. “Playing hockey runs in the family, but it seems to skip a generation”, she laughs.

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Knowles in the thick of intense action versus Team USA at the 2016 U-18 Women’s World Championships in St. Catharines. (Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Olivia has been enrolled at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, British Columbia, and she has certainly found her place there. “It felt like home as soon as I got there. And I love the city of Penticton. I love the program here, and it works really well with the hours spent at the gym and training”. Okanagan possesses an incredible coaching staff and management team that includes former NHL players like Dixon Ward, Robert Dirk, Blake Wesley, and Stu Barnes, but it is former Wayne State University head coach and assistant at St. Cloud State, Jim Fetter, who has been most paramount throughout Olivia’s time at OHA. Fetter serves as the head coach for the women’s prep program at Okanagan. “He is such a great coach, and he really helped with my university decision making. He was a coach at Wayne State and St. Cloud, so he is very knowledgeable. He teaches us what to expect in college, and that we have to work hard through everyday. He taught me a lot about how to handle days away from the rink too, how to prioritize and time management”.

Looking at Knowles’ numbers from the 2014-15 season with Okanagan they are indeed very solid from her work on the blueline. In 28-games she recorded 4-goals and 6-assists, including one power-play tally, and also scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 victory over the Colorado Selects. Olivia laughs recalling the 3-goal game, “It was really weird. That was the first hat-trick of my life. It was one of my very first games with OHA, and I am thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing out here, this is my first time playing with girls, I’ve never played with girls before’, and then I end up scoring a hat-trick. It was really fluky”.

Olivia considers her hockey hero to be her former defense partner and captain at Okanagan, Micah Hart. “She was my D-partner last year and she is a born leader. Someone that you respect instantly. I find myself in situations where I am asking myself, ‘what would Micah do here?’ or ‘how would Micah handle this?’. I think that leadership is so important, and I try to imbue those same skills that Micah does.”. Hart is currently playing for Cornell University and had a stellar freshman year, being named to the ECAC Hockey All-Rookie Team and named as an All-Ivy Honorable Mention. Hart also spent two years on the Team Canada U-18 squad, and captained the team that took silver in Buffalo in 2015. It is easy to see why Knowles looks upon her with such tremendous respect and admiration.

Having been born in January of 1999, Knowles is eligible to compete once more for Canada at the 2017 Women’s U-18 tournament. With what she has learned from working alongside Hart and the tutelage of Coach Fetter, combined with her own experiences from this past year’s tournament, I am certain that Canada will call upon her to be one of the key contributors and role models for the 2017 club. At least for this next go-round, Knowles will know what to expect too. Speaking of the selection process for the 2016 team, she recalls it quite vividly. “It is a pretty long process. I remember meeting with Coach Fetter, who had been the coach for the 2004 U-18 women’s team, and I was told that I was definitely ‘on the radar’ for Team Canada, but needed to look at my game a bit more because it was not quite there yet. I was brought in to do fitness testing at a 10-day conditioning camp in Calgary with 12 D-men who were being considered for making the team. I have always thought that I’ve had really good conditioning because of all of my years doing gymnastics, so I thought I would be okay. But there is no questioning, that was the most tired I have ever been. It was so hard both mentally and physically, but it is amazing how much you are able to learn in such a short period of time. We went onto play three exhibition games at Lake Placid. We ended up winning the first, losing the second, and winning the third”.

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Knowles #4 helping to defend her net during an exhibition game versus USA in Lake Placid in September 2015 (Photo Credit: Nancie Battaglia Photography)

After the games in Lake Placid though, Olivia had to wait full four months, nervous all the while, before she would learn whether or not she made the team. “The goalie for Team USA, Alex Gulstene, also attends Okanagan, and she had already been notified that she was selected. I remember getting the call from Team Canada, and in some ways, it is the most terrifying thing ever”, she laughs. “So I am on the phone with Team Canada, standing outside at the academy, and I was so nervous. Alex walks out and realizes what is happening. She starts jumping up and down, freaking out, wanting to congratulate me while they are telling me that I made the team, and here I am trying to keep my cool and be professional on the phone”.

In addition to her experience from this past tournament, a selection of Knowles to the 2017 squad seems a no-brainer, particularly when considering the intangibles and fundamentals that she possesses. “I am blessed to be big”, she says, standing at 5’9″ and at the 150-pound mark. “I have size and strength. You can’t really learn size, and I do feel that it gives you an upper hand. I also feel that I am very body aware from all the years that I did gymnastics”. Olivia and I speak at length about how important it is be a coachable athlete, something we both found makes a true difference in how you perform and how you learn. “By being coachable, you know how to react to criticism, and how to learn from it”, she says. “I have always had a strong work ethic, and I have never been afraid of hard work. Plus, it helps that I am extremely competitive”.

There is so much more in store for Olivia Knowles’ future, in addition to playing for her country, and it is exciting to hear her talk about her decision to commit to playing at the University of Minnesota, becoming a Golden Gopher. “It was the first university that I had ever been to when I was about 9-years old. I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘when I grow up, I am going to play hockey here’. I have been to other schools, and they all have their perks. But in the end, it would come back to my dream of playing there, and what would work best for me; how well I’d fit there. It’s a gut feeling, telling me this is right”. And while she does consider the possibility of playing professionally, Olivia knows that it is one step at a time, and that it really comes down to her own development. “I want to go as far as I can playing hockey. My goal is to play for the senior team (National Women’s Team)”.

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Olivia Knowles peppering a shot on net against USA during the 2016 IIHF U-18 Women’s World Championships in St. Catharines. (Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Seeing what she is accomplishing and attaining in her life, I cannot help but be warmed by an interesting story she tells me. “I was just discussing this with my billet sister the other day. When I was in 8th-grade, our English teacher gave us an assignment to write down where we want to be in five years. Well, I wrote down that, one, I wanted to attend the Okanagan Hockey Academy, two, I wanted to commit to playing at a university or college, and three, that I wanted to play for Team Canada”. It is reassuring and inspiring that Olivia has accomplished these goals so exactly, and some of them are still blossoming. She certainly possesses a sense of self-awareness, and her strong foundation in hard work and determination is paying off in tenfold. The general consensus between Olivia, her billet sister, and myself is that she should indeed frame this assignment from 8th-grade and hang it up.

“Have purpose”, Olivia tells me. “That is my favorite quote – ‘Have Purpose'”. Very profound indeed. She elaborates even further, “You need to do things with a purpose, and you need to do them to the best of your ability. Having purpose. Working hard. Saying things to yourself, like ‘I am going to work on my wrist-shot today’, and then actually going and doing it. You need to care about the little things. The other motto I follow is, ‘Do what you can control’. I can’t control things like, the other team, or the fans. But, I can control my attitude. I can control my work ethic. You should never be satisfied. Yes, it is good to celebrate the small victories along the way, but don’t be satisfied with them. There are many fish in the sea, and if you don’t work hard someone else could easily displace you. Keep your nose to the grindstone. But definitely, have purpose”. Listening to her talk, if I was Olivia Knowles’ teammate, I would be readied to go to war for her on the ice.

Let me repeat myself – Olivia Knowles is wise beyond her years, in case you have not garnered that already. She is a superb hockey player and Canadian. There will be many great things that she is going to accomplish in the years ahead, and we have only just scratched the surface of her potential. You cannot help but be excited for her and to get caught up in her sense of duty and character, and her enthusiasm for the future. Olivia Knowles has purpose.