When Matthew Knies takes the ice for the Gophers, he's pretty hard to miss.
His 6-3, 210-pound frame seems to always be in the center of the action, whether he's posting up at the net on a power play or inserting himself between linemate Ben Meyers and an opponent during a post-whistle scuffle.
Despite being a freshman, he's already one of the biggest bodies on the team. And his play has measured up— three goals and an assist through six games — with Big Ten play starting this weekend against Notre Dame.
But the 19-year-old wasn't always so imposing.
"I used to be the smallest kid on the ice," Knies said, "always the most shy to go in the corner."
Knies said he was only about 5-6, 145 pounds when he entered the USHL draft a couple of years ago. When he was undersized, Knies had to rely on developing his skill to keep up with his teammates in the Phoenix Junior Coyotes club program in his native Arizona.
But somewhere around the midget level, he had a huge growth spurt he attributed to summers in the weight room, eating right and a bit of luck. That advantage, paired with his diligently honed technique, made for an eye-opening combination. Even Gophers coach Bob Motzko was pleasantly surprised at Knies' skating ability for his size upon first working with him this season.
"The good ones usually show up from day one and look good. He's looked good from day one," Motzko said. "… He's a big kid with a lot of talent and plays hard, plays the game the right way."
While the Southwest is not exactly a hotbed for hockey, Knies benefited from growing up a fan of the Arizona Coyotes and playing with many of those NHL players' sons on his club hockey team. He also had an example to follow in his brother, Phillip Knies, who played four years at Miami Ohio and is now in his fifth year at Bentley.
Phillip Knies and his parents, Miro and Michaela Knies, immigrated to the U.S. from Slovakia before Matthew Knies was born. The brothers grew up embracing American and Slovakian cultures while appreciating their parents' efforts to create a better life for them in a new country.
Hockey is popular in Slovakia — Matthew Knies even received a Fathead of Slovakian NHLer Zdeno Chara for a birthday one year — and their father grew up playing a version of street hockey. The family built a shooting setup in their garage where the brothers would play together often. But once Phillip Knies went off to college, Matthew started recruiting others to play keep-away with him or pass him pucks. Even his grandma became a practice partner at one point.
The grandparents speak only Slovak, so Knies makes sure to only speak to his family in that language so he doesn't lose it while no longer around it in Minnesota.
Despite Knies being one of the few non-Minnesotans on the Gophers' roster, he said he immediately felt welcomed thanks to the team captains, including Sammy Walker. He's thinking of picking up playing guitar like Walker as well as maybe taking some cooking cues from his roommate, Tristan Broz. Both Walker and Blake McLaughlin described Knies as "a goofball" who makes them laugh.
"When I first saw him, I thought he was 28," Walker said. "And then you meet him, and it's like, 'OK, yeah, he's a freshman.'"
While he's outgoing and light-hearted off the ice, Knies is much more dangerous on it. He has drawn comparisons to former Gophers and current Colorado Avalanche forward Sampo Ranta. The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Knies in the second round (57th overall) of the 2021 NHL draft.
"If I have this size, I might as well use it, in protecting the puck or taking it to the net, taking away the goalie's eyes," Knies said. "I mean, I love that job. I think that's where you score goals is in front of net and taking it there.
"So I'm blessed to have the size I do, and I try to use it as much as I can."