MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota announced earlier this week that the women's hockey team will play two exhibition games before the regular season begins, including a game against the pros of the Premier Hockey Federation - the Minnesota Whitecaps. For Gophers alumnae who made the jump to play professionally and signed with the Whitecaps, playing their university in a preseason game is a unique trip to their alma mater, where they'll play against old classmates and in front of friendly faces.
The Gophers will host the Minnesota Whitecaps at Ridder Arena in an exhibition game at 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 30. Admission is free.
On Wednesday, KARE 11 spoke with Olivia Knowles and Patti Marshall, who were both defenders and captains for the Minnesota Gophers. Knowles signed with the Whitecaps this offseason after playing for the University of Minnesota for five years. She also played alongside Marshall, who played for the Gophers from 2017 to 2020 and is now entering her second season with the Whitecaps after playing professionally in Sweden for a season.
For Marshall, who played against the Whitecaps as a senior in their last exhibition game in 2019, these exhibition games are special. As a college athlete, the 2019 exhibition match was the last time she put her uniform on for the first time for the season and it was the first time for the team's freshman to get dressed for a game.
The former Gopher explained that exhibition games like this are important for both the college and professional teams. "I think everyone's just excited to get their feet underneath them, test out their systems, just get back in the groove for the rest of the season," she told KARE 11.
Knowles, who left the Gophers program as the team's leader in career games played with 168, said she's excited to both play with her new teammates on the Whitecaps and take on her former teammates.
"I think it gonna set the tone for all of us for the year, hopefully, we can build off the things that we learned and set the tone for the rest of the season," Knowles said. She added that the team would obviously like to peak in the playoffs, the exhibition game can set the foundation for the rest of the season.
During her fifth and final season, Knowles scored 18 points in 37 games and ended her colligate career with 17 goals and 61 assists.
"I'm new to the team, but I know a lot of the girls from playing against them in the WCHA and I'm really excited to play my teammates obviously, my old teammates I guess," she said. "I've practiced against them so I know all of their strengths and I think it'll be a fun matchup to play."
The British Columbia native said she played against the Whitecaps in their last exhibition game in 2019, saying, "it was fun, it was physical and it was a good pace. I know it prepared us for the season really well."
With so many new faces on the Whitecaps' roster, Marshall said they'll "work through some kinks" since it will be the first time the team's new roster and system will be put to the test. She added, "we're doing it against a very good team so it'll be good for us."
Currently, according to the team, there are five University of Minnesota alumnae on the Whitecaps' roster; Knowles, Marshall, Amanda Leveille, Stephanie Anderson and Sydney Baldwin.
"I think we're all excited to get back out there because we remember when we were in college and how excited we got to play against the Whitecaps," Marshall said.
The Whitecaps struggled last season with injuries and lost in the second round of the Isobel Cup playoffs against the Connecticut Whale. Their exhibition game against one of the best college women's hockey teams in the nation will be the team's first test on their journey back to their winning ways. After all of the team's new signings, Marshall expects a lot of success for the Whitecaps this season.
"Honestly, we've signed a lot of great players," she said. "I think our team took giant steps in the right direction. I'm personally just keep doing what I do, stick to my game plan. I'm trying to keep it simple out there."
For the Whitecaps, Ridder Arena will likely be the largest venue they'll play in this season. The university's Ridder Arena has a capacity of 3,400 and, when it opened in 2002, was the first facility meant solely for women's hockey.
"I'm really looking forward to it, to just get back into the arena that I share so many great memories with teammates and coaches, family there," Marshall said. "They always have such a great crowd and I know I'm going to see so many friendly faces, which makes it a little more competitive out on the ice."
For Knowles, playing at Ridder Arena as an opponent, not as the home team, "would be weird."
"I might change to the wrong bench or go to the wrong dressing room," Knowles said, adding that she doesn't think she's ever been in the opponent's locker room at Ridder Arena. "It'll definitely be a weird experience being on the other side."
This year, after playing at the Minnesota Wild's TRIA Rink for years, the Whitecaps made the move this summer to the Richfield Ice Area, which has a capacity of about 1,800. The Whitecaps' new home will be the first true-home ice in the PHF, as the team entered an agreement with the City of Richfield to be the arena's sole tenant. The team previously told KARE 11 that they were in the design process for the ice, which will feature the team's logo on center ice for the first time in the PHF.
"To me, Richfield is that more old style, barn-like homey feeling," Marshall said. "I'm super excited, I hope our fans are. So I'm really looking forward to the move."
Goalie Amanda Leveille, who is the all-time career wins leader in the PHF, previously told KARE 11, "We have a lot of new players on our team which is going to present new opportunities for them, and for them stepping into just having their own rink I think is really cool."
The PHF is the only professional women's hockey league in North America, which leaves college athletes with few options. For Marshall, signing with the Whitecaps gave her the opportunity to continue playing hockey professionally while still being able to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. She is in her second year of dental school, she said. The Whitecaps drafted her with the 11th overall pick in the second round of the 2020 PHF Draft.
Once out on the ice, Marshall said people can see the difference between college and professional women's hockey players.
"You can tell, not necessarily even the speed of the game, but its the scale, it's the vision on the ice," she said. "It's a big difference. You can just see the poise players have, and they can see the play happening way ahead of time so it's definitely really exciting."
This offseason, the PHF opted to forego the annual draft and instead opened up a free agency period for teams to build their rosters. For Knowles, she had to decide where she would sign and for which league. While the PHF is the only professional women's hockey league on the continent, it isn't the player in the women's hockey world.
The Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), which has no ties to the PHF, has its annual Dream Gap Tour, with sponsored teams playing head-to-head. This upcoming tour will feature four teams traveling to different sites in North America and the association is largely made up of Olympians.
Knowles said she looked at both the PWHPA and the PHF for her future professional career path. "Ultimately, I decided that I knew the community here was great," she said. "I had played with the former Gophers who are now on the Whitecaps, I can't say enough good things about them, and I knew no matter what happens with the directions of the two leagues right now, I knew that I could stay here and call it home and feel welcome and keep having fun in hockey."
For women looking to make the jump from college to professional hockey, Marshall said "don't be afraid to reach out, seek our options." She added, "just don't lose your passion for it. You play because you're so passionate about it and still love the sport, so don't lose that."
Knowles said the process of finding a professional team to sign with was kind of like the college recruitment process, saying "it's really about weighing your options." She explained players should consider what city they'll play in, the team culture, how the team is treated and what resources they have to work with.
"Where you are going to be happiest is the most important thing," she explained. "Where you're going to feel like you can contribute most as a teammate or player."
When the Gophers and Whitecaps take to the ice, Marshall will play against two recruiting classes that she once played alongside in maroon and gold.
Marshall, who had eight goals and 53 assists during her time with the Gophers, said her favorite memories were of her teammates in the locker room and on the road, saying "I can't tell you the score of the game, or who scored the goals, but I remember the people that I celebrated it with."
Aside from their contracts being one-year deals, the financial details of Marshall's and Knowles' contracts were not released by the team. In the PHF, both the player and team have to both agree to publicly disclose contract salaries.
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