By Adamo Marinelli
As a young girl who grew up near the Rideau Canal, Heidi Knoll would spend countless hours every day each winter skating with her cousins, who all played hockey.
Neither of her siblings played the sport growing up, so it came as a huge surprise to her father — who himself didn’t play — when his seven-year-old daughter asked to play hockey.
“He got me my cousin’s old gear, thinking I would only play for a year,” said Knoll, who will in a few months begin her NCAA Division 1 hockey career.
“But now I’ve been playing for 11 years and counting and he’s been supporting me since the very beginning.”
Thanks to her cousins and those many, many skates on the canal, Knoll set off on a path that will land her at Syracuse University come this fall.
Her journey, from when she first took up the sport at seven playing on a boys’ atom team, to now, has been a winding one.
“I remember I got cut from the ‘AA’ team in my first year of atom and I was really upset. But
then I went to the atom ‘B’ tryouts because that was the next best team,” Knoll said.
The team she landed on showed her an “amazing year,” culminating in a run at their age group’s provincial championship. “That was a very fun year and I still have best friends from that team,” she said.
Knoll then made a move to the Ottawa Ice of the Ottawa Girls Hockey Association (OGHA), whose ‘AA’ teams she played on for a few years. After that, she joined the Nepean Wildcats, with whom she played one year of midget before spending another three with the club’s Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) team
This past year, Knoll was named one of the under-22 Nepean Junior Wildcats’ captains. It was a challenging experience, but helped her grow on and off the ice, she said.
Knoll said she didn’t “have the best year on the ice,” leading her to develop some self doubts. However, part of what she learned in her leadership role was understanding when certain situations are out of her control, and when the best thing she can do in a scenario is to take a step back.
Like most other high-level athletes, COVID-19 presented Knoll with challenges she’d never confronted before. No longer was the U22 Nepean team she played on exclusively face other PWHL teams; regional restrictions meant her team was at times cut off from their typical Toronto-area opponents, meaning the quality of their competition was often inconsistent.
As the pandemic dragged on, it took a bigger toll on Knoll’s mental health. Constant disruptions and shutdowns made it tough for her to hone her skills on the ice and build on her strength and conditioning.
She was, however, selected for a U-18 Team Canada Camp in August 2021, allowing her to train at a time when most athletes couldn’t. Knoll is grateful for the experience, but described it as stressful as well.
“My anxiety was on a whole other level,” Knoll said. “I went in pretty confident of my abilities and then [the camp] did the opposite. It kind of ruined my confidence because everyone there was so good.”
Her challenges continued once the season started, particularly with some bad luck with her health. Knoll became ill at an inopportune time, and missed a Team Ontario camp. She wasn’t selected for the subsequent Team Canada camp coming soon after, leaving her upset but also motivated to turn her season around.
Recalling lessons from her earlier time spent with the Team Canada program, Knoll said she’s spent time “putting on a little more muscle and working on (her) aggressiveness.”
Heading to Syracuse — which is the destination of a well-travelled pipeline of Ottawa-to-D1 women’s hockey players — Knoll wants to hone her skills with the Orange so that she has the chance to someday play for Team Canada.
“I have to work a lot harder if I want to accomplish that,” said the Glebe Collegiate Institute senior.
Knoll will be taking sports management and hopes to apply her education to a career in sport as well.
“I definitely want to take the sports route (and it) doesn’t have to be hockey,” she said. “I’d prefer it if it was hockey, but wherever my degree takes me is what I want to do.”
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