Knight working his way back with Checkers

Photo: Micheline Veluvolu

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Sometimes it’s the quiet nights that are particularly challenging for a goaltender. Sunday was one of those evenings for Spencer Knight.

But really, that is just hockey. The bigger picture is that Knight is back on the ice.

Now there is something familiar for Knight – the ice. Even with the demanding schedule of a weekend in the AHL, a long road trip, the ups and downs of hockey, it sure beats where Knight has been.

After a long ride on the exercise bike, the soft-spoken netminder stood in the Giant Center hallway outside the Charlotte Checkers dressing room on Sunday evening and reviewed his night. And much more.

Knight had just led the Checkers into the home of the league-leading defending Calder Cup champions at the end of a three-in-three weekend that took them from Rochester to Lehigh Valley to Hershey. Charlotte tucked in a pair of goals in the opening 3:03 of the game and assembled as close to a masterpiece as could be expected given the circumstances. The Checkers held the Bears to just 14 shots on goal, a season low in the AHL this season, in a 3-1 victory.

For the 22-year-old Knight, it was another step towards a return to the NHL.

“One thing we’ve been trying to do is control what we can,” Knight said, “and each day is a new day. And I think you can see it when you’re doing well. Also, when you’re doing bad, things can change really quick and for the better or for the worse.”

Knight said head coach Georgie Kinnear has been emphasizing composure, and Sunday was certainly a composed night for the Checkers. But when Hershey pressed – and they did at times – Knight had to pull his teammates through.

“You’ve just got to find ways to impact the game,” Knight said of those quiet nights that are interspersed with bursts of activity. “That’s one thing I’ve learned how to do. I don’t really worry about what comes at me, whether it’s a lot or a little. It’s all right.”

Hockey has been one success after another through much of Knight’s career. He came through the storied U.S. National Team Development Program. He was selected by the Florida Panthers with the 13th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. He fashioned a standout collegiate career at Boston College, earning Hockey East goaltender and player of the year honors as a sophomore. He was a two-time finalist for the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender. Oh, and he also led the United States to a gold medal at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Clearly it was time to move on. Knight signed with the Panthers and immediately stepped into the Florida crease, teaming with veteran Sergei Bobrovsky. One day after turning 20, he won his NHL debut. He made two appearances in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 2021-22, he set a franchise record for wins by a rookie netminder. And he earned a new three-year contract from the Panthers.

Then came last season. He was 9-8-3 in 21 games, with a 3.18 GAA and .901 save percentage. But the numbers weren’t the whole story. Knight had to make a mature and difficult decision: he stepped away from the Panthers and sought help, entering the NHL-NHLPA Players’ Assistance program on Feb. 24. The program aims to assist players dealing with a wide variety of issues.

Knight told The Hockey News in September that he was dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Competing at the game’s highest level is a challenge for any player. Add in something like OCD, and that task becomes that much more difficult. And that’s just on the ice. Off the ice can present another set of daily, hourly, and even minute-to-minute challenges for someone. Knight is a world-class athlete, but he is a person just like anyone else trying to make it through life each day.

“I was spiraling in a direction I didn’t want to be going,” Knight told THN.

But Knight put in the work, so much so that he eventually was able to return to the Panthers and take part in their development camp in July. From there he went to training camp and was assigned to Charlotte to start this season.

Life, whether it’s on or off the ice, is a process.

“I’ve always thought, ‘I need to win the game,’” Knight explained. “And I find that it doesn’t work that way. When you’re in the game, you can’t win the game in the first period. You can’t win the game in the second period. You can’t win the game when there’s five minutes left.

“You can do things that impact the result. But you can’t win the game in the middle of the game. I’ve found that it is a process, and one thing that I’ve worked on is just letting things unfold. If you do the right things to set yourself up for success, more times than not you’ll get better results.”

There are going to be tough nights. Bad results. Things go askew. It’s pro sports, but it’s also life.

“That’s the one thing I’ve really started to appreciate,” Knight continued. “Going back to the idea of the process, things are going to go poorly a lot, and it’s about how you react. You’ve got to let things unfold. Work hard, keep showing up. It’s a process. It’s the big picture.

“You’ve just got to keep showing up, good or bad.”