Entering her sixth season with the Thunder, it may prove to be the most cherished in the sensational career of goaltender Liz Knox. A highly popular competitor who has carved a strong legacy in team lore, there is the opportunity to add a new dimension to such a distinguished career, becoming a local hero in the professional ranks. With the Thunder departing from Brampton, the only city that the team had ever called home, dating back to its days in the original NWHL, its new home in Markham, Ontario brings a strong emotional component for Knox.
As the home to the Clarkson Cup championships for three consecutive seasons (2013-15), Markham is an area close to Knox’s heart. Raised in the neighboring community of Stouffville, Knox’s prodigious years of junior hockey involved competition in the Stouffville Markham Girls Hockey Association. Coincidentally, another alum of the Association is Gillian Apps, whom Knox called a teammate for two seasons with the Thunder.
In addition to competing for the Markham-Stouffville Junior Stars organization, Knox was also a co-captain for the Stouffville District Secondary School varsity hockey team. As a side note, she was a multi-sport star in high school, also competing in volleyball and basketball (where she was also bestowed the honor of captaincy in both sports), while graduating as Class Valedictorian.
“It is a really cool experience to feel like my career has come full circle. I was so lucky to grow up in an organization like Stouffville with a strong community of girls’ hockey and I could not think of a better place to spend my last years. It’s home.”
In a career that has included an incredible number of accolades and achievements such as the Wilfrid Laurier University President's Award and the Outstanding Woman of Laurier Award, along with the 2010 Brodrick Trophy, Knox has also competed internationally. Standing between the pipes with the Canadian national women’s ice hockey team, she also won a 2014 Australian Women's Ice Hockey League title and she participated in the 2015 ISBHF Worlds.
Such a hockey resume also includes making her mark in Thunder franchise history. One of the longest serving goaltenders in franchise history, only Toronto’s Sami Jo Small boasts more seniority among all league goaltenders this season. As a highly touted arrival when she first joined Brampton, it did not take Knox long to establish herself as a cornerstone in the team's goaltending structure. By the end of her inaugural CWHL season, she became the first rookie goaltender to start a Clarkson Cup championship game, also emerging as the Most Outstanding Goaltender of the tournament.
With the chance to continue playing for the Thunder in Markham, it allows Knox to make new history for the club. Although the first game in franchise history took place on the road against the rival Toronto Furies, which saw Erica Howe gain the start, Knox would grace the ice for the home opener. Donning sharp green jerseys, with a superlative silver and black trim, Knox’s stunning mask impressed, incorporating green with the Hockey Canada logo.
Taking place on October 21, 2017 at the Thornhill Community Centre, the chance to start consisted of a dual impact for the gracious Knox. With such strong ties to the community, Knox’s athletic legacy has established her as a role model for so many young athletes over the last several years. In addition to the start for the Thunder allowing Knox to tap into her early roots in the game, gaining new appreciation for the essence of home ice advantage, it was reciprocal in that it allowed the community to indulge in the presence of a homegrown talent that has blossomed into such a prominent and accomplished figure.
“I do not think I fully grasped the impact of that historic first game until days later. To think what it really means that we brought professional women's hockey to Markham? This will be a place where generations of young girls will hope to play. They will watch Olympic greats and form their dreams here. It is such an honour to be part of that kind of history.”
There was another historical context to the opener, as the Thunder hosted the Kunlun Red Star in their regular season debut. One of two expansion teams from China, including the Vanke Rays, the Red Star have a tremendous lineup filled with notable names from both North American and Europe.
Among such talent includes All-World goaltender Noora Raty, who has claimed bronze in the IIHF Women’s Worlds and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, along with gold at the 2017 Nations Cup. The chance to oppose Raty in Knox’s home debut for the Thunder certainly rekindled fond memories of her own international career, which included the Winter Universiade and the 8 Nations Cup.
Although Knox would become further intertwined in Red Star history, as she allowed their first-ever goal, as Kelli Stack, a former Clarkson Cup champion with the Boston Blades, scored in the first, it was the only goal that Knox allowed. Neutralizing the Red Star offense with tremendous poise, Knox also nullified multiple power play opportunities, recording 23 saves over the last two periods, including 14 in the third, resulting in remarkable retribution.
With Jamie Lee Rattray, a former member of Canada’s national team, leading the offensive charge with a pair of goals, the Thunder emerged victorious in their home ice debut, an inspiring 2-1 final in which four different players gained assists on Rattray’s goals. Knox would go on to make 37 saves, including a penalty shot from Rachel Llanes, which saw the Markham faithful roar in glorious approval.
Gaining the victory in the first-ever game on home ice for the Thunder, including the first win against the Kunlun Red Star, Knox made history twice in one day. Undoubtedly, the presence of Raty elevated the quality of Knox’s already superlative game, providing a strong sense of fulfilment, while gaining the chance to share the ice with one of the game’s greatest international goaltenders ever.
“The win was such an amazing feeling. We had so much support at our home opener and it was an exciting environment at both ends of the ice. Raty is one of the best goalies to ever touch women's hockey so it was a pretty surreal experience. Just a lot of fun for all, I think.”
In pure storybook fashion, the aftermath of the game resulted in more momentum for an already jubilant Knox. Gaining the First Star of the Game honors, Rattray also joined her, recognized as the Third Star. As a side note, Red Star forward (and former Boston Blades competitor) Rachel Llanes was named Second Star, the first player in franchise history with a postgame honor. Proving that she is capable of rising to the occasion and constantly provide her team with a chance to win, Knox is the bookend for one of the CWHL’s most formidable goaltending duos.
“As far as the First Star-- as cliché as it may sound, that was a team win. With a lot of young players on our roster, it was nice to get the win for the ol' gal and it shows just what kind of character this team is made of. It was a very proud moment for us all.”
With this season serving as the first for the Thunder in Markham, there may also be a good omen. During the CWHL’s inaugural season, the Thunder claimed the league championship. Of note, there would be a unique sense of serendipity if the club could claim the Clarkson Cup during its first in Markham, mirroring the pinnacle of a decade ago. Although such an outcome would accentuate the feeling of coming full circle for Knox, she approaches it with a mature perspective, taking tremendous enjoyment in the unfolding narrative that encompasses the inaugural season in Markham green,
“Honestly, I could not write a better ending but I have also been in the game long enough to know how tough the Clarkson Cup is to win and what a long road we have to get there. So for now, we just focus on the process and enjoy the journey.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Jess Bazal