As Spencer Knight skated toward the bench midway through the Florida Panthers’ first preseason game against the Nashville Predators on Monday, he heard the round of applause intended for him.
The moment wasn’t lost on the 22-year-old goaltender.
“It’s great,” said Knight, who stopped all 13 shots he faced in about 30 minutes of action in Florida’s 5-0 win as part of a doubleheader sweep over Nashville (the Panthers won the second game 5-2). “The fans have always been so supportive, so passionate. Every time I have an interaction with them, they’re just awesome. Coming back and hearing them was pretty nice.”
It has been a long time coming.
Monday marked Knight’s first live game action since Feb. 18, less than a week before he entered the NHL and NHL Players Association’s joint player assistance program for what he later revealed to be due to an ongoing case with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
He was away from the team during its run to the Stanley Cup Final and is now having to compete over the preseason to keep his job as Sergei Bobrovsky’s backup.
But Knight is fine with that. For seven months, he has put in work behind the scenes to get himself in a good state mentally to be in this position. He knows he’s in a better place now than he was in February.
He’s embracing his battle, and that was the first true step Knight needed to take to get his life — not just his hockey career — back on track.
“There’s nothing to hide,” said Knight, Florida’s first-round pick in 2019. “I think I’ll become a better person and player from it and hopefully if there’s someone out there hearing my story, hopefully it helps them, too.”
‘A great lesson ... to ask for help’
In an interview with The Hockey News earlier this month when he initially revealed why he left the team, Knight said his bouts with OCD began when he was a freshman at Boston College in 2019 but it never really began impacting his ability to function on a day-to-day basis until this past December when he got the flu during a Panthers road trip.
His mind began racing. Sleep eluded him. It got to be too much for Knight, who told The Hockey News he was “spiraling in a direction I didn’t want to be going.”
So he got help.
Knight has been working one-on-one with an OCD expert and has a better grasp on how to handle it. He has a new outlook on life, focused on staying in the moment and prioritizing his mental health.
“I’m really, really happy for him,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He’s in great shape — and that was never an issue with him, right? — but he looks stronger physically. He looks like he’s enjoying being on the ice. It took a tremendous amount of courage for a young man to ask for help. Also, think about the amount of work he put in and almost nobody else knew. He knew there was something wrong, but there weren’t a lot of signs around him for us to figure that out. So great that he got it defined and got the professional help to help manage it. He looks like Spencer Knight on the ice, so good for him and a great lesson for young people to ask for help. It can make things better when you’re asking for help, but at times that you don’t think things could ever get better, things can get better. So he’s gonna be a good role model for a lot of people.”
Knight is entering the first year of a three-year, $13.5 million contract extension that he signed with the Panthers last September. In 57 career games, he has a .906 save percentage and 2.91 goals against average.
He’s gone through his bumps in the road on and off the ice. His job at this point isn’t secure.
But Knight isn’t worrying about that. He knows that whatever is meant to happen will happen.
The most important thing for him is that he’s back, he feels like himself again and he’s in control of himself again.
“Through the good and also the bad, you just have to remain level-headed,” Knight said. “That’s something that I think will carry me to another level and to play more and more games hopefully because the more nights you play, the more you just have to move on to the next one.”
He looked the part on Monday. Granted, it was a preseason game, but Knight showed little rust after all that time away. He stopped a breakaway a minute and a half into the game and helped navigate Florida through three penalty kills.
“Good to get back into game action,” Knight said. “I think after a while, practices kind of get repetitive. You need to play the game.”