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Returning From Injury: The Unseen

Monday, September 21st
Returning From Injury: The Unseen

Pain. Alone, on the ice. Tunnel vision.

“Oh my God, how long am I going to be out for?” said forward Karl El-Mir.

“This is going to suck,” said defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf.

“This isn’t good,” said defenseman Jimmy Mazza.

“The worst-case scenario pops into your head immediately,” said defenseman Curtis Leonard.

More thoughts creep in: Is it that bad? Am I going to finish the game? Should I fight through this?

Often in the pro sports realm, the news ticker of your favorite sports station flashes with a report of an injury, and an estimated return-to-play timeline for your favorite player. Twitter doctors routinely diagnose the injury’s severity, and dissect each injury frame by frame with video evidence. Time passes by, and then the player is magically cleared to play. Good as new.

What happens in the midst of that recovery? The time is filled with rehabilitation exercises to return to play, indeed, but it also comes with uncontrollable and inevitable emotional trauma.

El-Mir was just 16 years old when he attended South Kent Selects Academy in Connecticut when he suffered his first major hockey injury. He played most of the season through a torn labrum, and a shoulder that would pop out of its socket multiple times during every game. An intrusive thought would swoop into his mind as he thought about his future. Would it affect his quality of life at such a young age?

Zuhlsdorf dealt with a nagging wrist injury at times during his career at the University of Minnesota. The injury became a mental barrier for him. He had to completely rework how hard he could press on his stick to make a pass, or shoot the puck. In his words, it prevented him from doing what he had to do as a player to be the most successful.

Mazza took two slashes to the hand with the Reading Royals last season during a dump-in—an action on a routine play that happens so many times in a game it’s comical. His right pinky finger broke in half, and the tendon shredded.

Leonard felt a pop in his ankle while playing for the Fort Wayne Komets, and the pain radiated throughout his leg for the next two shifts. He knew something was wrong. His leg swelled up like a balloon, and the timeframe given to him was uncertain. It could be three weeks; it could be nine weeks. One wrong move, one wrong stride, could set the whole entire recovery process back completely.

“Hockey players are really resilient people,” Zuhlsdorf said. “Every day you’re doing rehab before and after practice, and it’s a lot extra to go along with the pain and suffering. But it’s all part of the gig.”

Life still has to go on regardless of the pain—both physical and emotional.

Simple tasks that all of us take all too far for granted become obstacles. Opening doors. Carrying objects. Cleaning. Eating. All of it changes, and the traumatic shock of that change is not something easily handled by some of the most physically competent beings on the planet.

“My roommate helped me in prep school,” El-Mir said, “but I had to grow up faster and realize I’m missing an arm. How can I get through my daily routine without going crazy? I had to rely on a lot of people. I like being independent though. Having to ask people to grab a plate of food for me…I felt useless.”

Zuhlsdorf had to endure something very similar in the beginning of his rehab from the wrist injury. Doing normal tasks alone was remarkably more difficult with one hand at full strength.

“I was keen on doing things on my own. I wanted to block out the thought of me being injured. I was persistent on doing things on my own,” Zuhlsdorf explained. “It probably wasn’t the best thing to do, but it’s mentally traumatic to deal with and constantly think about the injury.”

Mazza couldn’t lift weights or play video games to entertain himself in his now plentiful downtime. Any task that he unconsciously accomplished with his right hand had to be done with his left hand. Mazza joked that it became his dominant hand pretty quickly.

“I became best friends with my bike. I also watched exercise videos on YouTube and did jumping jacks in my living room,” Mazza said. “It even got to a point where I had to have a teammate or the equipment manager tie my skates, because I like them tied super tight and I couldn’t tie them. I felt like a kid again.”

Change is hard for hockey players, who are, by trade, routine-oriented to a fault on the whole.

All of the players pointed to having a good support system to keep them mentally sane over the course of the injury’s duration. To some extent, everyone has gotten hurt at some point. Everyone has played through the pain.

It begs the question, though: why in the world would a sane, rational person fight through all of the pain? It’s all about the goal. It’s about getting to the next level, and having a chance of fighting for the ultimate prize wherever they are.

“Having a long-term injury is devastating for any player,” Zuhlsdorf said, noting he continues to fight for his opportunity to play in the NHL. “You get to watch everyone else keep progressing towards their goals while you sit on the sidelines. All you want to do is get to that goal yourself.”

“I’m a rookie. I want to do what I can to contribute,” Mazza said. “I want to help us win games.”

“Will I be strong enough to come back? Will I be the same player as I was before?” El-Mir asked. It’s easy to worry about the future when they know the goal is contingent on continued good health.

Fan scrutiny magnifies as players tough out injuries. Leonard was flat in his explanation when he said recovering from injuries is draining physically and mentally. “All you want to do is play hockey.” That’s how they are wired.

Sometimes it isn’t completely apparent that a player is playing through the pain just for a chance to win the game and help their team reach the ultimate prize. This is more usually glorified and celebrated during the playoffs. Recall when Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron played through the 2013 Stanley Cup Final with a broken rib, torn cartilage, multiple torn muscles, a separated shoulder—oh, and a punctured lung, which eventually collapsed after Game 6 of the Final, which forced a three-day stay in the hospital.

“Fans don’t know that a player has been playing injured for the past two months, and they’re wondering, ‘why did his level of play go down a notch?  He’s just not giving it one hundred percent,’” El-Mir said. “But he may have a fractured foot, or a torn labrum. Hockey is different. You tough it out. You play on it.”

Thankfully, these players have each other to lean on in case it all gets too overwhelming.

The Québécois forward talked about helping a former teammate through a similar recovery process. If a player has been through hell, they know it’s up to them to be a good teammate and continue to help them through the frustrations of not being one hundred percent.

Hockey players are resilient creatures, and the cohesive unit of a hockey team is a brotherhood that gives them the support system to get through it. Sometimes they themselves can be the support system too.

Mazza was away from his teammates on road trips, but whenever he was in the locker room, he used his trademark Long Island energy to keep spirits up. He easily could have had a “woe is me” attitude after missing three months, and having the season canceled before he could come back into the lineup, but that has given him a new target—getting into the lineup with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.

“If you’re a teammate and you need help, I’m there for you,” El-Mir said. “Being a good teammate is being good to them both on and off the ice.”

It isn’t always about physical toughness to be a successful pro hockey player. It takes the mental resilience and the emotional support of a cohesive team to get through the journey and come back better than ever.

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