Injuries and sports go hand in hand. As undesirable as they are, dings, nicks, tears and breaks are just an accepted part of athletics.
As Wisconsin men’s hockey head coach Mike Eaves put it, “To think you’re going to go through a season without injuries, you’re kidding yourself.”
Right now, Eaves’ squad is dealing with its own set of injuries, which he acknowledged as part of the struggle of a long, grinding season in a high contact sport.
“Every trip you go on, you’re going to have storms and we’re dealing with some of our storms right now,” Eaves said.
Although all of 20 players on the dress list for each game each possess unique strengths and fill different roles, the players the Badgers have lost to injury are some of the most critical players on the team.
Earlier in the season, Wisconsin lost goaltender Joel Rumpel, who, thankfully for the Badgers, missed only five games with an ankle injury and has come back to win 10 of 12 games.
After Rumpel returned, the Badgers remained healthy all-around for a stretch of five consecutive weeks, until misfortune struck twice in the course of a week when they lost forwards Sean Little and Nic Kerdiles to shoulder injuries the week of Dec. 30.
Wisconsin got Little back this past weekend in the series against Ohio State after he missed four games, but then lost another key piece in Tyler Barnes in the second game against the Buckeyes this past Saturday.
“He’s energy. I know he’s got 10 goals,” Eaves said of Barnes, who is Wisconsin’s third leading scorer with 18 points and, more notably, has only missed one game in his career. “He works really hard in the corner, so his energy and physical play and his ability to finish—that’s a big chunk. But we’re going to have to keep our carts close to our car and play well as a team.”
Kerdiles, on the other hand, missed three games even before his injury because of the World Junior Championships. Then, in his first game back in the lineup against Alaska Anchorage Jan. 4, Kerdiles sustained his shoulder injury midway through the game.
Before leaving the Badgers for Sweden and the WJC, Kerdiles led Wisconsin in scoring with his 17 points, and even with missing seven games he still only trails Michael Mersch for the team-lead in points by seven.
Despite losing a key scoring source, Wisconsin has found a way to make up for Kerdiles’ scoring with the help of new faces in the lineup.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’d definitely love to have those two in the lineup every night. It is a big deal. Those two are key components to our offense and in the d-zone. They’re both solid players, so we’re definitely going to miss them but we definitely feel confident with Paape and Cavallini as well,” Little said of Matt Paape and Aidan Cavallini, who have seen playing time due to the multiple injuries among the forwards.
“Guys have been around the block a time or two and they know we’ve faced a lot of adversity the last couple of years with injuries and coaching changes and all that, so we’re almost used to it.”
The biggest instance of adversity Little made reference to was the 1-7-2 start to last year’s campaign that saw the Badgers lose Zengerle to a hand injury, an assistant coaching change and Kerdiles being suspended for the first 10 games of the year. But following the miserable start, Wisconsin rebounded and won the WCHA Final Five tournament to secure an automatic bid for the NCAA tournament.
Twenty of the 26 players on this year’s roster experienced those trying times of the early portion of last season, setting the Badgers up for any adversity to come.
“Everybody was already moving onto soccer season. They didn’t even want to watch hockey,” assistant coach Gary Shuchuk said. “For us, going through that whole stretch last year was a piece of cake. We know we overcame it, we know we had to adjust how we played.”
So although losing leading point-getters such as Kerdiles and Barnes may seem like a tough task from the outside, the experience the Badgers have had in adverse situations make this one just another day in the life.
“From our standpoint it doesn’t affect us. The fan standpoint and everyone else around the league is like, ‘Oh, boy, they lost another player.’ But we can’t feel sorry for ourselves and, ‘Oh, boy, we shouldn’t even go to Michigan. We’ll mail them six points,’” Shuchuk said. “We’ll have to play hard. We know what’s at stake, and no one in the locker room is going woe is us. We’re fine. We’re good to go. We’re happy with the guys we have in the lineup.”
It is quite possible that Kerdiles could return to play this weekend when the Badgers travel to Michigan, but with Barnes out indefinitely, Wisconsin will be without at least one key player.
But interestingly enough, neither Eaves, Shuchuk or Little hardly seemed phased by their possible absences.
Instead of dreading the injuries, the Badgers and Eaves have embraced the adversity and the experiences with it to come.
“This is the great part of sport. Who steps in? Who does the job? So I’m excited who’s going to be that guy for us,” Eaves said.