EVERETT — Hockey tradition dictates that players wear suits to and from the arena on game days.
Active players change into their uniforms, but scratched players spend the entire game watching and taking statistics in suits — hardly the most comfortable apparel.
Now imagine trying to maneuver inside a bus, up and down arena steps and around locker rooms on crutches and sporting a huge brace on your surgically repaired knee.
That is the situation in which Everett Silvertips defenseman Mackenzie Dwyer found himself nine months ago when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a 2-1 win over the Saskatoon Blades on Jan. 18.
Dwyer was cleared for contact last week and made his regular-season debut in Friday’s 3-1 win at Portland. He also played in Sunday’s 4-3 loss at Tri-City and could make his home debut Wednesday for Everett (3-0-1-0, seven points) against the Americans (2-2-0-0, four points) when they visit Xfinity Arena at 7:05 p.m.
“It’s been a long time so it feels pretty amazing to be back with the guys after skating by myself for the last few months,” Dwyer said. “It was good to get out there, toss the puck around a little bit and make some moves on some guys and battle in the corners a little bit.”
The return of the 19-year-old blueliner from Winnipeg came more quickly than expected. Dwyer had surgery in February and returned in nine months while the average person takes closer to 12 months to come back.
“(The therapists) say it’s more due to the fact of that person doing the rehab and how committed they are to getting back,” Dwyer said. “Since I was in the gym four to five hours a day every single day of the week it was a lot quicker, and I was on the ice in five months.”
That doesn’t mean it was easy. Besides dealing with the trauma of the injury and the arduous rehab process, Dwyer had to deal with alienation that comes from being unable to play. He was around the team but not really part of it.
“For sure the mental part (was the toughest),” Dwyer said. “Post-surgery was pretty tough, just sitting there, not being too mobile and getting stuff done for me. I’m a pretty independent person so having to get stuff done for you, like getting food ready and that kind of stuff is pretty frustrating.”
Dwyer began rehab in Everett and was walking 10 days after surgery. That enabled the Tips to send him home to Winnipeg to continue rehab just before the team’s first-round playoff series against Portland. He followed his teammates’ postseason journey through FaceTime and watching games online, but that only intensified his desire to return.
Everett assistant coach Mitch Love can relate. Love, who coaches the Tips defensemen, had to retire from the professional level at age 26 due a hip injury.
“That’s the one thing people don’t understand is the mental grind and not being a part of a team and kind of being an outcast because of an injury,” Love said. “He tested really well at the beginning of the year, which again is a sign of unbelievable amount of hard work he’s put in, and hopefully he can put all that to work once the games start.”
Dwyer displayed versatility in his limited chances last season by playing several games at forward and tallying his first career goal in December. He was playing forward when he was injured.
Everett’s defensive success could hinge on Dwyer’s contributions. He is one of five Tips defensemen returning from last season although he remains fairly raw with only 24 WHL games played, and just 20 last year before he was injured. What he does possess is good size on the back end at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds.
“What you see is you see a stronger guy because he trained so hard to come back,” Everett head coach Kevin Constantine said. “I think he understands what it takes to play more, so there’s a maturity to his (game). When you’re more mature and experienced in life you’re more mature and experienced on the ice. So he’s got that.”
Dwyer played on Everett’s third defensive pairing, teaming with rookie Ian Walker on Friday and rookie Montana Onyebuchi on Sunday. Dwyer said he feels comfortable with his conditioning in short bursts, but it might be a little while before he feels the stamina return.
He also needs more game repetitions and that’s part of the reason the Tips are bringing him along slowly.
“When you don’t play for nine months the game comes at you pretty fast, and there’s no way to mentally prepare for how fast the game comes at you,” Constantine said. “There were a couple times where he had more time to do things and he seemed in a rush to do it and that’s the pace that you can’t prepare for even though you sit and watch games and sit in our video sessions. Then you’re out there and it’s coming fast. That’s why you need a few games to settle in a little bit.”
Dwyer doesn’t seem to mind settling in. He’s just happy to be out of his suit and into his sweater.
For the latest Silvertips news follow Jesse Geleynse on Twitter @jessegeleynse.