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Patience & Perspective

Friday, November 30th
Patience & Perspective

Dec. 9, 2017.

CenturyLink Arena. Idaho Steelheads hosting the Utah Grizzlies on a Saturday night.

At 2:49 of the second period, Steelheads forward Mitch Moroz and Grizzlies defenseman Mitch Jones spar. The sixth fight of the season for Moroz and part of a countless tally over his career.

It was a fight in the making from Wednesday night after Jones sucker punched Moroz late after the final whistle. After letting it go on Friday thanks to strong play by his teammates and not wanting to interrupt flow, Moroz sought out to defend himself after a flat start to the second period on Saturday. Nothing out of the ordinary, just part of the game.

The fight wasn’t the unusual part. It was the end that was uncanny.

Alison Preston, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Learning and Memory, describes how short term memories become long term for the individual by stating that it requires time to pass, allowing it “...to become resistant to interference from competing stimuli or disrupting factors such as injury or disease.”

You can understand why Moroz remembers that fight so vividly.

“I thought I won the fight,” started Moroz, “but unfortunately when they went to break it up it looked like one of the linesman toe-picked into the lateral side of my knee. All of his force went right through and blew up some of the good, important things in the knee.

“It was pretty traumatic.”

“At first, I didn’t realize what happened until you could hear his reactions and not using any weight on that leg coming off the ice,” said teammate A.J. White. “It happened quick.”

The freak incident sidelined him for the rest of the season, 22 games into his Steelheads career.

Injuries are commonplace in sports. When you’re pushing your body to the limit with dozens of others doing the same, physics ends up winning out in some situations. Players deal with injuries in different ways, but it’s the unexpected, long recoveries taking you away from the locker room that can weigh heavily on a player’s psyche.

“It’s tough,” said Moroz. “One of the biggest and my favorite part of the game is the camaraderie. To not be around the guys and to remove yourself from that environment, that would weigh on anybody. It was such an awesome opportunity to be able to coach and help with some of the younger guys coming up.

“If I didn’t have that, it would have been tough sitting at home alone. That would have been a long year.”

The alternate captain transitioned from the locker room to the bench in a unique role in assisting on the bench. Despite his young age, three seasons in the AHL is hugely beneficial for younger players out of college and in the development ladder to help guide and work on the tools to make them successful at each level.

So often, a long-term injury like Moroz’s can toy with a player and sometimes lead them down a treacherous road without a solid foundation to stand with. Unlike those tales, the opportunity presented by the Steelheads for Moroz not only continued his education of the game but also allowed for Moroz to continue his connection with the locker room in a time he needed the support and camaraderie around him.

It also didn’t hurt to keep his energy and passion for the game on the bench, where it could still feed into the team’s play during their stretch run.

“You can’t really put a price on that experience, especially when you’re 23 years old and you get a chance to work with some really good coaches and high-end players as well,” added Moroz. “You’re there to be a pipeline between the guys and the coaches, and I really was a sponge during that time.

“The organization did a great job of keeping me involved and allow me to be more of an assistant coach and be around the guys. From that stand point, it was a great learning experience for myself.”

In the final month of the season, the Steelheads went on a strong run including a 9-0-1 streak to ride into the Kelly Cup Playoffs. That consistent energy helped continue to fuel the team’s emotional side and never lose that edge in their culture as they paved their way to the playoffs.

“We loved it,” said White. “We loved his energy; he has a very emotional side to the game. He brought it on the bench.”

All the while, the process of getting back onto the ice was a long, patient one.

***

Following the injury and diagnosis, Moroz was able to go through pre-habilitation, or “pre-hab” for short, through the eight weeks leading up to surgery in February. After the procedure, it’s about trying to re-build strength and basic motor functions while allowing for the area to heal and make a full recovery, which takes months and fortitude in droves.

“You have to take your time and slowly get your range of motion back,” explained Moroz. “You slowly start to learn to walk again. You get in the pool and do some work in the water, and that’s huge. There’s blood flow restrictive training. It’s very painful. If you’ve ever gone through that, it’s a very unique, intense pain and process. Then you start adding some agility and getting your strength back, your balance, you’re stabilizing...it’s a lot.”

The difference between athletic injuries compared to more traditional situations is a much more rigorous process. Maximizing potential and keeping a high-powered athlete as close to 100 percent post-recovery is tedious, full of checks and re-checks and constant re-evaluations.

Frustrating to say the least.

As an athlete, coaches often discuss adversity within the context of sport and a specific situation, but many young people aren’t given the life coaching to be able to deal with potentially life-altering adversity. Often times, it’s a sink-or-swim situation brought upon by outside forces that can really teach a person how to overcome a potentially traumatic or course-changing scenario.

It’s not an easy prospect for a 23-year-old athlete, let alone any person following their thrust into adulthood, but the tone in Moroz’s voice tells the maturity provided by the incident. It was calm, humbled and incredibly introspective.

“You do learn a lot about yourself. I’ve told many people that it was maybe the best thing for me mentally, to be able to build up that strength that I maybe didn’t have coming into [pro hockey]. To take a step back, re-evaluate, and gain some new perspective. To put things in perspective is really important at a young age, and I think this experience will be very valuable for me.”

In the end, it all came back to the doctors, trainers and physicians for their hard work on the medical side to getting him to his inevitable return.

“I’d like to thank St. Luke’s Sports Medicine and my doctors, Dr. [James] Beckman and Dr. [Jared] Johnson. They did a great job with my surgery. I’d like to thank ‘Gilly’ [Thomas Gillespie] and my team back home, 360 Brain Body. Also, FSM Sports, Empowers Performance, Crash Conditioning, and Brad Watson. I had all hands on deck and couldn’t have done it without a great supporting cast.”

***

He’d been chomping at the bit to get back at it. After a summer of more rehab and healing, Steelheads Training Camp opened the door for the long-awaited return for Moroz to get on the ice and play in a game.

At least, it got him on the ice.

“I’m going to put the biggest pressure on myself, and I always have. To come out and feel like I’m a step behind and not be able to skate two days in a row was tough. There were days where it was just barking at me. That’s just the way it is. There’s so many nerves and scar tissue that needs to work itself out, so it’s a process.”

Moroz was placed on the Injured Reserve to begin the season and landed there for the first five weeks of the season. That meant he couldn’t make the long trip to the Midwest and meant more time waiting and healing.

It also meant more time to plan and make sure everything was good to go.

Leading up to their series in Rapid City over Thanksgiving, Moroz and Head Coach Neil Graham discussed potential dates for a return following full clearance from the medical staff. Moroz had been thinking of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, but after a travel day they decided to wait until Black Friday to make the move.

“He knew I was licking my chops that day, and I was fired up and ready to go Friday. I’ve done it hundreds of times, thousands in my life. I just treated it like every other day.”

The routine remained the same compared to what he’d always done. It was just another game. Despite the vivid memory of his last time on the ice, there was no hesitation and no want to let up. His game relies on emotion, physicality and leading by example, and that was his focus.

It had nearly been 349 days, nearly a full year, and 65 regular season games since his last time in a match scenario, but on Nov. 23, 2018, Mitch Moroz returned to the ice in his first game of the season with the Steelheads.

“I had a little extra fire on Friday for sure, but I just went out and played hard, conserve energy where I could and not blow the gas out too quick. I just had so much fun this weekend.

“I love the game. It’s great to be back.”

Moroz played in both games to close the weekend, notching his first assist of the season on the power play last Saturday during the team’s win to finish the weekend. In his season debut on Friday, he was tied up by defenseman Blake Heinrich late in the second period after he beat out an icing call. An extra shove by the defenseman, and instinct took over.

“I was hungry and maybe had a little more animosity,” he chuckled. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking for a fight but jeez [Brad] McClure and [Keegan] Kanzig got me so fired up that I couldn’t help myself.”

“That’s just the kind of guy that he is,” said White. “He wears his heart on his sleeve, and he brings it every night.”

The impact that Moroz has on the locker room and the game itself is curled up in that singular moment. In his first game back, he did what he’s done countless times in his career: he fought to help rile up the bench.

Despite not playing in a game this year, he was voted alternate captain again by his teammates for just that reason, even having the same effect on newer players to the organization.

It’s moments like these that showcase his importance to the team and why, though he may down play the event, returning to the ice has such a positive effect.

“He’s such an energized leader,” said Graham on Moroz. “Even when we wasn’t playing, he carries his emotions on his sleeve, and he has such a big heart. To get him back on the ice was such a huge emotional lift. Even for me personally, I was so excited to see him back out there.”

“It just shows you what kind of leadership he has when we were around him that he would have that effect on so many guys even not being on the road,” said White.

***

This home stand will be the first opportunity for Moroz to take the ice at CenturyLink Arena in front of home fans since his final game of the 2017-18 season. In a year of uncertainty and battling through sport and life adversity, the constant support was felt not throughout the organization but also from the Steelheads fan base.

Even for someone not on social media, that resonates with a more personal interaction.

“I’m always getting lots of warm wishes around the rink, and I’d always be getting boosts from fans and the booster club,” said Moroz. “If people came up to me in person that really meant a lot to me, especially from kids. People would ask, ‘When are you going to be back?’ It gave me a little boost here and there.”

It’s not the end of the road. There is still more monitoring and evaluation in his first games, but two games with a positive impact is a good starting point in the road back.

“That’s going to keep coming for him, but just to get him back on the ice around the guys and for him to play that well during his opening weekend was just awesome,” said Graham. “That’s something he can build off, and he’s only going to get better each week.”

His focus turns to helping make an impact on the ice with four weeks of home games to open December. It’s no secret to those that have transplanted from the East Coast and California that Boise is a special place. It’s one thing to get back to the game with your teammates, but it’s another when groups of people outside of the employees and staff of an organization have your support.

It will still be business as usual this weekend, and you won’t see any change in demeanor, but watch for an extra step in his stride. You may see an extra spark in his play.

“This is such an amazing place to play, especially on the weekends. There’s a buzz around the city, and it’s hard to beat.

“I’m definitely excited.”

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