At times, a coach may sit a struggling player for a game or two in order for that player to take a step back and gain a broader view of the game.
University of Minnesota forward Ryan Stoa
was in that position last year for nearly the entire 2007-08 campaign, but it wasn’t his coach’s decision.
In the Gophers’ second game last season, Stoa suffered a knee injury that ended his season prematurely. But instead of getting down about the incident, Stoa vigorously attacked his rehab schedule and turned the time away from the rink into a learning experience.
“I learned a lot. You really don’t have to run around on the ice,” said Stoa. “A lot of guys do and then take themselves out of the play. If you slow down and just let things happen, it usually works out better.”
But that’s not to say he was necessarily happy with the position he was put in. Any athlete will tell you that having to sit on the sidelines and watch your team compete brings on a feeling of helplessness.
“The hardest part was not being around the guys as much as usual,” said the 6-foot-3, 212-pound forward. “Not being a part of the practices, the games and the road trips. It was hard, but if you take it as a learning experience, it was good.”STAYING INVOLVED
Avalanche Vice President of Hockey Operations Craig Billington believes that the time away from the ice may have had other positive effects on Stoa.
“I think what worked to his advantage quite frankly is that when something is taken away from you that you truly love, it’s very difficult. It can increase your drive to get back to being a player,” said Billington. “I also think rooming with Blake Wheeler didn’t hurt, because Blake has gone on to play in Boston this year. I think that would be an inspiration for Ryan to say, ‘Hey, why can’t that be me?’ I think that’s also played into how he’s come out and been a consistent contributor this year.”
While Stoa couldn’t practice with the team, he still found ways to stay involved with the club and provide a dose of leadership during his rehabilitation period. Essentially, he lived up to his billing as an assistant captain by taking on a role not too far off from a student-assistant coach.
“Every time they were practicing, I was at the rink doing rehab. I lived with four other teammates, so I was doing things with them off the ice,” said Stoa. “I just had different priorities then they did at that time and I had to respect theirs. I still tried to be a good teammate. I was more like a coach than a teammate at times, but that’s what I had to do.”THE DECISION
With his rehab going as well as could be expected, Stoa was actually medically cleared to play toward the end of the 2007-08 campaign. He began skating in February, but decided not to pull on the sweater for a few different reasons.
The biggest factor was that he was trying to think about his career on a larger scale. Though his knee was back to full strength, any athlete knows that practicing and playing in a full-speed, full-contact game are two completely different things. And Stoa believed jumping back into the lineup during the stretch run for a handful of games just wasn’t the right thing to do at the time.
Secondly, the matter of the team’s flow and chemistry on the ice were on his mind. If he took the ice after the team had months to jell would it end up being more of a positive or a negative?
The competitor in Stoa wanted to suit up – as most athletes would – but ultimately he made the choice to start fresh in 2008-09. It was a tough decision to make, but Stoa has no regrets about what he settled on.
“Obviously I wanted to play really badly, but I had to sit back and think about if it was really worth it. It could have screwed up a lot of things, like team chemistry. Maybe it would have been a spark for the team, but what if I would have been out there and made a costly mistake because I wasn’t as sharp?”
In part because of his experience on the ice – and also due to the optimistic attitude and leadership he displayed while rehabilitating the injury – Stoa was tabbed as the Gophers’ captain heading into the 2008-09 season.LOOKING FORWARD
With the injury now behind him, Stoa is focused solely on this season. A captain who leads with his actions on the ice more so than his words, Stoa has set quite an example for a young Gophers squad early in the season. The power forward is leading Minnesota in both goals (10) and points (19) through 12 games and is tied for fourth nationally in points-per-game (1.58). He also ranked fifth in the NCAA in goals-per-game (0.83).
Being the humble leader he is, Stoa passes on credit to his Gopher teammates. Playing with talented linemates such as freshman phenom Jordan Schroeder and high-scoring junior Jay Barriball certainly doesn’t hurt. But more importantly, Stoa sees a different attitude in this year’s squad.
“The past couple of years we had people who weren’t buying into what the coaches were saying. This year it seems like our young guys just want to be around the rink and they’re buying into the system. Right now, we’re clicking because we have a bunch of guys who just want to be in the lineup. Our top-end guys like to move the puck and don’t really care about who scores. It’s setting up pretty good for us.”