Kole Sherwood refers to the start of last season as a "dark stage" in his hockey career, because it was supposed to be the next stage.
Last summer, Sherwood prepared for training camp in Columbus with the goal of convincing coaches and management he should be a professional hockey player - if not for the Blue Jackets, whom he cheered for growing up in New Albany, then certainly with the Cleveland Monsters of the American Hockey League (AHL).
"Your goal is always to make the big club," said Sherwood, 21, a forward who came up through the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program. "You never want to set your sights too short, but I mean, realistically, I thought I was playing in Cleveland. Then, I started out [in Columbus], got an injury in the prospects tournament and didn't get to participate in training camp. I got injured. That hurt me and then I could just never get the ball rolling."
The injury was a high-ankle sprain, a nagging injury that often lingers for weeks or months.
It happened on the first shift of the championship game in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, in Traverse City, Mich., when Sherwood cut around a defender, fell and then felt a shooting pain in his left ankle after a Chicago Blackhawks defender fell on it.
"I just knew instantly," said Sherwood, who participated in the Blue Jackets' development camp last month at Nationwide Arena. "He fell on it and just jammed it. I tried to fight through it that game, but it probably wasn't the smartest thing, and it took a while to heal from there. It sucks, but injuries are part of the game."
Dealing with disappointment is too, which Sherwood learned the hard way.
Initially assigned to Cleveland after missing training camp, he didn't stay long. The Blue Jackets sent him back for his "overage" season in the Ontario Hockey League, where he'd played the previous two years.
It was a blow to Sherwood's ego and a big disappointment, even after he was traded Oct. 17 from the Flint Firebirds to the Kitchener Rangers, at his request.
"It was tough at first," said Sherwood, who'd had a breakout season with 33 goals, 52 assists and 85 points for Flint the year before. "I was questioning myself a lot with hockey. It was kind of a dark stage. I was pretty down. I didn't know what to do at that point. I'd never had that much adversity before."
It showed in the way he played.
Numbers weren't an issue, with 23 points on 12 goals and 11 assists in his first 21 games for Kitchener, but a minus-3 rating and some odd in-game decisions were telling.
"When you have players of his ability, sometimes there's a tendency to want it to come easy and just expecting it to come easy, doing the turns instead of the stopping and starting," said Kitchener coach Jay McKee, who played for three teams in 14 NHL seasons. "He just had some habits that weren't working for him."
One time, while caught offside, Sherwood took his time leaving the offensive zone. Rather than stopping quickly and exiting, he made a big loop in the offensive zone while teammates waited just outside the blue line.
Another time, late in the third period against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Sherwood paid the price for trying to draw attention to a high stick. After letting his guard down, he stopped defending and watched the Greyhounds tie it, 3-3, with 6:10 left in the third.
Sault Ste. Marie also scored the game-winner with two seconds left in regulation, taking full advantage of Sherwood's gift 10 days before Christmas. Up in the stands, watching Sherwood for the first time last season, was Chris Clark - one of the Blue Jackets' developmental coaches.
He didn't exactly hold back in his postgame comments.
"When I see guys a few times, I don't evaluate them on one game, because guys have good games, bad games, whatever the case … but I know Kole," said Clark, who played 11 NHL seasons with three teams, including Columbus. "That wasn't the way he should be playing. I know him on a personal level now, after a couple years [in the system], so I know how he's supposed to play and how he should play. That's probably the first time I did give him some negative feedback, and guys need that once in a while."
Sherwood needed it at that point, after reaching rock bottom.
"I didn't put on the best performance for him, and he really laid into me," Sherwood said. "It was from that moment on that really sunk in for me. I sat in the locker room for a couple hours after the game, just thinking. I cost us the game, so I remember it. It was a rude awakening, but it was something that needed to happen. I think everyone's got to go through something like that in their life."
Sherwood bounced back strong from his, which was a boon for Kitchener.
Playing on a line with center Logan Brown (Ottawa Senators) and Adam Mascherin (Dallas Stars), he had 37 points (18 goals, 19 assists) in the final 36 games of the regular season and finished with a plus-11 rating.
In the playoffs, he led the Rangers with 14 goals and finished second in postseason scoring with 26 points in 19 games. Averaging 1.37 points-per-game, he helped Kitchener advance to the OHL West conference final before losing to Sault Ste. Marie in double-overtime of Game 7.
"I think once he erased some of the bad habits from his game, and just got down to the nitty-gritty hard work, everything changed for him," McKee said. "He was arguably our top player in the playoffs. Come playoff time, he just took it to a whole different level. His passion was high, his work ethic was high and he was getting rewarded for it. Without him, we don't go as deep as we do in the playoffs, that's for sure."
The goal now is to move it forward, into the professional game, as another season approaches and the next stage of Sherwood's career begins.
"Going through something like that [last season], I think I bounced back and made a big improvement, especially in playoffs," he said. "I felt like I really improved my game and something like that was probably the best thing that could happen for me. I didn't realize it at the time, but now, looking back on it, I couldn't be happier."