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'PURE PASSION'

An arduous journey back from injury has made U.S. forward Chaz Lucius the player (and person) he is today

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

Deep down, he knew there was a problem.

The pain kept getting worse.

"Initially, it wasn't too bad," said Chaz Lucius, the 12th-ranked North-American skater by NHL Central Scouting. "I could play through it, at least.

"But then COVID happened. With everything that was going on, you never want to think that you're injured or that something bad is happening, so I trained all the way through the summer.

"But the pain…

"There wasn't any relief. In August, the doctors told me I needed surgery."

The news couldn't have been more crushing for a player entering the most important year of his life. That he had gone months without answers, watching the clock tick by during the slower cadence of the off-season, was a psychological burden he hadn't prepared for.

Worse?

The injury itself was a freak thing - a bone lesion, caused by trauma to the growth plate in his knee when he was struck by a puck more two years earlier.

But with surgery being on the only option on the table, a frightening, six-month recovery stood between him and the prying eyes of NHL scouts.

While the timing was awful, Lucius took a positive approach and focused on what he could do well when he returned to the ice with the U.S. National Team Development Program.

His eventual comeback - and the story behind it - is truly the stuff of legend.

The Grant, Minn., native scored 13 goals and added seven helpers in only 13 games upon his return, and now enters the NHL Draft as one of the purest goal-scorers in the class.

 

 

"When all was said and done, I feel like I came out on the other side a better player and a person," Lucius said. "I gained a lot of mental toughness that you can't get unless you go through something like that in your life.

"That's all you can do - take the positive out of the experience and use it as an opportunity to grow.

"And on the ice, I know I made the most of the opportunity I was given."

Lucius had arthroscopic surgery on Aug. 21, 2020. The procedure involved scraping away the dying bone in his leg and stimulating new growth by injecting bone marrow from his back into the damaged area.

From there, he spent more than a month in a wheelchair, while attending regular physical therapy sessions that included upwards of 40, two-hour-long sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.

The air pressure inside is approximately two to three times higher than normal, which helps increase the blood oxygen level and more quickly promote healing and bone health.

 

 

But the experience itself is not for the faint of heart.

That's a lot for anyone to grapple with - let alone a 17-year-old kid with his entire future staring back at him in the reflection of that medical-grade plexi.

He learned to endure from his parents, Tami and Chuck.

From his younger brother, Cruz, who abets his "competitive drive."

From his childhood coaches, Joe Jensen and Billy Hengen, who've been at the forefront of his development for the past eight years.

And, in a way, he's given it right back to them - showing what perseverance and the right attitude can accomplish when life throws you a curveball.

"I went on the ice with Chaz a few times during his rehab process and was in touch with him constantly to see how he was doing," said Hengen, who 'discovered' the young man, coached him, and is now the admissions director at Gentry Academy - a Minnesota-based, Grade 5-12 school that combines the core curriculum with flexible modules, allowing students to pursue passions like arts and athletics.  

"As he got closer to leaving for Ann Arbour, I was on the ice with him and I was like, 'Your shot looks better to me than before. Is it, really?!

"I was positive it was, but I was looking for confirmation.

"It reminded me of the story about Auston Matthews, how he found ways to improve other parts of his game while he was injured.

"I also asked him how he was doing, mentally. He said, 'I've never been stronger in my life.' He told me that he'd read a couple books like the David Goggins book (Can't Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds), and the Matthew McConaughey book (Greenlights) that's pretty popular right now. He also told me that he'd been doing some journaling.

"Those are things you just don't hear from a 17-year-old.

"It was another one of those moments where he completely knocked the socks off of me."

 

 

Over time, Lucius made a habit of that.

He was only nine years old when he first met his eventual, longtime mentor.

Hengen, who was then the varsity boss at the Academy of Holy Angels, was asked to coach the top novice players in the region with the Triple-A Minnesota Blades. Intrigued, he jumped at the opportunity.

"We had most of the top kids," Hengen recalled. "But one night, we played against a team that had Chaz on it. I'd never seen him before, but he was dominant out there.

"I remember calling a timeout and telling the nine-year-olds on our bench, 'Hey, let's not lose to one guy out here.' It was the first time I ever called a timeout and said anything to them, because they were just kids. I tried to give them a little bit of a grown-up hockey talk, I guess.

"Chaz went and scored the winning goal shortly after. I watched him go by our bench and he was so pumped up, he punched the ice. He wasn't looking at our bench or anything, but he looked down and punched it so hard.

"It was pure passion.

"I had no idea who this kid was, but I instantly fell in love with him."

Hengen skipped his usual post-game chat with the team and made a bee-line for the lobby, scouring the crowds in hopes of meeting his parents.  

Soon, that chance encounter turned into a lifelong connection.

"I went to the Brick Tournament with him in Edmonton; I coached his winter teams; I coached his summer teams. I've been with Chaz on the bench for most of his life, up until he left to go to the U.S. program," Hengen said.

"Now, look."

Lucius got back on the ice for the first time in December and played his first game on Feb. 19, 2021, more than three weeks after re-joining his mates at practice.

Like a shot from a cannon, the sniper scored twice on his first two shots to lead the NTDP to a 5-4 victory over the mighty Chicago Steel of the USHL.

 

Video: Highlights from draft-eligible Lucius' season

 

"It was pretty special," he said of his comeback. "I admit, I was pretty nervous. But I was back, back doing what I loved and being out there with my teammates. I just enjoyed the moment."

Despite missing his team's first 30 games of the campaign, there he was - as magnificent as ever - without skipping a beat.

Lucius was hoping to carry that momentum into the World Under-18s, which - for the first time all year - was a best-on-best of those eligible for the upcoming draft.

Unfortunately, the 6-foot-1, 185-lb. striker was unable to participate, entering quarantine as a result of the tournament's COVID protocol and missing out on the April 18 deadline to arrive in Dallas.

It was like a punch to the gut.

But now, with a tumultuous year officially behind him, Lucius is looking ahead to playing at the University of Minnesota this fall - the school he committed to when he was only 14.

There, he hopes to elevate his game even further.

"I'd say for me, the biggest thing right now to get my game to the pro level is my skating and getting up to speed on that, which I have been with my training," he said. "Obviously, with the knee injury, that kind of set me back for a little bit, but I'm past that now and even this last year now, I came back hard and my skating really improved.

"Beyond that, I want to keep taking strides everywhere with my game. I look up to guys like Steven Stamkos and Mark Scheifele, and feel there are a lot of similarities to the way I play. They're both really good goal-scorers in their own right, and obviously the leadership qualities they bring is really impressive. But with their bigger frames and their ability to use their skills and puck protection in transition from defence to offence, that's definitely something I'm working at every day.

"That's the kind of player I know I can be."

 

 

Because with a player like Lucius, there is no 'try.'

When he sets his mind to something as ambitious is that, nothing - not even a freak injury - will stand in his way.

"Chaz has never been confused about what he wants to be," Hengen said. "I used to call him the McDonald's Cheeseburger. It was the same product, every day. It's always been realistic for him and he's worked for it his whole life.

"Every time he does a drill, you can see it in his eyes.

"You can tell he's got a greater vision for himself and he's able to see the long road."

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