ST. PAUL -- Of all the encouraging things happening at TRIA Rink at Treasure Island Center this week, perhaps the most important one has come in the morning hour before Wild regulars have hit the ice for practice.
A few minutes after breakfast, the player's elevator has opened and to the ice has walked Mason Shaw, Minnesota's fourth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Shaw's 2018-19 season was ended prematurely when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee late in regulation of Game 3 of a Calder Cup Playoff game against the Milwaukee Admirals.
The play is especially frustrating for Shaw to watch.
The Admirals were winning the game 3-1 with under five minutes left in regulation. Shaw cycled the puck in the offensive zone then was pinned to the glass by Admirals defenseman Duncan Siemens.
Instead of letting Shaw by with a quick bump, however, Siemens stapled Shaw to the glass, leveraged him on to his left leg then punched him in the back of the head.
The force of the punch and the awkward nature of his body and his leg against the boards put incredible torque on his knee and the ACL gave out.
Shaw remained on the ice for several moments before being helped to the bench.
An MRI followed a day or two later, but the results of the test were simply a formality.
"I knew as soon as I went down that it wasn't gonna be good and [a torn ACL] was probably the case," Shaw said. "That was a pretty hard blow to take."
The expression on Shaw's face as he exited the ice that night told the story.
"It was really tough in the moment. You could see the look in his eyes, him skating off the ice, you just knew," said Iowa teammate Sam Anas.
At that moment, Shaw knew he would do whatever it took to come back from the injury. He knew the surgery that would follow, the grueling rebab that would follow and the weeks and months of pain and anguish to come.
He knew it because this wasn't the first time. Heck, it wasn't even the first time since the Wild selected him in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Draft.
After losing his entire 2017-18 to a torn ACL in his right knee sustained in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, Shaw spent an entire season rehabbing, returning for one game with Iowa at the tail end of the season, a reward for a soul-testing six months of rehab.
He also tore his left ACL when he was 15, which was his first time battling back from a devastating knee injury.
Of the many steps Shaw has taken over the past few months, his return to the ice this week at TRIA Rink has been the most encouraging development in his recovery.
For all the off-ice work, weight lifting and stretching exercises someone can do, rehab from a serious injury really doesn't hit the home stretch until that first trip back on the ice, a milestone Shaw checked off earlier this week.
"Definitely felt really weird and rusty, almost like I had roller blades on ice," Shaw said.
While Shaw has had to weather a lot of adversity in his young hockey career, it's that hardship that has helped him through some of the most challenging times of his rehab.
"I know I can come back from it as long as I put the work in. Knowing the long climb ahead after the surgery, that definitely helped to this point," Shaw said. "But it's definitely disappointing, the older I get, coming to camp here. I'm very eager to get on the ice and try to earn a spot. That part is disappointing."
Iowa assistant coach Brett McLean simply shakes his head when asked about the kinds of misfortune Shaw has faced on the ice in recent years. He was behind the bench in Traverse City when Shaw hurt his right knee and was there in Milwaukee last spring when he went down again.
"It was hard to see such a heart and soul, quality young man go down again," McLean said. "Those are tough, tough injuries to have to go through three times before the age of 20. It's really unheard of."
"However, if there is a young man that can deal with that emotionally and physically, it's Shawzie. He's a solid kid, both on but especially off the ice. That's why I have no doubt that he's going to bounce back even stronger. He's got a great career ahead of him."
If not for the injury, its likely Shaw would have been competing with the likes of Kyle Rau and Gerry Mayhew for a spot in Minnesota.
While both Rau and Mayhew could start the season in Iowa, both are among the final 30 or so players the Wild will continue to take a look at over the next week before the start of the regular season.
Even if both are eventually sent to Iowa, there is a pecking order established for potential call ups early in the season.
If he were healthy, Shaw would be battling for a spot in that order.
Instead, he's settling for small steps in his rehab ... but those small steps are giant in the grand scheme of his eventual return to the ice.
"The recovery process isn't easy, so you take the small victories when they come," Shaw said. "Being able to get back on the ice is definitely one of them."
Iowa head coach Tim Army is hoping for a return to game action for Shaw around New Years.
Shaw has a different belief. He's shooting for Thanksgiving or the first week in December.
Right now, he's on the ice for 15 to 20 minutes. That will begin to ramp up in a couple of weeks. Later in October, he'll aim to practice with the team before finally being cleared for contact.
If all goes well there, and his knee continues to progress like it has, Shaw will once again begin his climb up the Wild's prospect ladder.
The sky is the limit after that.
"He's gonna play [in Minnesota] some day," Army said. "He's had three surgeries, but he's a very important prospect to this organization and he's gonna be one heck of a player in Minnesota one day."
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