BY NICOLE AUERBACH
Daily Sports Editor
Published January 14, 2009
Mark Mitera skated Friday for the first time since he sustained a serious knee injury on Oct. 9, but his real homecoming was in the locker room.
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Just over three months since the Michigan senior captain suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in the team’s season opener, he put on his equipment, laced up his skates and grabbed a stick.
Though he'd spent time in the locker room for team meetings, putting on pads there was special for him.
“Just seeing him in the locker room with his gear on, it’s a big morale boost,” junior acting captain Chris Summers said. “He’s been with us off the ice as much as he can be, and that part of his situation with the injury didn’t really change. It’s great seeing him on the ice."
Season opener: 38.8 seconds left, first period
Near the end of the first period of the season-opening game, Mitera and St. Lawrence junior forward Augie DiMarzo collided. Both players were sent sprawling to the ice. The defenseman didn’t return to the contest, and MRI results confirmed what many feared.
“(Mitera) doesn’t go down for nothing,” senior forward Tim Miller said after the game. “When I saw his face as he limped off the ice, it scared me.”
The initial diagnosis was difficult for Mitera, a 2006 first-round NHL draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks. Doctors gave him a three-to-six-month timeframe for returning to the ice if he underwent surgery.
“When I first heard the news, I pretty much wrote myself off for the season, given a timeline like that,” Mitera said.
Even with such a serious injury, he still faced many options: redshirting and returning for a fifth season, signing with Anaheim and rehabilitating there, playing through the injury with a brace or getting surgery immediately.
Mitera opted to go under the knife, and on Nov. 6, surgeons performed ACL reconstructive surgery.
Michigan coach Red Berenson and teammates said the senior maintained an optimistic approach to the unfortunate injury.
“He’s handled it well,” Berenson said. “He’s been very supportive of the team, very positive about his situation. He’s handled it like a pro.”
Mitera’s rehabilitation began just days after the surgery. He started off riding a stationary bike and eventually moved on to weight training. He often biked with junior defenseman Steve Kampfer, who was rehabbing a fractured skull, and the two often watched the team practice from the stands together.
Kampfer returned to the ice in early December — much faster than most people expected — and it wasn’t long before Mitera followed suit.
A month ahead of schedule
Mitera said he felt “rock-solid” Friday when he returned to the ice — exactly two months after he had his ACL surgery and one month before doctors expected.
He said he was so excited about getting back on the ice that he could hardly sleep last Thursday night.
Mitera is currently limited to skating about 20 minutes three times a week. In his three skating sessions since last week, he has worked on building endurance, skating backwards and pivoting.
“I have a long way to go with the skating, the stamina,” he said. “There’s nothing you can simulate off the ice to keep your body in that kind of shape.
"But it’s definitely a mental booster to get back on the ice, to see the past two months of surgery and work actually starting to come together where you’re able to skate again.”
Mitera thinks it will take three to four weeks for him to get his legs and lungs in shape, and at that time, he will evaluate where he stands with coaches, trainers and his family. With Kampfer's return, the Wolverines now have a great deal of depth at defense, with seven blueliners battling for six spots on the bench.
For Berenson, deciding whether to put Mitera back into the lineup will undoubtedly be a tough decision.
“It might go a long way for the team, seeing me back on the ice,” Mitera said.