Since losing his season to injury against Western Michigan last year, Eric Ciccolini has quietly worked to get himself back onto the ice. Kate Hua/Daily. Buy this photo.

There’s no such thing as comfort inside Western Michigan’s Lawson Ice Arena — certainly not out on the ice.

One of the most intimidating barns in college hockey, a rowdy student section takes up practically half the arena and stares down opposing benches. Its fans erupt for big hits and scrums with the same or more enthusiasm as goals. And the Broncos — both the heaviest and tallest team in the NCAA last season — are built to deliver.

When he takes the ice there Saturday, Eric Ciccolini will know that all too well.

One year ago, Ciccolini folded along the boards after a big hit. Skating back to the bench in clear pain, he got the verdict he dreaded: the hit tore his MCL and ACL. His season, after a mere four games, was over.

Looking back, Ciccolini realizes that in the end, there was nothing he could do.

“Once I kind of accepted that I wasn’t going to be able to come back, I just tried to stay positive and take it day by day,” Ciccolini told The Daily. “I was doing a lot of rehab, and I had surgery my freshman year so I kind of knew what it felt like. It was probably a little worse injury this time around.”

A little worse is an understatement. As a freshman, he played through a torn labrum for most of the season before undergoing surgery. With his knee, he couldn’t walk for two months.

But Ciccolini wasn’t going to let it hold him back. He committed to regaining his mobility and getting back on the ice with his teammates. All the while, Michigan trainer Brian Brewster and strength coach Joe Maher noticed the work ethic behind Ciccolini’s work. Quiet and determined, Ciccolini locked into his comeback.

“It takes some time, you have to have patience as a practitioner,” Brewster said. “And also with Eric, obviously, the student athlete has to have a lot of patience because it can be frustrating at times. You have ups and downs.”

Alongside Brewster and Maher, Ciccolini got to work immediately. Early on, he could only work certain parts of his body. He focused on upper body work in order to keep the rest of his body game ready. 

Part of that was done to keep Ciccolini in shape, but constant arm days were also a necessity. In the wake of his earlier shoulder surgery, Ciccolini had to build muscle around his shoulder to prevent another labrum tear.

Even while fighting a six-month knee rehab, Ciccolini still had to battle his old wounds. 

Nevertheless, Ciccolini remained undeterred by the tough road ahead. All he wanted to do was whatever would get him back in playing shape.

“Some people want to know exactly why they’re doing it, what they’re doing,” Brewster said. “Other people just say, ‘tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’ Eric is driven by ‘just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, I’ll work hard’ and that’s what he does. He never questions anything.”

That lack of questioning goes back to the quiet nature that is integral to Ciccolini’s personality. On the ice, he’s a speedy middle-six winger that leads his teammates through warmup drills and makes detailed plays away from the puck. Off the ice, he’s quiet and reserved. He never complains — coaches say almost to a fault — about the hardships he faces.

“We were joking about that,” Brewster said. “I said I’ve been with Eric for a year doing rehab, we might have had five conversations together. He’s a very quiet kid.”

But that shyness comes with praise. Maher and Brewster both pointed to Ciccolini’s reserved manner as a sign of his larger work ethic. Through all the presses and core work, all the painful stair climbs and squats, Ciccolini gutted it out to get back on the ice. 

Beyond his physical battle, Ciccolini showed his mental fortitude while pushing past his setback. Not only did it take a certain toughness to navigate his own ups and downs, but he took it a step forward. Ciccolini did everything he could to help his team despite his limited capacity.

“I don’t think people appreciate what it takes physically – and more mentally than anything – to come back from an injury like that and just get back to where you used to be,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “I know Cicc put a lot of work in and he was dialed even when he was hurt just doing stats and video and being around the guys.”

Spending hours in the video room, Ciccolini did his best to stay close to the team. He helped the Wolverines’ coaching staff work on film and game plans, and he helped Naurato — then an assistant coach — formulate power play schemes. Because even if he couldn’t move out on the ice, he could still refine the calculus behind his play. As Michigan rode win after win to reach the Frozen Four, Ciccolini helped manufacture them behind the scenes. On top of all that, he helped other injured teammates through their own struggles.

Those efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

“That was something special about our group last year,” captain and fifth-year senior forward Nolan Moyle said. “Obviously we had the guys that were playing in the games, but then we had all the guys that weren’t in the lineup or were injured. Those guys were probably more important than the guys that were playing every night.”

As the Wolverines head back to a sold-out barn in Kalamazoo this weekend, Ciccolini is back at full health. He reports no lingering pain from his knee recovery, though Brewster said the two work on it here and there when Ciccolini has a sore day. With the weight of that recovery, one might think he’s got Saturday circled on his calendar, but that’s not the case.

“I think it’s just another game for him,” sophomore defenseman Ethan Edwards said. “He’s happy to be back obviously, he’s looking good out there. It’s good to see him out on the ice. It’s been a while so I know he’s excited and we’re excited as well.”

Because Ciccolini’s recovery wasn’t about getting revenge on the Broncos for the hit that ended his season. It was about Ciccolini’s commitment to coming back, and the unspoken confidence he built through it.

“He was quiet, but he breaks out of his shell,” Maher said of Ciccolini’s recovery. “So when he gets comfortable and gets a lot of confidence back, he broke out of that quite a bit. He’s got a little more jump, he’s a little more vocal now because of it.”

Watching Ciccolini return, you wouldn’t know the long recovery he endured. Then again, you wouldn’t hear him talk much about it either. Because in his recovery, just like his play on the ice, Ciccolini doesn’t want to tell you what he’s up to.

He’d rather show you.