Cam York wasn’t happy.
He sat in the press box, five floors above the ice, watching his team warm up below him to finish the series against Lake Superior State.
A week and a day earlier, against Clarkson, the freshman defenseman played 27 minutes in his Michigan debut. But he suffered an ankle injury in that game, and he missed the next game — and the two that followed.
So, on Oct. 19, York’s face said it all as he sat with the rest of Michigan’s non-dressers. He wanted to be down with his team, and the disappointment was evident.
In York’s two years at the U.S. National Team Development Program, he played in 122 games and never missed more than two games in a row. In the first month of his career with the Wolverines, York missed three games straight.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson knew that York had never suffered an injury of this type before — the kind where your pain tolerance and confidence dictate whether you can or can’t play. Finding the balance between healing and pushing to get back in the lineup is tricky for anyone, and it was especially tricky for the 18-year-old freshman dealing with it for the first time.
“I think any time you have your first injury of any sort and you’ve never missed games before, you just don’t know how to handle it and the pain tolerance,” Pearson said Wednesday. “Because I’m having some soreness, should I play, should I not play? Obviously, he had a lot of people tell him a lot of different things, but he’s the only guy who can tell how he felt.”
Once York was cleared to get back on the ice, it wasn’t a smooth path to returning to the lineup, either.
“It was a lengthy process,” York said. “It was only two weeks, but it felt like a year. … Mentally, it sucks just because you want to be out there with your brothers battling and you’re stuck watching. That was tough.”
The week leading into the Lake Superior State series, York skated once on his own and practiced partially with the team before deciding he wasn’t fully ready to be back. It took another week for him to test things again — this time on the Wednesday before Western Michigan came to town last Friday.
Two practices later and two full weeks after the injury, York’s name was called as one of Michigan’s starters against the Broncos on Oct. 25. By the end of the night, York had picked up his first — and second — collegiate points with two assists and had a plus-3 rating in the Wolverines’ 4-0 win.
“Great, excellent, just so smart, so smooth and so easy,” Pearson said after the game. “He got through the game pretty good, we’ll see how he feels, we’ll see if he can go back to back, but it’s hard. You haven’t played many games and you have to come off an injury. I thought he was a warrior and he did a great job.”
The following night, when Michigan went to Kalamazoo to face Western Michigan on the road, York remained in the starting lineup. Pearson had been unsure how he’d do in back-to-back games, but as the game began, it was clear that the concern for York wasn’t his physical readiness to play.
The road crowd rattled the freshman early, and it took him most of the first period to settle in. But by the time the Wolverines were on the power play in the second period, York was back to his usual self and picked up his third point of the year — a secondary assist on senior forward Will Lockwood’s power-play goal.
“They had some interesting chants that were coming at me, but it was fun,” York said. “Every time you get to go into another Michigan school’s barn, it’s always special.”
York still isn’t 100 percent, but he got a full week of practice this week in preparation for his second road trip — this time to No. 13 Ohio State. The atmosphere at the Schottenstein Center is unlikely to replicate Lawson Ice Arena, but starting a road swing with a volatile crowd in Kalamazoo isn’t a bad thing as it set a high bar for what young players like York should expect on the road.
As Michigan tries to get its first road sweep since Jan. 2018 this weekend, the stability York brings will be key for the Wolverines.
“He just adds so much, just as far as breakouts,” Pearson said Wednesday. “He’s so smooth, he makes a great first pass, so he’s going to take a lot of pressure off of us in our own zone and then on the power play, he’s the quarterback.
“He is the quarterback of the power play and he just settles everything down. To have him available is — can’t put a price on it. It’s huge.”