In another world, Steven Holtz might not be back here. After contracting adenovirus during an outbreak in November, the junior defenseman battled for survival. Complications from the illness put him in the ICU and nearly claimed his life, let alone his hockey career.
But that’s not how this story goes.
Because on Friday night against Wisconsin, Holtz made his triumphant return to the Michigan hockey team. Playing on the third pairing in a 6-2 win, his performance was the capstone of more than 11 weeks of difficult recovery.
“I feel like a little kid again, playing in my first game, you get the jitters when they call your name for the starting lineup,” Holtz said. “It’s surreal, right. It’s hard to take it all in.”
Surreal because his illness left him debilitated. His muscle memory disappeared. He struggled to even speak like his usual self.
When he skated his first strides after the illness, Holtz joked that he looked like he was just learning to skate on double-bladed skates. Everything was awkward for him, even choosing the words to articulate his experience. At times, he didn’t know if he’d ever take the ice again.
That made his presence all the more impressive. With all his usual intensity flaring behind his eyes, Holtz delivered a solid night on the ice for Michigan. He blocked a pair of shots to the delight of his hollering teammates, and he got into two fights to protect them — living up to the “Protect the Goalie” wristband he wore on his right hand.
“It brings a tear to our eyes just to see him out there and do his thing again, and we missed him so much,” freshman forward Gavin Brindley said. “So it just shows how tight this group is and it’s like a dream come true for us to see him out there.”
That tight group got Holtz through a near tragedy. Whether it was director of hockey operations Topher Scott helping him relearn his skating stride or teammates spending quality time with him, Holtz found plenty of support from his team. Soon, he worked his way closer to normal.
“That muscle memory, it just clicked at one point,” Holtz said. “I was fighting the puck a little bit in practice. I was kind of being the drill ruiner again. But I think over time I just gained a little confidence.”
And that confidence only grew as he got his legs under him. Soon, he started hitting teammates in practice — despite being in a non-contact jersey. He returned to playing shape despite all the obstacles the illness dealt him.
But in order to play an actual game, he still needed to overcome NCAA eligibility rules. A mechanical engineering student stuck with multiple incomplete courses, he had to battle in the classroom too.
“I think these guys have it hard enough just being a college student,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “And being a college student athlete then going through something like that, where you just don’t know at the time what it may be. … That made us stronger.”
By Wednesday of this week, Holtz still didn’t know when he would make the leap from practice ice to that of a game. He set a goal to play in the upcoming outdoor game against Ohio State, but he still needed to overcome NCAA redtape to make that happen. Walking into the training room Wednesday, though, Naurato delivered the words Holtz longed to hear. A phrase Holtz quoted with a slight grin:
“You’re f-ing playing.”
And he did so immediately, skating out with the starting lineup to take his first shift. Under the lights of Yost Ice Arena, you’d never know the battle Holtz endured. But you could see what it meant in the faces of his teammates, who watched him make the ultimate comeback just by being there.
“Everything that he’s gone through — we’re in it with him but you still don’t appreciate what him and his family have gone through,” Naurato said. “… But it’s awesome, man. It’s just awesome to have him back.”
Because just a short time ago, none of that was guaranteed. And that makes Holtz’s return against Wisconsin that much sweeter.