Expectations were high for Alex Kile entering this season, and deservedly so. The senior forward was the Michigan hockey team’s returning leading scorer and had increased his offensive production between every season of his career.
Kile first earned consistent playing time his freshman year before breaking out as a sophomore whilst on the same line as two future NHL forwards in Dylan Larkin and Zach Hyman. He began his junior year playing with Tyler Motte and JT Compher — another pair of future pros — before settling onto a line with a pair of experienced seniors in Boo Nieves and Justin Selman.
By all accounts, this was supposed to be his year. As a captain and one of the few holdovers from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, Kile was as close to a sure thing as possible.
“I think the expectations for him were higher than (for) the team,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “The team’s expectations had a lot more question marks. There weren’t many question marks around Alex Kile. He was experienced, he was a senior, he was a captain, he was our returning leading scorer. So there was no doubt that he was going to have a great year.”
But with just six games left in the regular season, that hasn’t been the case — or even close to it. In 21 games played, Kile has tallied just six goals and four assists. He struggled through a six-game pointless streak earlier this year. He was ejected from the Wolverines’ 7-4 loss to Wisconsin on Dec. 9. And then, just as he was starting to heat up following the series against the Badgers — which he deemed a ‘wake-up call’ — Kile suffered an ankle injury in practice.
It took him nearly three and a half weeks before he could practice again. He returned to the ice Tuesday and Wednesday, but still hadn't been cleared for full contact. Kile won’t be traveling to Columbus this weekend either, marking the seventh and eighth consecutive games that he will miss. Even then, there is still no guarantee that he will return before the Big Ten Tournament, despite his best hopes.
“I’m not the best right now,” Kile said. “I’m just trying to get through (the injury). I’m not going to play this weekend, and hopefully (I’ll) get ready for my last four games at Yost. That’s the plan.
“I don’t think I’ll be full strength by the end of the year. It’s unfortunate, but I’m a senior, so I’ve just got to play through the pain. It’s my last three weeks at Michigan. I’ve just got to take it all in.”
He has dealt with the injury in different ways. Rehab has been the one constant — a daily regimen of physical therapy, stimulation, icing, and a couple of things even Kile doesn’t know how to describe. Before he was cleared to practice, he would sit in the bleachers at times, a lonely figure in an otherwise empty Yost Ice Arena silently watching his team on the ice below. And when the team traveled without him, he would kill all the downtime he never expected to have, waiting patiently for the games to come on TV.
“You know, the last couple weekends at Yost have been emotional for me, realizing that my time is coming to an end,” Kile said. “We’ve got two weekends here left. Just got to make the most of it. Being out and watching the team play while you’re a senior is tough. … It’s probably the toughest thing I’ve gone through as a player, knowing it’s coming to an end. So I’ve just got to get through it.”
Added Berenson: “I think it really hit (Kile) hard. He expected he was just going to be a dominant player, and I was hoping he would be a dominant player, everyone thought he would be a dominant player, and it didn’t work out that way. Maybe it was without Cooper (Marody), and too much onus was on Alex and then he gets injured, and now he’s looking at the end of his career facing him in the upcoming month.”
Kile, it appears, is in an unexpected position as the clock on his career winds down. He may have envisioned himself as the lynchpin of a team still fighting for the Big Ten title at this point of the year, and Berenson likely did too. Instead, Kile has been confined to the bleachers, while Michigan sits just two points ahead of last-place Michigan State.
“It sucks that our team isn’t doing as well as we’d like,” Kile said. “My linemates last year were two seniors. One of them played in the NHL this year, one of them in the AHL, so it’s just different transitioning from that high offensive group to this year. It’s tough, and it’s not what I expected of my individual success. But we’re a team, and it’s not about me. It’s about the team, and we’ve got to try to turn things around right now.”
With any chance of punching a ticket to the NCAA Tournament in the regular season long expired, Kile and the Wolverines are now focusing on the Big Ten Tournament, where just three wins stand between them and a guaranteed postseason bid.
Just how much of a long shot that may be depends on whether Kile can make an impact, injured ankle and all.
“He’s got a chance to jumpstart our offense,” Berenson said. “He’s been out for awhile, and he can’t wait. It’s his senior year. It should be no question about his inspiration to this team.
“You look and see who’s our leading scorer against Ohio State, and it’s Alex Kile. And to no surprise, that would probably be true with most teams, but particularly Ohio State. So yeah, it’s a big loss, but we can’t dwell on the loss. We’ve got to dwell on what we have, and who’s playing and how hard they’re playing … but we know we aren’t as good offensively without Alex Kile, so we’ve got to be better defensively. Somebody’s got to pick up the slack.”
One thing is clear, though: Kile has come to terms with how things have gone this year. What matters now is the opportunity to leave the trainer’s table, reclaim a lost senior season and attempt to push his team back into the postseason — no matter how unlikely that may be.
“My individual success is a big part of this team,” Kile said. “If I can get rolling and get some confidence going into the Big Ten Tournament, it’s only going to help. All it takes is one good weekend, and that’s what we need to do. I don’t like to say it, but we’re not going to win the Big Ten. We’re probably going to be a fifth seed, so (we) gotta focus on the Big Ten Tournament, upset some teams and be the underdog.”
Added Berenson: “No question. If Alex gets hot — just like our team if our team gets hot — then you forget about how you started. You just remember how you ended."