When Louie Caporusso crashed into the boards during a practice in early November, nothing seemed out of the ordinary except a slight stinger in his right knee.
But as the freshman tried to pick himself off the ice, he realized the injury was much more serious.
After a magnetic resonance imaging scan the following day, Caporusso learned he had slightly damaged his medial collateral ligament, an injury that would sideline him for at least a month.
After six weeks, 10 games and a painful rehabilitation process, Caporusso was finally ready to strap on the skates again with just one team practice remaining before winter break.
“When I found out what happened, I was a little taken aback, but that’s life,” Caporusso said. “You know, knock on wood, but everyone at some point in their career is going to get injured and have to sit out a couple weeks. That’s normal. It’s more mentally tough than even physically tough, so you have to stay mentally tough.”
In the weeks leading up to Caporusso’s return to practice, he worked extensively with trainer Rick Bancroft to bring his knee back to full strength. Bancroft emphasized stimulation, balance, weight and bike training, but nothing replaces actual ice time. While isolated from the Wolverines, who were continuing normal practices, Caporusso had to find the mental toughness to fight through the rehab process.
When he was finally cleared to practice, the forward found just how far he had fallen behind the rest of the team.
Donning a bright red sweater and socks to warn his teammates against being too rough with him, the Woodbridge, Ont., native couldn’t quite keep up with the pace set by the rest of the Wolverines. He often favored his right knee, which was still slightly tender.
“The first few practices, you go into those practices and all those guys have been practicing for the past four weeks and are high tempo,” Caporusso said. “You can work out and do as much as you want, but it’s nothing like a real practice and being out there with the guys.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson said before winter break that Caporusso still didn’t have the endurance or stamina to compete in the Great Lakes Invitational.
So while most of his teammates enjoyed their break, Caporusso hit a Toronto gym – the same gym he trained in over the summer – to try and get back in shape in time for the annual holiday tournament.
In Toronto, Caporusso worked with trainers and the local junior hockey team to get quality ice time even though he was away from his teammates. He didn’t focus on his knee during break, confident in Bancroft’s rehabilitation job.
Caporusso said his main goal while training in Toronto was to keep skating, which helped him catch up with the Wolverines who hadn’t skated over break.
“I saw a kid that couldn’t wait to play,” Berenson said of Caporusso’s extracurricular training. “But he didn’t realize how quickly he was going to get tired. Hockey’s a game of conditioning. If you’re going to go out and work hard the first shift, the next shift, you’ve got to be recovered and I thought his endurance was slipping.”
With just two team practices before their first-round game against Providence, Berenson pushed Caporusso to get him game-ready. Under Berenson’s scrutiny, Caporusso focused on the “little things,” like improving faceoffs, keeping up with the pace and backchecking.
The extra work helped Caporusso regain the rhythm and flow he was missing before break, and never was that more apparent than when he tallied a goal on the first shift of his first game in six weeks.
“(Scoring against Providence) felt good,” Caporusso said. “The guys were all happy for me, too. There was definitely some added excitement coming from the bench when I scored.”
But even though his knee finally feels 100 percent, Caporusso knows there’s still room to get better.
“I have to learn one new thing everyday,” Caporusso said. “It was nice scoring on my first shift back, but there’s still a lot of improvement, a long road ahead for me.”