Mark Mitera skated Friday for the first time since he sustained a serious knee injury on Oct. 9, but his real homecoming was in the locker room.
Just over three months since the Michigan senior captain suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in the team’s season opener, he put on his equipment, laced up his skates and grabbed a stick.
Though he’d spent time in the locker room for team meetings, putting on pads there was special for him.
“Just seeing him in the locker room with his gear on, it’s a big morale boost,” junior acting captain Chris Summers said. “He’s been with us off the ice as much as he can be, and that part of his situation with the injury didn’t really change. It’s great seeing him on the ice.”
Season opener: 38.8 seconds left, first period
Near the end of the first period of the season-opening game, Mitera and St. Lawrence junior forward Augie DiMarzo collided. Both players were sent sprawling to the ice. The defenseman didn’t return to the contest, and MRI results confirmed what many feared.
“(Mitera) doesn’t go down for nothing,” senior forward Tim Miller said after the game. “When I saw his face as he limped off the ice, it scared me.”
The initial diagnosis was difficult for Mitera, a 2006 first-round NHL draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks. Doctors gave him a three-to-six-month timeframe for returning to the ice if he underwent surgery.
“When I first heard the news, I pretty much wrote myself off for the season, given a timeline like that,” Mitera said.
Even with such a serious injury, he still faced many options: redshirting and returning for a fifth season, signing with Anaheim and rehabilitating there, playing through the injury with a brace or getting surgery immediately.
Mitera opted to go under the knife, and on Nov. 6, surgeons performed ACL reconstructive surgery.
Michigan coach Red Berenson and teammates said the senior maintained an optimistic approach to the unfortunate injury.
“He’s handled it well,” Berenson said. “He’s been very supportive of the team, very positive about his situation. He’s handled it like a pro.”
Mitera’s rehabilitation began just days after the surgery. He started off riding a stationary bike and eventually moved on to weight training. He often biked with junior defenseman Steve Kampfer, who was rehabbing a fractured skull, and the two often watched the team practice from the stands together.
Kampfer returned to the ice in early December — much faster than most people expected — and it wasn’t long before Mitera followed suit.
A month ahead of schedule
Mitera said he felt “rock-solid” Friday when he returned to the ice — exactly two months after he had his ACL surgery and one month before doctors expected.
He said he was so excited about getting back on the ice that he could hardly sleep last Thursday night.
Mitera is currently limited to skating about 20 minutes three times a week. In his three skating sessions since last week, he has worked on building endurance, skating backwards and pivoting.
“I have a long way to go with the skating, the stamina,” he said. “There’s nothing you can simulate off the ice to keep your body in that kind of shape.
“But it’s definitely a mental booster to get back on the ice, to see the past two months of surgery and work actually starting to come together where you’re able to skate again.”
Mitera thinks it will take three to four weeks for him to get his legs and lungs in shape, and at that time, he will evaluate where he stands with coaches, trainers and his family. With Kampfer’s return, the Wolverines now have a great deal of depth at defense, with seven blueliners battling for six spots on the bench.
For Berenson, deciding whether to put Mitera back into the lineup will undoubtedly be a tough decision.
“It might go a long way for the team, seeing me back on the ice,” Mitera said. “But I don’t know if that would be the right thing to do at the time, to try to come back too early and to take that position away from another defenseman who could be dressing and playing at 100 percent.”
A new captain and a new coach
Soon after the injury, alternate captain Summers began wearing the ‘C’ and Mitera began roaming the bleachers during games.
Summers acted as the on-ice captain, leading pregame stretches and being a vocal leader.
“The team needs some tangible leader day-to-day to be out there,” Mitera said. “Chris has done a great job doing that.”
And off the ice, Summers has respected Mitera’s captaincy and advice. Mitera attends team meetings and is often found in the locker room before and during games. Thanks to his view from the stands, he can analyze play like an assistant coach.
“I usually come in between every period if I see something that needs to be said,” he said. “If everything’s going smoothly, I like to let them take care of themselves in the locker room. But if it looks like guys are getting frustrated out there or things aren’t going well or we’re down a little bit, I’ll go in there and get them re-focused.”
The uncertain future
There’s a reason why Mitera stayed for his senior season when so many expected him to go pro: he wanted be a Wolverine for four years.
And most of all right now, he wants to end his collegiate career in maize and blue.
“Personally, I think I should be able to play (by the end of the season),” Mitera said. “I need to make sure everything heals properly. I don’t want to take any risks at this point, but that’s my goal, to get back for one more game at Yost.”