ROSEMONT, Ill. – Two-hundred and thirty-seven days.
That’s how long it’s been since Chicago Wolves C Ryan Suzuki has donned the burgundy and gold jersey. Tallying 14 points in 34 games in the 2021-22 campaign, Suzuki established himself firmly in Chicago’s center rotation that featured the likes of scoring champion Andrew Poturalski and current Hurricane Jack Drury.
After sustaining an injury on April 16th, however, the 2019 first-round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes found himself on the sidelines for the remainder of the season – including Chicago’s run to a Calder Cup Championship.
“It’s definitely tough.” Suzuki said. “I’ve been out long-term before and it’s not easy – that’s for sure. I think kind of just putting smiles on faces and keeping it light around the room, being a part of the team, and having fun with the boys.
Suzuki made sure his presence was felt in the locker room. Despite not suiting up during that playoff run, there was plenty to learn from longtime pros like Poturalski, Stefan Noesen, and Josh Leivo.
“Even though I wasn’t on the ice, everyone made sure that I was a part of that championship team. Just being around it, you learn so much even though I wasn’t playing. Those high end pros like Leaves, Potsy, Noesen, just being around it was special and definitely fun to watch.”
The Road Back
Once the celebration was over, it was time to get back to work for the young forward. After a summer of rehab, Carolina’s training camps opened up and Suzuki was unable to make it to action in the Prospect Showcase. Instead, he was practicing in a yellow non-contact jersey.
Despite the frustrations of a competitive player trying to battle back onto the ice, Suzuki kept on working.
“I was just maintaining my body to get back into the swing of things. I think the biggest thing was getting your mind ready. Obviously, when you get hurt you don’t know if you’re going to be the same when you get back. Just got to stay positive and get to work every day.”
When the season got underway in October, Suzuki remained out of action. It wasn’t until early November that Carolina assigned him to Chicago, where there was still work to be done to get back into game action despite several promising practices for him. The first step to getting back into the lineup for Suzuki was getting familiar with his new teammates with the incredible roster turnover from the Calder Cup winning roster.
“A lot of changes in the offseason, that’s just whats going to happen with a winning team and just pro hockey in general. Super happy for all the guys that have moved on. Just got to get to know the guys, team dinners on the road are big. Every guy has a great personality on the team. Helps to get to know them and what their habits are and then everything will click on the ice.”
On December 9th, the announcement came down just hours before puck drop in Texas: Suzuki would make his season debut. Two-hundred and thirty-seven days after his last game played and Suzuki would make an immediate impact on the ice: scoring one assist and going +2 in the Wolves’ 5-2 loss to the Stars.
Our (Blake) Murray won that round😌 pic.twitter.com/evrUAlfccc
— Chicago Wolves (@Chicago_Wolves) December 10, 2022
Suzuki’s body let him know how long it had been.
“I was pretty sore the next day. You forget how hard hockey is. I was feeling muscles that I didn’t even know were muscles. It’s tough but its really fun to get back out there. I missed the competition and being with the team. It felt good to be a hockey player again.”
While sitting out for Saturday’s game as he eased back into the regularity of the schedule, Suzuki’s return provides a huge boost to the Chicago lineup that is sorely missing his 200-foot game. That added focus on the defensive side of the puck is an area of Suzuki’s game that has evolved since his days playing Major Junior in the Ontario Hockey League.
“I think juniors is more of a high scoring league. When you go pro, its a lot more tidy. Game is a little cleaner. Focusing on keeping the puck out of your net to get more trust. There are so many little plays, guys up here are so good with their sticks to knock down the puck. Just got to keep the feet moving.”
The Mental Game
Physically, of course its difficult to come back from an injury sustained like Suzuki’s. Getting the body back into the rhythm of game action is one thing. Mentally, the battle back is something entirely different. How will you respond in the moment? Will things be the same as they were before? Will this change how you play?
For Suzuki, it was all about belief.
“When you’re not feeling 100%, I didn’t know how I was going to be when I got back. Honestly, the biggest thing is believing that everything is going to go back to normal. When it first happens, you think ‘am I going to play again?’ Mentally, you just got to believe in the process.”
Of course, family is always a huge crutch to help overcome tough times, and older brother Nick Suzuki of the Montreal Canadiens was right there every step of the way for Ryan.
“He’s a guy whose always been there my whole career. Any time I’m in trouble, he’s one text away. Obviously when you come back from eight months there’s a lot on my mind, so he just told me to keep it simple, work hard and everything will fall into place.”
Of course, the battles in the past are now in the past. In the here and now, Suzuki is penciled in to be a huge fixture in the Wolves’ lineup in desperate need of an anchor down the middle. With several former teammates like Drury and Noesen now up in the NHL making key contributions with the Hurricanes, Suzuki has his sights on the next level.
First things first: he’s got to create some magic in the AHL with Chicago.
“You’re here for a reason. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get to the NHL. You got to take care of business down here and hopefully I get that call.”
After everything he’s battled through, Suzuki enters the season with promise knowing what it took to get back on the ice, and he’s ready to make the most of it.
“It took a lot of hard work to get back to where I am right now.”
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