Zach Martin laid on the ice with the wind knocked out of him and a shattered knee cap. He didn't know that until he tried to get up after a hit into the boards during the Willmar WarHawks inaugural home-opener last year, but he knew something was wrong.
He was carried off the ice as trainer Jon Haefner tried to figure out what was wrong. It wasn't a torn ACL. In fact, Haefner thought there was no structural damage at all. Then Martin tried to sit down in his stall in the WarHawks' locker room and the problem became obvious: his kneecap was more or less gone.
On Saturday, exactly one year to the day since his injury, Martin is ready to help the WarHawks in their 2017-18 home-opener against reigning NA3HL Silver Cup champions Granite City.
The WarHawks have jumped out to a 3-2-1 start to sit in second place in the West Division behind the Lumberjacks. Martin has been a key piece to that start, contributing four assists and a goal through the first six games.
But there was a time that Martin thought he would never play again.
"It was a big, devastating injury," Martin said. "My therapists were great, every day I went in for therapy they were always positive and helped me through that time. It was a tough time for me because at the time I thought it was going to impact my life because I wasn't going to play again."
Immediately following the injury, Martin and his family, who were visiting from his hometown of Overland Park, Kansas, rushed to Rice Hospital for a full diagnosis. An X-ray showed his kneecap was broken in three places. Martin said the hospital staff he saw told him they had never seen an injury like it before.
"The people at the hospital didn't know what to do," Martin said. "They had never seen an injury like that. They told me, 'Sorry, but we can't help you.' I knew it was bad because when they put morphine in my system, every 15 minutes I needed more. It hurt so bad. That's when I knew it was bad."
With his leg strapped to a wooden board, Martin and his parents made the trip back to Kansas overnight where he waited for surgery with orthopedic surgeon and family friend Dan Gurley. They arrived home Sunday morning but Martin couldn't get into surgery until Wednesday.
"That drive was the worst eight hours of my life," Martin said. "I couldn't get comfortable. Every time we hit a bump my knee would hurt. I couldn't eat, I had no appetite. It's weird because those three days went by so quick. I don't know if I was on so many pain meds and just slept it off or what."
It turns out Martin's shin pad had moved out of position, leaving his knee completely exposed when he hit the boards. Initially, the injury was thought to keep him off the ice for only a couple of months. But the severity proved to be much worse.
For the WarHawks, the injury was a devastating one. Martin entered training camp as a potential top-line presence with goal-scoring ability and lights-out speed. He was expected to be a penalty killer in addition to a threat on the power play.
"We were never able to replace him," WarHawks' head coach Chris Blaisuis said. "He can do so much and it shifted our team in a big way."
On a personal level, the injury hit hard.
Developmentally, Martin's 19-year-old season was supposed to be the one to launch him forward in the eyes of college coaches for a prospective college hockey career. So began the long journey back.
With his knee held together by a couple of pins, Martin started physical therapy with Dan Lorenz and Specialists in Sports and Orthopedic Rehabilitation in Kansas. The goal of the first few sessions was to simply bend his knee. Those pins stayed in his leg until early February and he didn't skate again until early May, nearly seven months after the injury.
During that time, Martin admits he felt a bit lonely. All of his childhood and high school friends were off at college while he was often confined to the couch. But it gave the Kansas native plenty of time with his family, which has been rare over the years.
Martin left home at age 16 to play for the Omaha Lancers AAA U16 hockey club in Nebraska. After that, he played a couple years in Maryland for the Skipjacks, a hockey club in the United States Premier Hockey League that now plays out of York, Pennsylvania.
The centerman says he got used to living away from home but his injury allowed him to make up for some lost time.
"My sisters kept me upbeat," Martin said. "They brought the energy because I was always tired and exhausted and they would come home from school and cheer me up. I got to spend a bunch of time with my family and I did not take that for granted. There were times where I thought, 'Man, I need to get out of this house,' but it was fun. My dad told me I could make the decision to do therapy (in Willmar) or back home but I just wanted to be around my family. Although I was away from hockey I was always going to their games. It got me out of the house and I could support them so it was nice to be around sports still. They always come to see me so it was nice to repay the favor."
His sisters, Sarah (a senior in high school) and Gracyn (a freshman in high school) play basketball and soccer respectively, and proved to be great for their brother's mental health. Zach's parents, Curt and Amy, also played a big role in keeping his spirits up. Curt, a former catcher for the University of Iowa, went through hip surgery just a year ago so his experience helped Zach.
"He played sports so he's been through some of the things I've been through," Martin said. "He was my biggest supporter. He knew some days were worse than others and helped me keep pushing through it. He was awesome. He took off work to stay home with me when I couldn't do anything. He'd work from home to make sure I got food, I was able to go to the bathroom, if I needed to shower he would help me shower. He was awesome about that stuff."
Martin has been in the middle of the WarHawks' offense early this season despite his injury history. Through the first six games he said he's felt fine but notices a few differences.
"I think when I first came here I was a little bit out of shape and still, conditioning-wise, not exactly where I want to be but I think it's just a matter of time. I'm getting in better shape every day," Martin said. "I can tell, me compared to other guys, I get tired pretty quickly. It's just something I have to work on. When I'm on the ice skating I don't think about it. When I take those hits below the belt it freaks me out a little bit. I feel like as long as I'm playing hockey I'll always think about it."
Hockey players with histories of knee injuries tend to see their careers come to an end. Coaches aren't likely to chase after players with that kind of history but that wasn't the case with Blaisuis and Martin. Blaisuis was forced to use one of his tenders to sign Martin because he didn't play enough games last year for Willmar to keep his rights but, according to Blaisuis, there was no question he would take Martin back.
"When Marty signed that tender and sent it back to me he told me we have some unfinished business together," Blaisuis said. "That's the way we look at it. It was just a bump in the road, not a brick wall."
Blaisuis and Martin remained close throughout the entire process. The WarHawks head coach made sure to check in with Martin often. Sometimes those texts were as simple as "How are you?" and others came in the lighthearted form of clown photos, something that Martin hates. Blaisuis had a similar injury during his playing days so he was also able to help Martin with some advice. It's that relationship outside of hockey, though, that helped Martin know he had a home in Willmar.
"With Chris I could instantly tell that he had my best interests at heart," Martin said. "He cared about me, not just as a hockey player but as a person. He really cared about moving me on to the next level and playing in college."
This year, Martin is one of a few WarHawks spending their second year in Willmar and he's also reunited with forward Cameron Pries. Martin and Pries played in the Russell Stover Tier I AAA program in the Kansas City area growing up.
The recovery has been a long process. He's back for a second year with his billet family, Rick and Kelley Dahle, and lives with WarHawks newcomer Jake Takashima and the Dahle's son, Tanner. Now that he's back in the groove of things, Saturday doesn't mark one year since the injury. It's the home opener.
"I'm just happy to be back," Martin said. "We have a good team with some good guys. I'm ready to get out there in front of the fans and play well."