The band waited patiently for its cue. Three times the puck missed the open goal before Connor Reilly’s rusty shot hit the net, bringing 250 instruments to life.
The “Minnesota Rouser” roared off the empty seats of Ridder Arena, where the university band happened to be warming up for new student orientation in August 2012. Reilly, skating for the first time in seven months under the close eye of a Gophers trainer, trembled on his surgically repaired left knee, unsure whether to be excited or embarrassed.
This spontaneous private concert briefly welcomed Reilly, an incoming freshman at the time, back to hockey. It was an inspirational moment — one he drew on for strength just weeks later.
Now, more than two years later, Reilly has a habit of cuing the Rouser. The sophomore winger leads the Gophers men’s hockey team with 10 goals. He is riding an eight-game point streak as the Gophers — 3-6-1 in their past 10 games — face Wisconsin this weekend at Mariucci Arena.
Yet any time the Rouser rings through Reilly’s helmet, he’s reminded of his moment in Ridder Arena and the long, arduous journey from a top recruit to this season’s success.
Just weeks after the band ad-libbed closure to his seven-month rehab for a chronic left knee injury that flared up in his final year of junior hockey, Reilly said he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his right knee when he fell on a wet floor at a get-together with teammates. Surgery, recovery, rehab — he faced it all over again.
“I couldn’t even skate,” Reilly said, remembering his first return to hockey. “Getting on the ice again was a special feeling. It was like my own crowd. That’s why the second [knee injury] was so tough, because right after I’m feeling better and back playing hockey, then it was taken away from me for another seven months.
“Being off the ice a full year and rehabbing two major knee surgeries was a battle. There were times I wanted to give up. It was just so stressful.”
The injuries stole 19 months of hockey from Reilly before he returned as a redshirt freshman in the fall of 2013 and skated with two of his brothers on a team that reached the NCAA title game. Reilly wasn’t operating at full-strength and spent most of the season on the fourth line, playing minimal minutes and scoring six goals in 37 games.
He had showed enough, however, to persuade coach Don Lucia to raise expectations. Lucia considered Reilly a top-six forward coming into this season and, in the second game of the season, he rewarded the coach’s decision to put him on the first line by burying a power-play goal.
But while his knees were fully healed, his head was not. Each time he touched the puck, he said he was looking to pass, with his thought process stuck on “I hope” and “I wish” and “I’m not.”
Coming full circle
The final step in Reilly’s healing was facilitated by a mental coach, Shaun Goodsell. The pair talked every day for nearly a month about daily goals, and slowly Reilly’s confidence returned. There was a new focus: “I can” and “I will.”
Reilly scored a goal against Boston College on Thanksgiving weekend and hasn’t let up. In the Gophers’ past eight games, he has seven goals and three assists, highlighted by a three-point night (two goals, one assist) at Michigan State on Dec. 6. Playing on the first line, he scored a goal in each of the Gophers’ losses at Michigan last weekend.
“He had the opportunity to grow his game this year,” Lucia said. “Last year was just a year to get back in the rhythm of playing after what he had gone through. He never lost his shot. He’s always been a goal-scorer his whole life and been a very elite offensive player. His skating is getting better and his play without the puck is improving, too. He’s made a lot of strides in the last year, and put in a lot of hard work to get where he’s at today.”
Long road back
Reilly expressed disbelief and doubt that he could endure another seven-month rehab process in a tear-filled phone call to his mother.
He lost his appetite. He lay awake each night for two or three hours.
After Dr. Rob LaPrade successfully repaired another one of Reilly’s knees, Gophers trainer Jeff Winslow and strength coach Cal Dietz spent nearly every day of the next year with the student-athlete. The pair helped rebuild Reilly’s knees and lower body with more strength and range of motion than he had before the injuries.
“[Mourning is] all part of the rehab process,” Winslow said. “Their passion for the game is so strong … so not playing, they almost lose that identity of themselves. So it’s really hard to battle through that mental anguish of not being able to play and not doing what they love.
“At least he had the rehab experience behind him and he knows what it takes. He picked up the attitude, ‘I’ve done it before and I can do it again,’ and never felt sorry for himself again.”
Reilly’s twin brother, Ryan, and younger brother, Mike, provided encouragement throughout the year-and-a-half journey. Ryan, voted the hardest worker on last season’s team, wouldn’t let Connor’s sore knee keep him from finishing a summer run up Power Hill in Chanhassen or taking extra shots at the goal in the family’s basement.
“He had a lot of courage,” Ryan said. “He went into these surgeries not knowing if his knee was going to be better. I told him, ‘I’m going to work you hard and get you back and keep pushing you.’
“It took a while to get his feet going and get his strength back, but you can tell by the season he’s having he’s really starting to figure it out, with the way he’s scoring goals and moving the puck. We’re really proud of him.”