In the span of a single week last November, Emily West experienced the ecstasy and the agony that come with being an elite hockey player. The Gophers senior captain scored two goals and added an assist as her team upset top-ranked Wisconsin, then discovered a few days later that a knee injury would require season-ending surgery.
Though she knew she was facing months of grueling rehabilitation, West never considered letting go of her career -- or, for that matter, feeling sorry for herself.
"No athlete wants to hear you're going to miss a season,'' she said. "But to get through it, you have to stay positive. You have to think you're going to come back and be better, and keep looking for that light at the end of the tunnel."
For West, that light came in the form of teammates who kept her close throughout her seven months off the ice, giving her the emotional support she needed to persevere. Coupled with her own forward-looking mindset, that helped her achieve what she believed. West has returned to the Gophers as the same aggressive, gritty player she was before her lost year, with five goals and five assists for the nation's No. 3-ranked team.
Coach Brad Frost said the fifth-year senior is gaining confidence with every game for the 8-2 Gophers, who play No. 4 Minnesota Duluth this weekend at Ridder Arena. As excited as he is to have her back, he finds it just as gratifying to see how much it means to West.
"I think her overall perspective has changed," he said. "She's really enjoying the game and appreciating everything it has to offer. When you're younger, you can take things for granted. But after her experience, she's really savoring every moment."
West didn't think she could love hockey any more than she did before her injury. Though she is only 5-5, the Colorado Springs native quickly established herself as the kind of player willing to go to the net and fight for goals. She led the Gophers' freshmen in scoring during her rookie year; by her junior season, she had become a co-captain, a first-team All-WCHA forward and her team's top scorer with 46 points.
Playing on boys' teams until she was 12 had made West both highly competitive and fearless. Those qualities served her well when she hurt her knee in the Gophers' opening series against Clarkson last year. West sat out a little more than a month to allow it to heal, then returned for the Wisconsin series, only to find she needed surgery to get her knee back to full strength.
She knew immediately that she wanted to return for a fifth year. Through the rest of the season, West attended team meetings and did her rehabilitation exercises while her teammates practiced. She traveled to away games and became a student of hockey, taking mental notes on ways to improve her game as she watched every weekend from the bleachers.
West shared those insights with her teammates, who made sure she remained in their embrace.
"They are my sisters and best friends," West said. "There were days when it was really hard, when it didn't seem like anything was getting better, and they were so helpful. It was important for me to stay around them if I was going to stay positive."
West was allowed to resume skating in June. In August, she got the go-ahead for full participation in practice, which created as much anxiety as excitement. She worried about her knee holding up, about getting back into game shape, about returning to top form.
Her teammates helped with that, too. The Gophers are particularly deep this year, with 21 skaters battling for ice time. In an environment where players are pushing each other even in the weight room, West's competitive spirit has grown even sharper, and she has established herself as part of the second line with high-scoring sophomores Kelly Terry and Sarah Davis.
Frost said West's experience and ability have been instrumental to the Gophers' fast start, and he expects her to continue improving as the season progresses. As for West, she is living in the moment, grateful for another chance to create a memorable senior year.
"Being out that long is really hard," West said. "It tests your love for the game. To come back and compete again and be with my teammates puts a smile on my face every day. It makes me so happy, there are no words for it."
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org