With three games in three days — the last two in double overtime — the Big Ten hockey tournament was tough, taxing and grueling on Penn State last March.
Defenseman Kevin Kerr thinks he had it worse — stuck in the seats of Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena with a leg injury.
“It was a hell of a lot harder to watch it than to be in it, I think,” the junior said at the team’s weekly session with the media Monday. “I’ve been in a lot of games like that when you’re in it, you’re so focused on what you have to do and getting the job done. When you’re in the stands you kind of feel helpless and you’re just praying. I’ve never sweated that much in my life.”
But, after that tough experience, Kerr is finally back.
On Oct. 1, when Penn State hosted Canadian college program Ottawa in an exhibition game, Kerr returned to the ice. Last weekend, when the season opened in northern New York, with the Nittany Lions losing 2-1 to Clarkson and beating St. Lawrence 4-1, Kerr was on the ice both nights — feeling the jitters, still shaking off a little rust but certainly far from feeling helpless.
“It was unbelievable,” Kerr said. “The injury (recovery) turned out to be a little bit longer than we expected, and just to finally be able to get back out there, it was a fantastic feeling to be out there with the guys you go to battle with all the time.”
Kerr, arguably the team’s best two-way defenseman, was sidelined with the leg injury Feb. 10 at Wisconsin, when he slid hard, feet-first, into the boards and his skates wedged into the corner. The Nittany Lions lost the quarterback of their power-play unit as the postseason loomed.
The Pennsylvania native watched from a distance as his teammates made program history with those two double-overtime marathons, overcoming exhaustion to take a victory lap with the Big Ten trophy, then winning the program’s first NCAA tournament game and finishing ranked No. 8 in the country.
Kerr, who had two goals and 13 assists last season, had missed just one Penn State game before the injury. It was an unaccustomed situation — but what he watched provided motivation. Day after day, week after week, Kerr walked into Pegula Ice Arena to work out, eager to put the skates back on his feet. Even during the summer at home in Bensalem, he was toiling away at rehab.
If anyone that feeling, it’s James Robinson, and he helped Kerr adjust to his life of separation from the team. The senior captain got hurt on his first shift in the first game of the 2015-16 season and missed every game.
“It’s really tough to maintain that positive energy and that positive body language,” Robinson said. “You’re coming to the rink knowing you’re not going to be able to play, knowing you’re going to have to do rehab for a couple hours every day, and knowing you’re going to have to do it for the next day and the next couple weeks.”
Coach Guy Gadowsky said after the injury, and again Monday, that it was a concern how they could fill Kerr’s many roles. Thankfully, that’s not a worry anymore. Kris Myllari was up to the challenge last season, and although he may not quite have the deft hands in moving the puck, he and the team are better for the experience this season.
“Obviously we’re a much better program with Kevin Kerr in the lineup,” Gadowsky said. “One of the silver linings to that was Kris Myllari got put in a number of situations that he normally wouldn’t have, and because of that his development has been awesome.”
As Gadowsky pointed out, the team is better with Kerr playing. For Kerr, it sure beats sitting in the seats watching games.
“It was definitely tough last year, after, just having to watch all the games,” he said. “I feel great and it’s really exciting to be back out there with the team.”
Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT