Making Up For Lost Time

A Serious Knee Injury Can’t Dull Chaz Lucius’ Competitive Spirit Or His Bright Future
By: 
Tom Worgo

Back in 2020, when Chaz Lucius spent significant time in a wheelchair, this year's NHL Draft seemed like a distant dream.

The thought of playing hockey again, let alone at the pinnacle of the sport, took a backseat to simply being able to walk again.

Things started to go south for Lucius in 2019 when he got hit with a puck in his left knee playing for his Gentry Academy 16 & Under team in St. Paul, Minn.

The injury didn't seem that serious at the time, but instead of healing, it got progressively worse over the next year as he battled through the pain as a member of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program.

"I just got more and more knee pain over time as I skated or played," said Lucius, who finished his campaign with the Under-17 team with 31 goals and 19 assists in 46 games. "I was going through therapy and it wasn't getting better."

The pain finally became so unbearable by August of 2020 that surgery was the only option. It was no simple procedure. Lucius had a bone lesion in his knee-which is a tear or fracture in the cartilage covering the joint-and doctors had to scrape out the dead bone and replace it with bone marrow from his back.

"I didn't realize how serious it was when it first happened," Lucius recalled. "But after my surgery and going through an intense rehab, I quickly realized that it was really serious."

Serious enough that he had to learn to walk again. After surgery, he spent six weeks in a wheel chair, then another six weeks wearing a heavy brace.

Adding to the situation, Lucius felt the pressure of the impending NHL Draft and the need to show teams that he was still one of the top American prospects.

He started skating again in December and returned to the ice on Feb. 19 with the U.S. Under-18 National Team and felt 100 percent healthy. He proved that by scoring two goals in his first game back and finished with 20 points (13 goals, 7 assists) in 13 games.

Several mock drafts projected the 18-year-old as a possible top 10 pick, but some general managers and scouts were concerned about the knee, which caused his stock to drop.

Considering the injury's seriousness and the lengthy recovery, it's no surprise that it was a recurring topic when NHL teams interviewed Lucius before the draft.

Five months after returning to the ice, the Winnipeg Jets took the Lawrence, Kan., native with the 18th overall pick in the first round.

"He reminds us a lot of Mark Scheifele," said Winnipeg Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Hillier. "Chaz is all about developing, getting better and doing whatever he has to do to become a player. It's his maturity.

We thought there was a slim chance he would be there. We were lucky to get him at 18."

The comparison to his favorite player pleases Lucius, who admires Scheifele's goal scoring and playmaking ability, and he wasn't afraid about sharing his respect for the Jets star with team officials in his pre-draft interview.

"I watch him a lot and I try to model my game after him," Lucius said. "I feel he plays a real strong 200-foot game and uses his frame well. He can score from pretty much anywhere on the ice, and I feel I can do that as well."

He also gets excited talking about right winger Blake Wheeler, a fellow Minnesota Gopher who sent a congratulatory text soon after the draft.

The two have made plans to meet and perhaps one day train together.

"It will be exciting to skate with him and learn some things from him," Lucius said. "He is a really good leader and player."

Lucius may still be a few years away from the NHL but he is ready to show that he's capable of making an impact offensively at the next level. He showed signs of that at the 2021 World Junior Summer Showcase in July where he scored a pair of goals in three games as he vies for a spot on the U.S. squad competing at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta.

"As a pure goal scorer, I had him as one of the draft's top three," said Kyle Woodlief, owner of the Red Line Report, an independent scouting service on draft prospects. "He has that sniper's touch from the circles in. He is deadly. If he had been healthy all year, he likely would have gone in the top 10."

With the draft behind him, Lucius can now focus on his freshman year at the University of Minnesota and hopefully earning a spot on the vaunted Gophers roster.

If he stays at Minnesota for two seasons, he will be able to play with his younger brother Cruz, who is currently playing at the NTDP and is committed to the Gophers.

"It's definitely in the back of my mind," Chaz said of playing with his brother. "The number of years I am going to play in college depends on how many I need to get ready to play at the NHL level. I will take it year by year."

Gophers head coach Bob Motzko is not overly optimistic about when that day will come. If Chaz continues to demonstrate the work ethic and determination he's shown in coming back from injury, his college career could be short lived.  

"If he rips it up in one year, and is physically ready," Motzko said, "away he goes."


Tom Worgo is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.

 

Issue: 
2021-11

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