Easton Brodzinski sat in complete silence. No phone, no friends or family, no contact with the outside world in a time when he could not have been more desperate for it.
Brodzinski, then a senior forward for St. Cloud State, was in the middle of a whirlwind 24 hours.
On March 28 earlier this year, he began his day getting ready for the Northeast Regional championship game against Boston College in Albany, NY. Pregame meals and rituals, chats with coaches and teammates — all to prepare for the biggest game of his life.
With a minute gone in the second period, Brodzinski skated the puck across the middle of the offensive zone. Eagles forward Trevor Kuntar hustled towards him from the opposite direction. The collision left Brodzinski on the ice, grabbing for his right leg. His femur was completely broken, a clean break.
Two hours later, he was in surgery at a local hospital getting a metal rod put in his leg.
Right after was when the silence hit. Brodzinski rested in a dark hospital room by himself for 10 and a half hours. His phone was with Huskies athletic trainer Bryan DeMaine, who was scrambling to find him, but could not enter the room between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Not only was Brodzinski without a phone, but he was without a television in his room.
“It was just me in a dark room and my thoughts,” Brodzinski recalled to NCAA.com. “That was probably one of my harder moments.”
He also did not have any family around him post-surgery.
Because of exorbitant flight prices, his father, Mike, a star forward for St. Cloud State from 1984-87, decided to watch his son from home. His wife, Kathy, made the trek to Loveland, CO to watch their youngest son, Bryce, battle for a regional title with Minnesota.
“That’s why I was more mad at myself than anything for not being there, not going to the games,” Mike told NCAA.com of not being able to be with his son right after surgery. “It was really hard and I was more mad at myself than anything and not being there for him…I couldn’t sleep until I got him home.”
So, Brodzinski was alone with the thought of not being able to play in the Frozen Four and finishing his senior season two points shy of 100 for his career with the Huskies. The doctor gave him the timeline of when he might skate again and it was roughly six to eight months. The talk was he might be ready for games by Christmas. There was nothing to distract him from it.
“It wasn’t fun,” Brodzinski said of that time.
Once the COVID rules were up, DeMaine was able to give Brodzinski his phone, which was loaded with messages from friends and family. It took him a while to sift through all of them.
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Come that Tuesday, March 30, Brodzinski and DeMaine were prepared to head home to St. Cloud State. The Huskies rallied around Brodzinski’s injury, going onto beat BC, 4-1. The two of them wanted to celebrate the Frozen Four berth with the team.
As the two walked through the airport, they realized they had a problem: Brodzinski’s teammates stuffed his wallet and everything of his and put it on the plane back to St. Cloud State with the team. That left Brodzinski without an ID to get through security.
It would be a long road back.
If there was a model for a hockey family, it would be the Brodzinskis.
Along with a standout career at St. Cloud State, Mike Brodzinski runs “Hockey Central”, which is a massive hockey equipment outlet in Blaine, Minnesota. All four of his kids have gone on to play college hockey as well. Jonny is the oldest and went to St. Cloud State. Then there’s Michael who played for Minnesota, Easton who’s currently at St. Cloud State and Bryce who plays for Minnesota.
But the one thing the family loves just as much as hockey is the annual family reunion centered around July 4 up in Cross Lake, Minnesota.
Especially Easton. With the fishing opportunities, being pulled around on the water with inner tubes and the amazing scenery, it’s his favorite time of year.
This past summer was different. When Mike wrangled the boys together to go fishing on the night of July 4, Easton told him he had to get going — he had “stuff to do.”
That “stuff” was getting back to St. Cloud and continuing therapy. Easton’s summer schedule was jam-packed with workouts and treatment to get him back to the ice as soon as possible. Even the fourth of July, the annual family reunion and fishing could not disturb this process.
What Mike did not know was what this round of workouts included for Easton. He found out two days later when Easton sent a video to the whole family of what he was doing.
The video? Him skating around the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center ice months ahead of when he was supposed to.
“You can’t even imagine,” Mike said of the feeling he got from the video. “I remember a tear coming down my face and I can’t even imagine how hard he was working to get back at that time.”
The journey to that moment was bigger than just the physical challenge of getting the right leg back into game-shape. It was mentally overcoming the feeling of the initial injury and training the mind to not feel as if it could happen again.
When Easton’s femur snapped, it sent a sharp ripple through the body, which is a memory that’s hard to shake. The memory of that ripple is partially what leads to limps, bad skating strides and a big fear of pushing the leg too far while working out. It makes sense — the body is protecting itself from experiencing that feeling ever again.
That’s where the St. Cloud State hockey training staff and St. Cloud Orthopedics came in.
“They were with me Monday through Friday,” Easton said of his support staff. “They were always pushing me to try new things, keep getting out of my comfort zone. I didn’t really want to do most of those things, but they kept telling me I was able to and keep pushing forward so they helped me kind of get out of my own head with the injury and be able to keep pushing forward.”
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Keep pushing forward — that became the mantra of his recovery. A lot of the workouts and therapy consisted of one-legged movements, directly targeting the area of injury to build it back up.
“You’ve just gotta keep pushing through it and know that it’s not going to hurt itself any more,” Easton said of his mindset through his recovery workouts. “That was probably the biggest thing, just knowing that it’s sturdy now and able to take these little impacts that I’m doing.”
As the workouts progressed and Easton eventually hit the ice for the first time on July 6, just three months and eight days after breaking his femur clean, a target date became more and more apparent. Would he be 100 percent by this time? No, but he would be good enough for his end goal.
The date: Oct. 2. Opening night.
In the weeks leading up to Oct. 2, the team was unsure of whether or not Easton would be ready to go for that first game of the season against St. Thomas.
The recovery was looking fine, but many around the team just could not believe it: He was so far ahead of schedule.
“They were really skeptical,” Mike said of the support staff and the team. “Everybody was like ‘there’s no way, it’s only been six months and three days since the surgery and it was busted in half.’ There’s no way, those are year-long injuries.”
But after a week of practices and being cleared for contact, he was eventually given the go-ahead to suit up for the opener.
Aside from Easton’s three brothers who were all at their own hockey games, the Brodzinski clan showed up in droves to attend his first game back. Even Mike’s 83-year-old father was there.
Head coach Brett Larson started the fifth-year forward out on the fourth line with freshman Mason Salquist and sophomore Joe Molenaar to help him ease into action. Easton took one shift with that trio and that was all Larson had to see to move him back up to the first line with senior Nolan Walker — Easton’s long time scoring accomplice.
Midway through the first period up 1-0, the Huskies found themselves on a power play, which meant Easton would be centered around the front of the net, looking for tips, fishing for loose pucks and hoping to jam home rebounds.
That’s when the magic happened.
Sophomore star forward Veeti Miettinen had the puck along the right half wall and held it for what felt like a whole year. He kept his eyes focused on senior Sam Hentges, who was on the opposite end of the ice, looking for a one-timer. Both defenders were drawn to that pass, leaving the lane open to fire one for Easton to tip.
The puck ricocheted off Easton’s stick, over St. Thomas goalie Peter Thome’s right shoulder and into the back of the net.
As Easton pumped his left fist and raised his left leg in celebration, the arena erupted.
“It definitely meant a lot to me,” Easton said of the goal. “It was definitely something special for me and my teammates and obviously my family there. My dad teared up a little when he saw it go in so it was definitely a big moment for me and them.”
Mike has a different recollection of the aftermath of Easton’s first goal back.
“It was good that I was way up in the crowd because I was bawling like a baby,” he said. “I couldn’t believe this.”
Then roughly five minutes into the second period, senior forward Sam Hentges picked off a St. Thomas breakout pass, turned around and found Easton in the slot. This time, he fired it over Thome’s glove for his second goal of the night and Easton was picking up right where he left off before the injury.
Even better: He hit 100 points. Easton later added an assist in the 12-2 rout of St. Thomas, putting him at 101 career points.
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“To see him reach the 100-point mark tonight in his first game back with all the hard work he put in this summer…I don’t know if there’s been a better feeling on the bench,” Larson told reporters after that game.
Mike, who captained a St. Cloud State team under Herb Brooks, watched all four of his kids thrive in college hockey and witnessed his two oldest sign NHL deals. But that night had an even deeper meaning.
“Obviously, with the four boys, I’m equally proud of all of them,” Mike said. “But I’ve never been more proud of one of them than what he did.”