ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Austin Azurdia sensed a big problem the moment another player fell on his lower left leg and knocked him to the ice. The snapping sound gave it away.
“As I’m falling to the ice, I was like, ‘I did something — that’s not a twisted ankle,’ ” Azurdia recalled.
Sprawled face-down on the rink, Azurdia’s first glance at his leg confirmed his fear.
He peered back over his left shoulder and saw his left skate angled awkwardly to the right, as if he were severely pigeon-toed.
“Yeah, that was pretty unfortunate,” Azurdia said. “I was laying there thinking, ‘I hope this isn’t a long-term problem.’ “
Azurdia’s thoughts arrived immediately, before the pain and the panic quickly emerged, before two teammates helped him off the ice, before he began to feel he would pass out, before he “blew chunks in a garbage can” and before the diagnosis: Broken left fibula and dislocated ankle.
— Austin Azurdia (@AustinAzurdia) April 13, 2014
This was back in April during a game a shinny — pick-up pucks, as it were — in Langley, British Columbia, where Azurdia played junior hockey for the Langly Rivermen of the British Columbia Hockey League. Azurdia’s injury occurred in his first offseason skate, as he was beginning his plan of several months of workouts before heading to UAA to begin his college career.
Last week, Azurdia bounced back in a big way. The center made his college debut in the Seawolves’ season opener and delivering the game-winning goal in a 3-1 victory against Maine in UAA’s Kendall Hockey Classic.
That debut came six months after surgery in which a plate and eight screws were inserted in Azurdia’s left ankle, a procedure that left him with a vertical scar several inches long. Surgery kept Azurdia from doing any exercise for three months back home in Kalama, Washington, a less-than-ideal layoff for a 21-year-old eager to make an impression in Anchorage and crack UAA’s lineup.
After suffering his injury, Azurdia texted UAA assistant coach Josh Ciocco, who was attending the Seawolves’ end-of-season banquet. Azurdia said he and Ciocco texted back and forth — Azurdia ideally wanted to tell Ciocco the news in a call — before Azurdia disclosed the extent of his injury.
He said Ciocco responded with a positive thought and later told him he might be healed and ready to go by season’s start because college teams start the season later than junior teams.
“Once I spoke with him, how long he would be out, how long he would be rehabbing, it actually wasn’t that bad of timing,” Ciocco said. “I think he was a little nervous about spending the summer not working out and not coming in with a whole summer of workouts behind him.
“I explained to him it wasn’t the end of the world.”
The 6-foot, 189-pound Azurdia said he began skating again in July and knew ample work would be required to recapture his strength and conditioning.
“Yeah, it’s great to be on the ice, real positive, but I was barely able to use my leg,” Azurdia recalled.
His progress was interrupted by an unrelated lower-body injury in preseason training, and his return to full-contact hockey came in UAA’s annual Green and Gold scrimmage in late September. Azurdia said he isn’t yet 100 percent, but feels close.
“I trust it,” he said of his leg. “No one’s told me I’m at risk. I’m the kind of guy who just plays, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Azurdia said he arrives at practices early to get treatment for his leg, do strengthening exercises and have his ankle taped. He said he still suffers soreness and the plate in his ankle aches more as the weather turns colder. Azurdia said he plans to have the plate and screws removed at season’s end.
He’s looking at the bright side too. Azurdia’s lower left leg includes a horizontal scar that crosses the vertical scar from surgery in April. The old scar, he said, was from surgery to repair tendon damage he suffered eight years ago when another player stepped on his leg.
“I look at it as a positive,” Azurdia said. “Better to have one good leg instead of two bad ones.”