Brett Printz is no stranger to adversity in hockey, but nothing could prepare him for what he has gone through this year.
Just before the puck dropped on the season it was discovered he had a large cyst inside his left femur that needed to be removed.
That was the best case scenario, as for a while it was thought to possibly be cancer.
But after five months of rest, surgery and rehab, he is set to make his return to the ice this weekend when the Red Deer College Kings (8-9-0-1) host the Briercrest Clippers (3-16-0-1).
It is a moment he wasn’t too sure he would get to experience, but one he was going to do everything he could to experience.
“It was tough, one of the scariest things I had to go through was a CT scan to test if it was cancerous or not. Waiting for the results took a long time and the days go by slow,” said Printz. “Once you get through that and it’s not cancerous and they tell you there’s a chance you may never heal properly or play again, it’s another blow. What first goes through your mind is a little panic … but the supporting staff around you is huge.”
His breakout season did not happen until his second year of midget hockey and in his only campaign with the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs, leading the 2009-10 squad in scoring with 34 points (17 goals, 17 assists) in 34 games.
With his size and scoring ability, the six-foot-two, 200-pound forward was a top prospect for the junior A level — he was an bit too much of a late bloomer for the major junior circuit.
However, Printz never really had a permanent home in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, bouncing from the Drumheller Dragons to the Olds Grizzlys to the Fort McMurray Oil Barons to the Kindersley Klippers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and to the Grande Prairie Storm back in the AJHL.
He essentially lived out of a suitcase for three years while putting up 87 points (38-49-87) in 163 games.
After originally committing to play for the University of Calgary Dinos for the 2013-14 season, he transferred to RDC at Christmas time and proceeded to have his best stretch of hockey since midget, scoring 12 points (7-5-12) in 13 games.
“It was huge for my confidence,” said Printz, noting it’s a relief he no longer has to worry about being traded. “I’ve been all over the place and I do consider myself a streaky hockey player, so to be able to settle into a routine in Red Deer and live a normal life was huge for me.”
He was to be one of the focal points of the RDC offence this season as head coach Trevor Keeper wanted to take advantage of his size and skill and move to a more physical brand of hockey.
But in January last year his hip started to bother him. The original diagnosis was that he wasn’t stretching enough and he played through it.
But the pain persisted.
His girlfriend Abby Graalman is in the nursing program at RDC and she pushed him to get more testing done. He had an X-ray done in February but the results were sent to his doctor in Strathmore, where his parents had relocated. It wasn’t until the off-season when he was alerted to the hip pain being a much bigger problem.
Different scenarios were thrown out at him, even reaching out to the point where the C word was thrown in as a possibility.
But more tests were needed, including two MRIs and a CT scan.
He trained as hard for this season as he ever had before, cutting about 10 pounds off his frame, with the unknown situation about his hip swirling in over his head.
In September, the results finally came back.
He had a 10 centimetre by six centimetre cyst inside his left femur near his hip.
“(The doctor) suspects that when growing up, your brain forgets to send a signal,” said Printz. “The way he described it best was baking a fresh loaf of bread and you cut into the middle of the bread and there’s a hole in it.”
He was lucky it was caught when it was, had he gone into the boards the wrong way, the femur could have shattered.
Printz was told the surgery — completed in November — would be similar to if he had broken his femur, and there was no guarantee he would play again.
To repair the leg, doctors first had to drill into the femur to drain it and then clean out the cavity. Doctors then used a bone graft from a donor and partially from his own femur to help repair and fill the bone. They finished the procedure by inserting a titanium rod from his hip down to his knee to strengthen the leg and take pressure off the healing bone.
Since then has been rehabbing the leg and leaning heavily on the patience, understanding and help of his girlfriend and his roommate/teammate Logan Sceviour, as well as his family from afar — his parents Tom and Barb, his brother Mark and his sister Tara Bauer.
“Coming home from the hospital, I couldn’t walk, I was on crutches. I needed my roommate and my girlfriend to help me get into bed and get out, to now where I’m walking and I feel great,” said Printz. “I’m starting to work out and skate and it’s been a process.”
He returned to practice on Jan. 5, stepping back on the ice for the first time since the fall, and though he was sore by the end of the session, it was a feeling he won’t soon forget.
“Going to the doctor and having him tell you that you’re allowed to skate now … there’s a huge sigh of relief, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel when that happens,” said Printz. “I didn’t know what to expect … I just wanted to get back out there and start living a normal life again.”
Keeper is looking forward to getting him back in the lineup, especially if he can return close to form.
The goal is to get him into either Friday’s game at 7 p.m. or Saturday’s game at 1:30 p.m. — both games are at Penhold — though Keeper says he will likely start him off in a third-line role and ease him into the top six.
“I would imagine he’s going to have to get through a little bit of tentativeness,” said Keeper. “He was playing for a long time with pain in his hip and not sure what it was. Now he’ll be able to get out there, play through it and gain some confidence. He’s played really well in practice and said he feels good.”
The Kings opened their second semester with a sweep over the Concordia Thunder (3-15-1-1) last weekend, and though Briercrest has struggled this season they cannot take them lightly.
“They have one goaltender (Connor Dobberthien) that sees a lot of rubber and they ride him, he plays really well,” said Keeper. “They’re a deeper team than last year, I think they have two guys in the top 10 in scoring (Aaron Armstrong, fourth with 23 points; Stephen Langford, 21st with 17 points). They’re quick, they forecheck hard and they pressure hard.”
• The Queens (4-5-3) hockey team has a home-and-home series with the MacEwan University Griffins (4-7-1), at the Red Deer Arena tonight at 7 p.m. and in Edmonton on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
• RDC basketball has a home-and-home series with the St. Mary’s University Lightning, hosting on Friday with the women going at 6 p.m. and the men at 8 p.m. On Saturday they are in Calgary.
• RDC volleyball renews their Central Alberta rivalry with the Olds College Broncos this weekend, playing in Olds on Friday at 6 p.m. and at RDC on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Queens continue to sit atop the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association rankings while the men have slipped to No. 3 after splitting with Lethbridge College last weekend.
• The ACAC fall regional Curling bonspiel will go in Edmonton at the Avonair Curling Club this weekend. The event was originally supposed to be hosted by RDC in November, but was snowed out.