Joel Sexsmith speaks candidly about it now but has no trouble admitting how scared he was in the moment.
The 17-year-old defenceman, acquired by the Red Deer Rebels last week, was unsure of what his hockey future held until recently.
While running the Grouse Grind as a member of the Vancouver Giants organization late last summer, Sexsmith experienced some swelling and unusual shortness of breath.
After a visit to the doctor, he was diagnosed with blood clots and missed almost four months of hockey. He played just 15 games last year at the Delta Hockey Academy.
“It was obviously something I had to learn to work with. A little bit of adversity came my way and I had to learn how to overcome it. Still dealing with that today,” said Sexsmith, who was traded to Red Deer for the rights to 2000-born forward Brendan Budy and a conditional WHL Bantam Draft pick.
“There’s some lingering effects that I’m going to have to deal with for the rest of my life, but I’m not going to let that stop me from being a good player.”
He spent the summer trying to get back into shape, in somewhat old school fashion. The highly-touted prospect trained at a boxing facility the entire month of July, before hooking up with Ian Gallagher, father of Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher.
He credits that experience with helping him push his training to a new level, as well as learning what it truly takes to be a good pro.
“(Ian) was great for monitoring the injury and learning from him and from Brendan in the gym was pretty amazing. Being able to compete against pro guys in the gym off the ice, was just as big as being able to compete with them on the ice,” Sexsmith said.
“I learned a lot about training like a pro and acting like a pro. Hopefully, I can carry that forward.”
In good health now and with a new team, the Edmonton native is focused firmly on the future and trying to fit in with an organization he knows a lot about.
Not only does he know the Sutter family, but he has also played with eight members of the Rebels over the course of his hockey career.
That helped Tuesday in his first game action since March last year. Sexsmith was playing in his hometown, in front of family and friends at the Edmonton Downtown Arena. It was also against the team he grew up watching, the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“It was just a big thing getting back on the ice. Getting my feet under me. With my parents being there, family and friends it was nice to play in front of the hometown crowd. Hopefully, build off that for the rest of the preseason and season,” he said.
“I haven’t skated in a while. I was just trying to play as efficient and as smart as I could. I think being welcomed so nicely, knowing a lot of the guys, eased my way back into the lineup and game situation.”
Where he fits in on the Rebels blueline at this point in training camp isn’t exactly clear. Dawson Barteaux, Christoff Sedoff, Jacob Herauf and Ethan Sakowich will more than likely make up the top four.
If Kyle Masters, 16, and a 2018 first-round WHL Bantam Draft pick makes the team out of camp, that leaves two spots for a collection of players. Seventeen-year-olds Mason Ward, Blake Gustafson, Chase Leslie, and Sexsmith are all battling for those last two spots.
Still, Rebels assistant GM Shaun Sutter said it was an easy decision to try and acquire a player who was a first-round, ninth overall selection by the Swift Current Broncos in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.
“He was obviously an elite bantam player, that’s why he went where he did in the draft. Was a high character kid, I remember him being a great interview. Was a real smart, heady player that read and anticipated the play well,” Sutter said.
As an organization, the Rebels understand that Sexsmith is just now getting back into game shape and are prepared to be patient with the 17-year-old.
“It’s the type of thing where he had that serious injury, had he not had that, we’re probably not in a position to acquire him. He’s going to be a good player in our league, it’s going to take him a little bit of time to get up to speed,” Sutter said.
“We’ll have to be patient with him and work with him, he’ll have to put in the work. I think we’ll see the dividends.”
Sexsmith, armed with the perspective of a long-term injury that most kids his age can’t relate to, is ready to remain patient himself and work his way back one step at a time.
“I saw this as a new opportunity and I’m going to take it. It’s great to know I’m an hour and a half from home and I do get to see family and friends,” he said.
It’s different, it’s not something I really know but it’s been an easy transition and that’s the best part.”