Chaz Lucius got the answer he needed and dreaded last summer, when doctors finally determined why he was struggling with pain in his left knee.
The forward with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 team had a bone lesion, caused by an injury to the growth plate in his knee when he was hit there by a puck two years earlier.
“Just a fluke thing,” the 18-year-old said.
The solution was arthroscopic surgery to remove the lesion. But the recovery would be daunting, and it would be months before he could even think about lacing up his skates.
Entering his NHL Draft season, the news couldn’t have been much worse.
Despite that, Lucius was able to stay positive and see the light before he even entered the tunnel.
“When I got the news I was really devastated,” he said. “You never want to be injured as a player or as an athlete. But from that moment on I promised myself I wasn’t going to get sad, I wasn’t going to get disappointed and that I was going to come out better from this. And ever since, that is what I’ve been trying to live up to.”
Lucius accomplished that, returning six months after his surgery, scoring 20 points (13 goals, seven assists) in 13 games and is No. 12 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking for the 2021 NHL Draft.
The first round of the draft is July 23 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, SN NOW) with rounds 2-7 on July 24 (11 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, SN NOW).
The road Lucius has taken to preparing to hear his name called was far from easy.
Lucius had surgery Aug. 21, which involved scraping away dead bone in his leg and taking bone marrow from his back and injecting it into the affected area to stimulate new bone growth.
“With that being bone, you can’t really walk on that or do anything until the bone’s actually there,” he said.
That meant six weeks in a wheelchair, with his leg locked in a straight brace, and attending physical therapy sessions Monday through Friday. His work included two hours per day in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
Lucius compared those grueling sessions to the pressure someone feels in their ears when climbing or descending in an airplane, at the same time lying in a tiny metal tube.
“You just sit in there for two hours at a time,” he said. “There’s not really a lot of moving around so you just kind of lay in there and just wait.”
Lucius went through 44 of those two-hour sessions, and did his best to focus on the positives he was gaining.
“The thing that it does best, at least in my case, is grow bone back and that’s what I was trying to do and I was trying to do it as quick as possible,” he said. “So for me, I knew if I wanted to speed up the recovery process and be feeling 100 percent as soon as I could, I knew that was something that I had to do.”
For extra motivation, he followed how Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid recovered from a torn PCL in his left knee sustained late in the 2018-19 season to play at the beginning of the 2019-20 season.
“Obviously people go through these things at different stages in their life,” Lucius said. “I feel like in general if you’re an athlete that plays at a high level, unfortunately some of these things are bound to happen. And that positive mindset, positive people around you can really help a lot and speed up the recovery process and get you back on the ice as soon as you can.”
For Lucius, that was in early December.
“It definitely wasn’t the prettiest to be out there when I was skating, that’s for sure,” he said. “It definitely felt really, really weird and awkward because when I got on the ice … I was still learning how to walk again.
“But when I got on the ice … it was just more motivation to keep going and keep pushing.”
Lucius rejoined his NTDP teammates in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Feb. 1, and after three weeks of practice entered the lineup for a game against Chicago of the United States Hockey League on Feb. 19. It was his first game since March 7, 2020.
“I was really excited to be back on the ice and really nervous … but at the same time being back with my teammates, playing the game that I love, just really helped me to just kind of enjoy the moment and showcase my skills,” he said.
He did more than just showcase himself, scoring two goals in a 5-4 NTDP victory.
“I was happy for him,” NTDP U-18 coach Dan Muse said. “It had been a long road to get back there for him. I was just really happy that he was able to go out there and in that particular game to feel individual success and the feel team success on the ice and feel the ability to go in there and make contributions. It’s a feeling I’m sure he missed a lot and I was happy that he was able to be rewarded there for the work that was put into to get himself back.”
Lucius scored at least one goal in 10 of his 13 games.
“He was impressive from the get-go,” Central Scouting senior manager David Gregory said. “He had an impact in the first games he was back, which was significant considering how long the layoff was.
“He possesses a very good hockey IQ and compete level. Has an NHL-ready shot and release. He likely could have been ranked higher on our list and have an opportunity to be picked in the top 10 had he been able to have a complete season.”
Lucius didn’t get to play for the United States at the 2021 IIHF Under-18 World Championship in Texas from April 26-May 6 because of a virus. But he’s confident he showed NHL teams the kind of player he can be, and answered any questions about the health of his knee and the level of work he’s willing to put in to reach the NHL.
“I can guarantee everybody that I’m only going to get better and faster and stronger from this point on,” he said.