By their nature, hockey rinks can be frigid. The environment has to be cold enough for the ice to freeze and be skate-able, which can make places like the Mark Edward Freitas Ice Forum, the on-campus home of the UConn men’s hockey program, occasionally unpleasant. Sometimes, though, a player needs to experience the unpleasant to come back.
Such is the case of senior forward Jeff Wight, who has been battling shoulder problems throughout his UConn career and missed almost his entire junior season after a dislocated left shoulder, spending hours upon hours at Freitas rehabbing in preparation for his final season as a Husky.
“I was here for a good portion of the summer, so [I was on the ice] pretty much every day. Then when I would go home and train, skate every day,” Wight said. “I couldn’t get enough of it because it had been so long since I had been out there.”
He initially suffered the injury in the Huskies’ 2016-17 exhibition opener against St. Francis Xavier, a college in Nova Scotia. He missed the first three games of the regular season and made his debut against Rochester Institute of Technology before getting his first career start on the road against No. 4 Quinnipiac.
“His junior year, he got hurt right early. He actually got hurt in the exhibition game, but he tried to play through it,” his head coach, Mike Cavanaugh said.
In that game, on the opening face-off, Wight felt something in his shoulder and would not return to the ice for the rest of the contest. Almost immediately, the coaching staff knew the injury was likely season-ending.
“I think Wight’s probably done for the season,” Cavanaugh said in his post-game press conference.
The then-junior from Coquitlam, British Columbia was poised to play a big role with the Huskies, but instead, he was left to take care of his injured shoulder after surgery instead of being on the ice.
“I was pretty confident after the first six months of rehab and then I went into it not even thinking about it and then I blew it out the first shift of the second game,” Wight said. “It’s definitely a process but it’s definitely rewarding to get back and start feeling good again.”
He spent the entire rest of the 2016-17 season getting his strength back, rehabbing for over five months.
“He rehabbed it all last year. I think towards the end of the year he started to get back on the ice, so you’re talking October-March,” Cavanaugh said. “It was a long time, a good five-six months.”
After his injury his sophomore year, he had labrum surgery, but when the repairs failed in the game against Quinnipiac early the following season, he had a more aggressive procedure.
“It kept dislocating, I got surgery on the labrum a couple times. The first time was one surgery and the second one was a different one, more of a bone graft type surgery,” Wight said.
In about six months, Wight went from strictly weight-room rehab to being able to skate.
“[The rehab] is broken down into four or five phases, with each about a month to a month and a half. At the start, once the surgery happens, there’s nothing there for strength. You can’t even move it by yourself,” Wight said. “I needed [Ed Blair], our athletic therapist, to kind of move it around and for that first couple weeks.”
Even after three or four months, once Wight was back on the ice, he had to be careful with his shoulder.
“For the first three-to-four months, there’s really no skating. It’s strictly off-ice because you don’t want to risk slipping or something happening when you’re skating and falling on it and setting that three, four-month rehab and surgery right back to the start,” Wight said. “After four months, you ease back into non-contact and pretty controlled situations and after six, seven [months], you’re fully cleared.”
When someone has the same serious injury twice, it sometimes means that a return to a high level of competition is not in the cards due to the difficult road back. However, Wight was not deterred.
“I think it was [a tough rehab] but he has done it before, so he was committed to it,” Cavanaugh said. “He worked diligently and this summer, he put in a lot of extra work to prepare for this upcoming season.”
After playing just two games since Feb. 27, 2015, Wight was back on the ice at full strength for UConn’s season opener at Maine on Oct. 6, 2017, centering a line with freshman Zac Robbins and sophomore Justin Howell.
That game was a back-and-forth affair that ended with a UConn defeat in overtime, but Wight was able to shake off the rust with the game-tying goal to send it to the extra session, scoring with merely 15.9 seconds to go on a rebound.
“I think that was a great way for him to start the season. A lot of his hard work paid off and that was a big goal for us in that game,” Cavanaugh said.
Wight is listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds and is an imposing figure, even without skates. He owns a gritty role for the Huskies, spending a lot of time in the corners and along the boards trying to use his bigger body to win puck battles. Health is extremely important to effectively being that player, one who is always initiating and taking contact from opposing players.
“Being healthy in general is a big necessity to that style of play and being able to trust that, with the surgery that was done,” Wight said. “You can’t be skeptical about it or hesitate, or that’s going to affect your game. Being able to trust that that’s there and that’s healthy is essential.”
Cavanaugh cited Wight’s strong play as a desire to be great and be coachable in order to achieve that goal.
“[Wight] came in here and said ‘I want to play here, what do I have to do to play here?’ I said, ‘I think you have to play a much more physical, tougher power forward,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s what you have to be. You have to be a big power forward that can win face-offs, that can finish checks and wear down the other team’s center.”
“To his credit, he did that.”
Teammates see this kind of sometimes thankless play as well.
“He gives that physical presence that no one else really gives,” senior defenseman Johnny Austin said. “He’s always laying the body and it really helps our team and gives us energy.”
Through the early part of his senior season, Cavanaugh was happy with the effort that Wight has shown.
“His play overall, he’s been pretty consistent. When he’s playing well, he’s winning face-offs, he’s hard on the puck, he’s winning puck battles in the defensive zone and we need him to do that,” he said. “We need his big, physical presence in the lineup.”
But once again, fate dealt Wight a tough blow, when he suffered a lower-body injury prior to UConn’s Nov. 10 game against No. 17 Ohio State and he missed eight games. He made his return on Dec. 5 against UMass and made up for lost time, scoring a pair of goals in the first period.
“It was good to get back. I was obviously out for a bit, fighting a lower-body injury, and I wasn’t sure how much I was going to be able to get out there, contribute and play,” Wight said. “But I found a couple good opportunities with some good plays by my teammates.”