It had been seven months since Frank Rediker skated through the London Knights' castle before the start of an Ontario Hockey League game. Seven long, difficult months as Rediker battled back from knee surgery after he crashed into the boards just before the playoffs. It came on the heels of a shoulder injury when he was with the Windsor Spitfires, which forced him out of more than half another season. Then there was a broken foot.
Rediker made a happy return to the Knights. His team defeated the Owen Sound Attack 5-2 last night.
He walked out of the dressing room on his own, without crutches, splints or slings.
Rediker is 19 years old, in his fourth year in the OHL and has played only 135 games. He is a player with enormous potential. He's big, strong and ranks among the best skaters in the league.
Is he unlucky? Injury-prone? Will he ever get a chance to play a full season?
Just before the game, Rediker is talking about how happy he is finally to be back in the lineup. He's standing in the corridor near the ice surface. Goaltender Gerald Coleman is fooling around with a puck on the ice.
"I don't think I'm injury-prone," Rediker said.
The words were barely out of his mouth when the puck Coleman was using somehow flew off the ice and hit the wall three metres from where Rediker was standing.
"Oh God," he said with a laugh. "Maybe you shouldn't be standing next to me."
Rediker could be excused for feeling nervous. But the odds have to fall in his favour eventually.
"Three times, that's it," he said. "No more injuries."
Rediker has been the forgotten man in some ways. He only played 24 games for the Knights and not many people realize how much of a key piece of the team puzzle he's supposed to be. He hasn't had a chance to show that yet.
Knights assistant coach Jacques Beaulieu knows where he fits in, though.
"He'll be one of our top four (defencemen)," he said. "He's so hungry to play. He's been out for a long time."
Hungry? Starving is more like it.
Rediker flew out of the castle as he was introduced before the game, two weeks ahead of his scheduled return. He could have been excused if he'd been a little tentative, but he looked ready. He didn't hesitate to get involved and jumped into the play offensively. He came close to scoring in the second period on a good play by Rob Drummond.
In the third period, he looked ready to have a go at some Attack players on their bench.
"The last two years have been the most frustrating of my life," he said. "But I've learned that everything happens for a reason. This has made me a lot stronger.
"Seven months off the ice, I wanted to get involved, I wanted to do something. The knee felt good. I forgot about it out there. I'm rusty, but I'm so happy to be out there."
Beaulieu wasn't planning to play him as much as he did.
"But he had a lot of wind and I had this instinct he was going to be all right," Beaulieu said. "So I just kept throwing him out."
Rediker wasn't surprised he played that much.
"I've worked hard," he said. "The coaches put me through at lot of skating sessions, the kind where you skate so much you feel like you are going to puke. I was ready.
"You look out on the ice and you see guys doing things and getting accolades and you can't do anything. It's just very frustrating."
Last night was a small first step for Rediker, something every long journey begins with.