Noesen’s adversity gives way to resiliency

by Jack Eikenbary | AHL On The Beat Archive 

Norfolk Admirals forward and Anaheim Ducks prospect Stefan Noesen has already received a heavy dose of adversity two seasons into his professional career, and he has the scars to prove it.

Noesen, 22, began his career as a first-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, but soon became Ducks property as a result of a trade that sent Noesen and forward Jakob Silfverberg to Orange County in exchange for dynamic attacker Bobby Ryan.

Noesen finished his junior career in 2013 as a Plymouth Whaler in the Ontario Hockey League without citing any significant physical setbacks.

“I definitely had a few mild [shoulder] separations just because of the way I play. I play a big man’s game and I wasn’t necessarily big,” he admitted.

Now 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, the net-front nightmare has suffered two season-altering injuries, both occurring away from the toughest areas on the ice where he thrives.

The Admirals returned home from a two-game road trip opening the 2013-14 regular season, and in the team’s first practice back at Scope, disaster struck.

“When it first happened, I really didn’t know what was going on,” Noesen recalled. “I just felt something happen. I tried to stand up and had a hard time. Our trainer came over and helped me up a little bit. I was like, ‘All right, I’m good. I’ll just go to the bench and shake it off and I’ll be good.’ When I went to the bench and went to stop, my knee just kept going.”

What the then-rookie felt was a shredded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), and meniscus in his left knee. A trip to a team physician followed and the news was far more serious than Noesen anticipated.

“He did all the tests on me and said, ‘I can already tell you right now, it’s gone.’ When that happened, then everything kind of hit me at once.”

His knee was gone and so was the rest of his regular season.

“I was really upset,” Noesen said. “It was my first year pro, you don’t really expect something like that to happen, and when it does, your whole world just gets shot.”

The injury required surgery and six months of rehabilitation that lasted from the first month of the regular season to the very last. He appeared in just two games for the Admirals as a rookie during the regular schedule, but as Norfolk fought for a playoff spot, Noesen fought to make a full recovery.

“You basically have to learn to walk again, learn to run, learn to do agility stuff. As you get stronger and as you go along, you learn to do things again.”

The Admirals went 6-2-1-0 in the month of April to capture the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. In the first round, Norfolk faced top-seeded Manchester in a best-of-five series. After dropping Game 1, the Admirals ripped off three wins in a row to knock off the Monarchs, lengthening their season and providing Noesen with an opportunity to play.

Round 2 began in Newfoundland, Canada, against the St. John’s IceCaps. After splitting the first two games of the conference semifinal series, the Admirals and IceCaps shifted south to Hampton Roads. On May 10, 2014, seven months and two days after going down in practice, Noesen drew back into the Norfolk lineup for Game 3.

The kid out of Plano, Texas, contributed four assists in four games, two of which came in his first game back.

“I felt good. I fought hard to get back and worked the whole year to get back and play, and to be able to produce like I was fortunate enough to was awesome. I was very happy with myself and I know the coaches were happy.”

Though Norfolk fell to St. John’s in six games, Noesen managed to participate in four contests before entering the four-month offseason. The 2014-15 season presented him with a clean slate and a fresh start. A strong training camp in Anaheim set expectations for the power forward to be one of the Admirals’ best options on offense, but also a chance to show that last season was still a productive one.

“You want to work hard in the summer, come back, and show that last year wasn’t a wash, and make sure that you definitely did learn last year,” Noesen said. “Even though you maybe didn’t learn on the ice, you learned off the ice by watching guys, how they play on the ice, or how they were in the locker room. Basically maturing.”

An energized and rejuvenated Noesen looked at the upcoming season optimistically, setting his sights on skating in the season-opener and earning his first call-up to the NHL. The winger tallied an assist in the Admirals’ first game of the season and a goal in the third. He added another helper in the fourth game of the year on Oct. 18, 2014, before it all came to a screeching halt … again.

“I wound up taking the faceoff, and [Manchester center Jordan Weal] stepped through, and he stepped on the back of my leg,” Noesen said. “I fell down and didn’t really know what happened.”

A sharp pain raced into his right calf, sending Noesen to the ice.

“My first instinct is, ‘Am I cut?’ I roll over and look down into the area and didn’t see any blood.”

As he got back to his feet, another Monarch pushed him from behind.

“When he pushed me, I kind of spun out and then I felt it pop, and I felt it really cramp up in my calf a lot worse.”

Noesen dropped to the ice, but somehow hobbled back to the bench on his left leg. Admirals athletic trainer Ian Burns rushed to Noesen’s side on the bench. Fearing the worst, Burns immediately inquired about the knee.

“‘Is it your knee?’ I said no. It’s my calf,” Noesen recalled. “Then I look down and I see blood. ‘I need to get off the ice now, I’m cut.’”

A whistle blew moments later. Team captain Dave Steckel and alternate captain Brad Winchester helped the disabled Noesen off the ice before Burns and Admirals team doctors swarmed him in the trainer’s room.

It first appeared that Weal’s blade missed the Achilles tendon and damaged muscle tissue. Noesen received a pain-relieving injection then underwent a brief test for doctors to identify the extent of the laceration.

“He was able to see that it cut my Achilles’, and it was 95 percent cut.”

Less than two years into his professional career, Noesen blew out his left knee and almost completely severed his right Achilles’ tendon. Any professional athlete would be lucky to avoid one of these two injuries throughout a career, but Noesen experienced both. The ensuing rehab after surgery took four months, shelving the second-year pro until February.

“It isn’t ideal,” Noesen joked. “When he told me a rough timeline, it was the same [mentality] as my knee: What’s the date to get back, what’s the date that I’m pushing for?”

The first objective was relearning how to walk once the cast was removed, “heel to toe” as Noesen described it. Regaining complete flexibility in the foot followed, a task that challenged Noesen through Christmas and into the New Year. Once accomplished, the next step involved readjusting to skates and becoming comfortable on the ice.

In early January, team practices saw Noesen taking part while wearing a red, “non-contact” jersey. On Jan. 29, he tweeted a photo of Dr. Peter Jacobson’s signature on a white slip of paper clearing Noesen for full-contact practice on Feb. 3.

Ten days later, on the night of Feb. 13, Stefan Noesen’s name rang through Scope’s public address system during pregame introductions as the starting right-winger for the Admirals. He reintroduced himself by saucing a feed from the left wall to the right circle on the tape of Norfolk defenseman Josh Manson’s stick, which Manson promptly deposited behind Syracuse goalie Kristers Gudlevskis.

The Admirals swept the Eastern Conference-leading Crunch in a two-game weekend series, and Noesen logged an assist in each game.

Since his return, the 22-year-old forward has two goals and two assists, giving him a total of three goals and seven points in 10 games this season. And after six games back on the ice, Noesen has no complaints.

“I feel really good. I have no issues with it.”

It’s back to normal for Noesen, a goal he’s twice achieved though one he never fathomed having to reach even once. It’s also back to having fun, something the fledgling prospect hasn’t experienced much of since arriving in Norfolk two Septembers ago.

“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, it’s been a bit of a grind, but getting back and playing those games, and being able to help our team get wins. It’s definitely been fun.”

Heading into this weekend, Noesen appeared in 16 games for the Admirals in more than a season and a half. He’s spent most of his time supporting his teammates from the outside looking in. Now it’s time for all hockey fans to support him. He certainly deserves it.