Nick Merkley's Path Back, Summer Ahead
High on the rankings in regard to overcoming adversity as a professional athlete is the fight to return from injury.
Nick Merkley's season exemplified development in quite arguably the most difficult of fashions.
Following an electrifying 2017-18 rookie campaign that saw him break into the pro level to produce at more than a point-per-game pace, an introductory season that ended prematurely due to injury, Merkley hopped on a difficult road to recovery, ultimately missing the first 23 games of this past season.
"Mentally it was pretty tough, it was a long process and you kind of have to stick with it," Merkley said in recollect prior to returning to live game action in December. "It was nice being around the guys during the most of it, being in that team environment. I think I'll be better for it."
The 21-year-old worked tirelessly behind the scenes with Coyotes' development staff, toughing his way through bag skates and solo sessions before and after practices, traveling with the team on road trips to be one with the roster, an invaluable aspect to any player on a path to return.
"I think it was really about resiliency," head coach Jay Varady said of what Merkley overcame. "When you look at his past, he's had a lot of tough injuries, he's had a tough go the last couple of years, and I think that affects a player mentally and physically. I think he started the year with an unbelievable attitude in terms of his approach, his rehab, where he came in everyday and got to work, got his exercises in and continued to grow and develop in other ways that maybe he couldn't while he was on the ice."
He returned to the Roadrunners' lineup on December 12 and got a taste of score sheet glory in just his second game back, tucking home a wraparound past the Chicago Wolves' Oscar Dansk.
"I was just trying to get back into the swing of things, get the timing back at the start," he said of his mid-season return. "I think the last couple of weeks here I finally started feeling myself again, and obviously got that shot going again."
Merkley registered 11 points (4G, 7A) in his first 10 games back, but like much of the team's offense, had trouble maintaining a scoring touch through what proved to be trying months of February and March, going 27 games without a goal to his name.
Photo: Rockford IceHogs
"I had a tough slump there for a bit, I came back there kind of riding on the high of just coming back, but I thought I finished the season pretty good," he said. "Obviously it was tough to come back midway through the season, but it was just nice to be back out there with the guys again."
The healing process tests not only physical capabilities, but one's mental state.
"It's a little scary at first, you don't really know how your body is going to react or how it's going to feel, or which situation you may feel it in," Varady said of the mind and body games involved in returning from a lengthy injury. "But as you continue to experience those types of confrontations or battles where you're like 'oh, I feel pretty good' or 'oh that was a big one, but now I'm okay, I'm ready to go', I think you gain confidence and you're ready to keep moving on."
Photo: Tucson Roadrunners
Merkley kept moving and the confidence came, as did his shot, notably so on March 29 when he snapped his scoring drought by netting his first-career hat trick against the Colorado Eagles at Tucson Arena.
That was, days later, followed by an overtime-winning goal to secure a monumental road victory over the Iowa Wild with only four games remaining on the team's schedule.
"He worked incredibly hard to get back, and when he did, he gave our team a shot of energy," Varady added. "I think as the year went along he continually progressed, and I think we saw the best version of Nick toward the end of the year, that's a tough injury to come back from and I think he's going to continue to grow from here."
Despite the stretch in which he struggled to score, Merkley finished the season with 34 points (10G, 24A) in 45 games and played an integral role in the team's late efforts to secure a playoff spot, putting up 11 points (6G, 5A) in the Roadrunners' final nine contests.
Now, Merkley turns his attention to a valuable offseason, one that will allow him to train rather than recover.
"I think it was huge to get those games in and obviously I need this big summer, it's going to be nice to be getting healthier and better rather than just back to neutral, so hopefully it's a chance to make some big strides," he said.
As Merkley packed up his bags upon exiting Tucson Arena for the final time this year, he added, determined:
"I'll take a couple of weeks here and then get back into it, it's going to be a huge summer, so I'll have to do whatever it takes. Everything extra has to be done this summer, so that's what I'm try to do."
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American Hockey League Stories from April 18, 2019
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