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When Cole Brady looks back on his hockey playing career 20-some years from now, he probably won’t list the 12-month period between October 2020 and October 2021 as a highlight. While Brady posted a 2.55 goals against average and .929 save percentage in his final six starts to finish last season — including a 41-save shutout of Ohio State in the season finale — the events that bookended that run of dominance were anything but memorable.
When the team resumed its unprecedented, all-road season in the Big Ten after the Christmas break, Brady was diagnosed with mononucleosis and missed the next three series. Then he defied long odds and suffered a recurrence of mono that kept him out of the lineup for this season’s opening series against UMass Lowell. In between those two illnesses, Brady sustained a right hip injury in the aforementioned shutout of Ohio State that necessitated surgery in late March.
“It was a long road that I went through this summer so to miss the first series, I was obviously a little irritated,” said Brady, who will start the first game of a two-game series against Denver at Magness Arena on Friday. “I kind of have that itch to get back on the ice in a game situation after all of the work I did this summer. I’m just excited to finally have the opportunity to play.”
Brady returned to Arizona in August after working with renowned trainer Matt Nichol in Toronto this summer, but he wasn’t able to start working on actual goaltending improvements with goalie coach Eddie Läck until September.
“I didn’t see pucks until after at least three weeks of just skating on the ice,” he said. “And then we kind of progressed as much as I could tolerate and I just kind of took it day by day. We stayed on my feet some days, went down some days, just took it slow on some days until I was confident enough to hop into practice.”
The wait followed a laborious rehab in Toronto that challenged Brady’s mental fortitude.
“It was pretty tedious,” he said. “It started with learning how to walk again without a limp, and then just trying to make things loose in your hip and your hip flexor and all those small muscles that give you the mobility to move around, and then you just kind of strengthen all the areas around it that were weakened by the surgery.
“Eddie has had both hips done so he was obviously by my side the entire time and in my ear, letting me know what I needed to do, and how I could help speed up the process. It’s obviously become a pretty regular surgery now, especially with goaltenders, but it was a long summer and a lot of hard work to get back to where I wanted to be.”
Brady thought he had arrived at that place before the rematch with mono delivered one final dose of frustration. He thought he might be cleared for the UMass Lowell series, but health concerns including the possibility of infecting his teammates delayed the process and he was cleared on Sunday, the second day of the series — too late to compete.
“We talked a lot last weekend about it and I just said, ‘Hey, dude. You want to play. I want you to play, but this is just a shitty situation,” Läck said. “We can’t do anything about it so there’s no point in dwelling on it. We’ve just got to look forward to the Denver weekend.
“The thing about the surgery and what he has been through is it kind of forces you to grow up and it forces you to be a pro because there’s just so much time that you put into it and there’s so much you learn about taking care of your body. We want him to be the best goalie in college and I think that he has the chance to be that this year. It started with him putting in the work in the summer. He never stopped, however frustrating it got, and now he’s back here and he’s looking really good.”
ASU coach Greg Powers said that Brady only missed about four practices so there were no concerns about his preparedness for the Denver series.
“He had (mono) a lot worse the first time and when he came back, he was lights out,” Powers said. “He looks really, really good.”
The Sun Devils are counting on Brady to carry the load the way they relied on Joey Daccord a few seasons ago. While Powers is confident in new backup Ben Kraws, who transferred from Miami and played the first series, Powers wants to see someone seize the starting job.
“We want to reel off a bunch of wins and have a kid get hot,” Powers said. “Joey Daccord proved that if you get hot, you should be able to play every game. It’s two games a week. If you want to be a starter in the NHL, you’d better to learn how to deal with 34 games over the course of the year.”
Powers is unabashed in his assessment of Brady’s potential.
“I think he’s going to be a minimum three-year guy, and I think that if you compared him with where Joey was at at the exact same point in time, you could argue that Cole is a little bit ahead based off of some of the efforts that he put in last year,” Powers said. “Time will tell, but we truly believe that he has the mental makeup and skill set and everything it takes to become an NHL goaltender. Now he’s just got to put it all together.”
Läck has continued to make some tweaks in Brady’s game, including getting him to lean a little more forward to avoid being too upright.
“He’s tracking the puck a lot better, but from a technical standpoint, I feel like he’s always gotten away with his old style a little bit more because he has such a big body,” Läck said. “Before, his upper body was just so straight, and he had such a hard time just reaching the low blocker and the low glove. So that’s what we worked on a ton, is just getting him a little more forward leaned, and not so blocky.”
After so many setbacks, Brady said he is ready for a long run in the net.
“It’s something you look forward to,” he said. “I mean, that’s what I thought of constantly before the setback, was the starting job, so to have the privilege and the trust to just get that workload is obviously a big deal for me.
“I feel good. It is obviously unfortunate what happened, but it was a small setback and we’re past it now. I’m back now, and I’m just trying to be a consistent wall back there to give them the confidence to go play, knowing if they make a mistake it won’t cost them and I can be back there to support them.”
Notes: Powers said that everyone is ready to play in the Denver series except for sophomore forward Ryan O’Reilly (wrist), who should be back in the lineup next week… Puck drop is scheduled for 6 p.m. MST today, and 5 p.m. on Saturday. Fans can watch the live stream on NCHC.tv.