The fracture was horrific, a broken left leg that threatened to end the career of one of the best players in college hockey.
Drew LeBlanc, a senior forward from St. Cloud State University, crashed into the boards, suffering a compound fracture during a game against Wisconsin on Nov. 5, 2011.
“It silenced us,” St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko said. “The injury he went through a year ago … was one of the worst injuries, outside of catastrophic, that I’ve ever seen. The Joe Theismann compound fracture.”
Comparing the injury to one of the most recognizable and gruesome injuries in sports history, the St. Cloud coach said it left his top player in a wheelchair. The bone pierced through the skin, much like the damage done to Theismann by a hit from Lawrence Taylor that ended the career of the Washington Redskins quarterback.
Fast-forward to today’s NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals at the Huntington Center. LeBlanc has made a remarkable recovery as a senior with a medical redshirt. He will lead fourth-seeded St. Cloud (23-15-1) in a matchup against top-seeded Notre Dame (25-12-3) in the semifinal at 1:30 p.m.
LeBlanc is one of two of the top offensive talents in the country who will showcase their play-making abilities in Toledo this weekend. LeBlanc and Miami forward Austin Czarnik both were named finalists for college hockey’s top individual honor, the Hobey Baker Award.
After months of rehabilitation, LeBlanc not only started the season for St. Cloud, but he also has hauled in the hardware.
LeBlanc became the first player in the history of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to earn both player of the year and student-athlete of the year honors.
“I’m so glad he’s getting those accolades this year for the right reasons,” Motzko said. “It was a seven-month recovery. Here’s a guy that lost his senior year and, on the Monday after, he was back in class in a wheelchair, on our bench in practice. He didn’t leave our side last year. I think he felt like when he lost it, he wanted it back. And you don’t see some of the best kids in the country coming back for a fifth year. I think he really believed he had unfinished business. And we benefited from that as a program.”
LeBlanc and Czarnik both offered humble responses about being considered to be among the top 10 players in the country.
“Well it’s a pretty special group and just to be mentioned there is kind of important,” LeBlanc said. “I was just fortunate enough to be around a successful team and play with some good linemates. I’m really fortunate.”
Czarnik, who is from Washington, Mich., is one of two sophomores named a Hobey Baker finalist, the equivalent of college football’s Heisman Trophy. He was named the player of the year in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
Czarnik’s Miami RedHawks, the No. 2 seed, face off against No. 3 Minnesota State in today’s 5 p.m. semifinal.
“It’s a huge honor for me just because my teammates and my coaches every day … they’re willing to work with us and make us better,” Czarnik said “That’s where all the contribution comes from. I pretty much just have to thank all of them for all they’ve done.”
LeBlanc, a native of Hermantown, Minn., leads the country in assists with 37. He has 50 points. LeBlanc also is a student teacher and has 3.64 grade point average.
“There are so many good players in our league, and any one of them was capable of getting that award,” LeBlanc said.
Czarnik tied for the lead in the CCHA with 38 points, including a team-high 24 assists. He has five points in the last three games. The sophomore also leads the nation in shorthanded goals with four.
The 20-year-old has represented the United States and won a gold medal at the World Junior Championships in 2009-10.
Miami coach Enrico Blasi, whose team has earned a berth in the NCAA tournament for the eighth straight year, said successful teams typically have one or two individuals that “kind of get noticed” but that it has to come with “a team game first.”
“Austin’s obviously a dynamic player and we’re thankful that he’s with us,” Blasi said. “At the same time, he needs everyone around him to do what he does. He knows that and the team knows that.”
Miami has had a Hobey Baker finalist each of the last four years and eight of the last 10 seasons.
“So every player that has been on that list will give you that same answer,” Blasi said. “If it wasn’t for the team and the success that we’ve had, I don’t think they’d be recognized.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.