Broken hand didn't stop UMD's Schmidt

A half-inch titanium screw and an amazing tolerance for pain helped produce a defining moment in Minnesota Duluth athletic history. Kyle Schmidt and medical representatives from Essentia Health in Duluth recently discussed a down-to-the-wire stor...

UMD's Kyle Schmidt hoists the NCAA men's hockey championship trophy at Amsoil Arena in April. (File / News Tribune)

A half-inch titanium screw and an amazing tolerance for pain helped produce a defining moment in Minnesota Duluth athletic history.

Kyle Schmidt and medical representatives from Essentia Health in Duluth recently discussed a down-to-the-wire story of recovery, detailing how the senior winger from Hermantown managed to stay in the UMD men's hockey lineup despite a broken right hand.

Nine days after a screw was put in place by orthopaedic hand surgeon Sam Hoxie, Schmidt scored a goal in a 4-3 win over Notre Dame in the 2011 NCAA semifinals in St. Paul. Two days later on April 9, he scored in overtime to defeat Michigan 3-2 and secure the school's first men's hockey championship in 50 years at the Division I level.

Neither Schmidt nor his doctors knew if he'd be able to play after being injured March 26. He was given 50-50 odds by Hoxie and Jeff Klassen, Essentia Health orthopaedic section chair and surgeon, and team physician.

"Even with surgery, I told Kyle there was no promise he would play and there would be a good deal of pain," said Hoxie, in his second year in Duluth after training at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "He said a 50-50 chance was better than no chance."


Break No. 1 and No. 2

The second half of Schmidt's final season was bumpy. On Dec. 29, the day before the opening of UMD's new hockey home, Amsoil Arena, Schmidt's right hand was broken at practice. The metacarpal bone of the ring finger was fractured. Without surgery, it would heal in six to eight weeks, yet there would be no hockey during that period.

Schmidt opted for less than an hour of surgery on Jan. 5 when Hoxie inserted two titanium rods, twice as big as a paper clip, to stabilize the hollow bone. A plastic brace, molded to the shape of the hand, was worn until the bone was completely healed. Schmidt was back in the lineup a month later, on Feb. 4, having missed just seven games.

The Bulldogs finished fourth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season standings, defeated St. Cloud State to open the league playoffs at Amsoil Arena and, despite a WCHA quarterfinal overtime loss to Bemidji State, received a Division I playoff at-large berth. In an NCAA East Regional semifinal 2-0 victory over Union College in Bridgeport, Conn., Schmidt scored the game-winning goal.

The next night, in a 5-3 win over No. 1-ranked Yale University on March 26, he jammed the blade of his stick into the boards and the butt end was jammed into his right palm. He broke the hamate bone.

"I was told I could have my hand in a cast for six weeks, and my college career would be over, or I could have surgery again," said Schmidt. "I said 'Sign me up for the surgery.' There was no way I wasn't going to try to play."

A 45-minute procedure was performed March 29. A tiny screw, a 16th-of-an-inch around, was put across the fracture to hold the two sides of the bone together. One thing in Schmidt's favor was having a week off between the NCAA Regional and the Frozen Four.

Risk and reward


Hoxie and Klassen praised Essentia Health's operating room and therapy teams in aiding Schmidt's recovery. Resting the hand was a top priority along with icing, a compression wrap, elevation and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. The plastic brace used for the first break was taken out of Schmidt's locker and remolded to effectively treat the second break.

"Most elite athletes take the quickest and most direct way of treating an injury. And especially in Kyle's case, in his senior season, he decided to take a small risk with surgery with the hope of a large reward," said Klassen, who has worked with UMD hockey the past eight years. "I'm a bit surprised that he could get back on the ice so quickly, but it's often mind over matter. He put the pain behind a wall and managed it."

Schmidt, 23, UMD's 2011 co-scholar-athlete of the year, was cleared to participate in the Frozen Four, but was apprehensive leading to the Notre Dame game on April 7 at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center. His first-period goal tied the game 2-2 on the way to a victory.

"The hand was so sore. It was still broken, and, at first, I didn't think I was going to play. I didn't know if I could stickhandle or shoot," said Schmidt. "I could pass decently hard and my legs felt fine; I just had to bear down.

"After the game, I can't describe the pain. It was horrible, but we had one day off to rest before the championship game."

On the off-day, April 8, Schmidt was given the Division I Derek Hines Unsung Hero Award, which honors the memory of a United States Army combat solider and former college player regarded as a consummate team player and team builder. It was a unique quirk of fate.

Right until game time against Michigan, however, Schmidt was judging his hand's health.

"It was completely up to me about playing and it was iffy," he said. "After warm ups, I was feeling comfortable and I just had to be strong in my mind and keep my nerves calm."


UMD and Michigan were tied 2-2 after regulation play with Travis Oleksuk, Schmidt's centerman, scoring one goal and freshman Max Tardy, on a power play unit in place of Schmidt, scoring the other. Less than four minutes into overtime, UMD defenseman Brady Lamb one-handed the puck into the right corner of the offensive zone. Schmidt let the puck go through him and to Oleksuk, and snuck to the front of the Michigan net, right in front of Michigan goalie Shawn Hunwick.

Schmidt screamed for the puck, Oleksuk found him with a perfectly-placed, no-look pass from behind the net. Schmidt found the right side of the net wide open. The game ended at 3:22 of sudden death and a UMD-partisan crowd of 19,222 roared.

Handshakes and autographs

Because the winning play happened so quickly, Hoxie, watching on television, wasn't sure who had scored. Then Schmidt celebrated, dodging teammates and heading to the far blue line toward a section of UMD fans, ultimately sliding on his back as if making a snow angel.

"That was an unbelievable moment. When I saw Kyle I said 'No way, no way.' When he was interviewed afterward on TV, he showed so much poise,'' said Hoxie, who said he played street hockey growing up in St. Paul.

His 26th career goal came in his 127th game at UMD and, while his right hand was still very sore and tender, Schmidt spent considerable time afterward shaking hands and signing autographs.

Since then he earned a WCHA Post-Graduate $10,000 scholarship, which he plans to use to pursue a master's degree in computational and applied mathematics; signed a one-year contract with Lillehammer in the Norwegian Elite League for 2011-12; married Nichole Tessier on July 16; went on a honeymoon; and headed to Norway earlier this month. He'll be playing this season with the rods and screw still in his hand, where they'll remain, and he's brought along his medical records in case there are any questions.

Hoxie, 35, has become a UMD hockey fan, along with his wife, Alison, a UMD mechanical engineering professor. Even more so, Hoxie says, he's become a Kyle Schmidt fan. When the Bulldogs had a spring athletic fund raiser, Hoxie had the winning bid on a signed Schmidt stick used in the NCAA title game. It's now on his office wall.

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