SIOUX CITY | Cole Koepke didn’t get to experience the special feelings of last season like the other returning Sioux City Musketeers.
Blame it on a knee injury that occurred 22 games into his rookie season where he had three goals and two assists. He had roles on the penalty kill and the power play. He could be counted on the ice when the Musketeers protected leads.
Seeing games online, eventually traveling to the Tyson Events Center to watch teammates and playing in games are obviously different. Koepke didn’t play in the 4-1 win over Tri-City that clinched the Anderson Cup. He didn’t get to play in the emotional five-game Clark Cup Finals won by the Chicago Steel.
“I wish I was part of it,” said Koepke. “I wanted to be here really bad. It was a great season, a great group of guys. I tried to stay as a part of the team as much as I could.
“Seeing what those guys did last year and knowing how much fun and success they had and then seeing what they did and not being able to do any of it, it’s a huge motivational aspect.”
Musketeers Coach Luke Strand said discussing the injury brought out a bittersweet feeling to Koepke, a Minnesota-Duluth recruit who had contributed 41 goals and 27 assists while leading Hermantown to the 2016 Minnesota Class A state championship.
Koepke was cleared to play on Sept. 1, the first day of camp. Ten months without hockey was tough for the physical 6-foot-1, 194-pounder who thrives on playing along the boards and getting down low, checking with the best of them.
It’s precisely what happened at the time of the injury. Koepke was on the blue line near the Musketeer bench when he caught the puck from a teammate and as he began to turn, the inside of his right knee made contact with the knee of a Lincoln player.
About a month later (mid-January), Koepke had surgery in Duluth. After two weeks of just lying in bed, he had two to four days of therapy a week, designed to get the mobility back, his muscles re-firing and then, his legs bending as he started pedaling on an exercise bicycle.
“I think every day for him has been a new step,” said Strand. “He’s showing in the process and the progress of what all has to happen. I think he has way more confidence with his legs and that is his gift, his legs. He has really kept up with his maintenance, keeping on schedule with his knee with Kedryn (Orrison), our trainer. He’s mature about that full step.”
Koepke works with Orrison daily, before and after practice.
“I don’t feel any difference when I’m skating,” said Koepke. “It’s all good. It was pretty tough that first week. It was sore. It was tight. I had 10 months off, so it was a big adjustment to get back into it. It’s nice to get back into it.”
Does Koepke think about the injury? Sometimes, when he’s off the ice.
But not when he’s on. He dealt an assist on Micah Miller’s shorthanded goal in a 4-3 preseason overtime win over Sioux Falls at the Tyson.
“Everything out there is going so fast, everything is so intense, I forget that it happened,” said Koepke. “I don’t think about it when I’m playing. After the game, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I’m getting hit out there.’ During the game, I just forget about it. It’s a great thing. I’m happy about that.”
This is good news to Strand’s ears, as he envisions Koepke’s various roles, which include first-minute and last-minute situations of periods. Koepke's energy will enhance the Musketeers’ special teams.
And yes, Strand knows Koepke wants to play on the same line as Miller, a right wing had five goals and 13 assists last season. This included 11 points (4, 7) which came after he led Grand Rapids to the Minnesota Class AA state championship in March.
“They have chemistry, they’re like two bulls in a china shop and when they’ve been out there together, they’ve done really well,” said Strand. “(Koepke’s) versatility, he could play with young guys like (Hayden) Rowan or (Samuel) Salonen to give them experience and maturity of leadership. Or, I could put him with (Micah) Miller or (Solag) Bakich, people who have been here, to give us a veteran line. His versatility is going to enable him to play in a lot of spots.”
Koepke hopes that the Musketeers can enjoy the same success as a year ago. He likes the leadership from veteran defensemen Brady Ferner and Keegan Mantaro. He feels the collegiate experience of goaltender Matt Jurusik, a two-year Wisconsin veteran, is a plus.
“I think we can have the same kind of success as last year, it’s just going to be a different style,” said Koepke. “Last year, we were fairly big and had a lot of returning players. This year, we’re smaller with more first-year players. Looking at the skill and the pace we did last year, the pace were doing this year is so similar. I think this team can definitely have the same kind of success as last year’s.
“I love what the coaching has done this year. I’d like to show a lot of these younger guys leadership and play a team-first role and do whatever Coach Strand wants me to do to help the team win. Every single player has a role. Once everyone gets that down, we are really going to be a hard team to play against.”