January 30, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Making Time For the Pain

Minnesota State's Lehrke Decides He Can't Walk Away

by Jen Dobias/CHN Reporter

Zach Lehrke couldn’t do it anymore.

Over the summer, he had trained harder than ever, fighting through the pain like he always did, to prepare himself to be an impact player his senior season at Minnesota State. Johnny McInnis recalled that it was “inspiring to watch him” and head coach Mike Hastings noted that he was excited because he could tell that Lehrke had “done the work to have a phenomenal senior year.”

But that work had taken its toll. 

“I was pretty worn down after the summer training session. At the start of the year, once we got skating, I was struggling with it a lot, and I was sick of dealing with it,” Lehrke said. “I kind of snapped a little bit about it and told myself, ‘I don’t think I can do it anymore.’”

So, with the season only days away, he went to Hastings’s office to tell him that he wanted to retire. They agreed that it was the right decision.

Lehrke suffers from a rare and little understood medical condition that causes severe cramping throughout his body. While it can strike at any time, the pain is generally at its worst during and after physical activity. He described the condition as a “different type of cramping, not like the normal kind of athlete’s cramps” and said that he began to notice it more during his sophomore year of high school, though added that he’s probably had it his whole life.

“To be honest, life has kind of been – I know it’s a bit of a harsh word – but it actually has been miserable sometimes. When it happens, it’s hard to even walk and I’m in a lot of pain. I don’t think that would be fun for anybody,” Lehrke said. “It’s very frustrating, but I just keep telling myself I’ve been to so many places trying to get it figured out and they haven’t been able to do it. I feel like I’m probably going to have to live with it. I’m going to have to get through it not only in hockey but whatever else I’m doing.”   

Being away from the game made Lehrke realize how much he was willing to sacrifice for it. Hastings pointed out that “sometimes when you step away it gives you a little clarity,” and it did for Lehrke. He saw that, if he could continue to manage the pain as he had done throughout his career, he had so much to gain — the camaraderie in the locker room, the thrill of scoring a key goal, the chance to help lead his team to victory.

“I’ve played hockey since I was four,” Lehrke said. “Growing up, it’s just been hockey, hockey, hockey. I don’t think I was ready to give up the game, especially when I have one last year I can do it.”

After watching the Mavericks play without him for 10 games, Lehrke approached Hastings to discuss returning to the lineup. Like before, they talked at length, with Lehrke explaining that he wanted to be a part of the team, no matter the physical toll. That same week, on Nov. 22, he made his season debut.

Lehrke may not have set out to inspire his teammates when he decided to come back, but he did.

“To see a guy going through something I can’t even imagine on a daily basis and battle through it and not ever say a word about it and still have the success that he has is definitely an inspiration,” Matt Leitner said. 

While Lehrke said that he thinks of himself as “just a piece of the team, not anymore than that,” his return coincided with MSU’s resurgence. The WCHA favorites stumbled at the beginning of the season, posting a 4-6 record in his absence. They have since climbed to second place in the league and sit just four points outside of first. Ask any Maverick, and he’ll tell you that it’s not a coincidence.

“A lot was expected of us and, until Zach came back, we didn’t really have a lot going for us,” McInnis said. “There were glimpses of what could be, but it just seemed like someone was missing. When Zach came back, our family was back together again.”

Lehrke was the missing piece on the top power-play unit. Before Nov. 22, MSU’s once potent power play was sputtering, ranked 55th in the nation (8.7 percent). Now, it’s first in the WCHA and third in the NCAA (24.2). Lehrke’s 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) with the man advantage is good for third on the team, and he has displayed a knack for finding even the smallest of passing lanes to set up his teammates for scoring chances.

“One of his greatest strengths is his ability to see the game and slow it down,” Hastings said. “He makes great decisions with the puck. He can see what’s there and deliver a puck to an area that’s open or a player that’s open.”

As important as Lehrke has been on the ice, he’s been more so off it. McInnis was quick to mention that “he always has a smile on his face and is working hard, which is something you need in your locker room,” while Leitner explained that “there’s no replacing guys like Zach, who just have a good heart all around.”

“He earned the respect of everybody on our team just because of the way he approaches his life, his work ethic and the type of young man that he is,” Hastings said. “He elevated a lot of things, not just what we were doing in the rink.”

While Lehrke has elevated his team’s and his own play – with 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) in 16 games, he has a chance to top his previous career high of 25 despite missing 10 games – it’s still not always easy. The pain can be brutal late in the third period, and long workouts are tough. But he knows that he can look to his MSU family for support.

“When I told them I wasn’t going to play they were supportive, and they welcomed me back,” Lehrke said. “They’ve helped me out a lot. The first game I came back, they were pretty excited and they made me more comfortable in the locker room, which made me more comfortable on the ice.”

And Lehrke has looked comfortable on the ice, no more so than when he scored what may be the NCAA goal of the year Jan. 11 against Alaska Anchorage. On a two-on-one rush, he reeled in a pass from Jean-Paul Lafontaine and shot the puck between his legs to beat UAA’s Chris Kamal.

“Just messing around at a practice, you try something like that,” Lehrke said. “I’ve never done it in an actual game. It’s really cool to be a candidate. I’m sure there are a lot of cool goals were scored this year.”

But Lehrke’s is likely more special than any of them because of the story behind it.

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