Corey Tropp sat on top of the boards in front of the vistor's bench at the Sports Centre at Monroe Community College in Rochester. His face was expressionless and red and his skates dangled around aimlessly. The rest of the Rochester Americans players were down at the other end of the ice practicing their power play skills, but Tropp didn't look that way. He just stared straight forward and tried to catch his breath.
Minutes before, the 23-year-old had been pushing himself to complete a series of drills. One of the Amerks' assistant coaches would pass him the puck, then he would make a sharp move and dart toward then net and smack the puck past a phantom goalie. Over and over. Clack, smack, click, splash. Then the winger would glide toward center ice for a breather, spin around quickly and do it again.
For the past six months, this has been Tropp's life in hockey. Instead of practicing with the club and worrying about wins and losses or goals and assists, his only focus has been on the process of recovering from an ACL tear – an injury that usually ends a hockey player's season.
There's never a good time for an ACL tear but the timing of Tropp's injury was brutal. He had entered the off-season (rightfully) thinking he'd have a shot to play the entire next year in The Show. All summer, it drove him.
But a few months into the off-season, the NHL jackals, er, owners, locked out their players (again). Still under his Entry Level Contract, Tropp was allowed to play in Rochester during the work stoppage. The winger expected to sharpen his scoring skills and stay in shape until the vipers, er, owners, allowed the players back. He expected to wait it out until he could shine in NHL camp. He expected to prove to the Sabres that he could be a reliable third liner and prove to the fans he was their type of player.
On opening night in front of 8,500 fans stuffed into Blue Cross Arena, Tropp whipped around slower minor leaguers, scoring the season's first goal just 24 seconds into his first shift. Only minutes later, he scored again. With other NHL'ers Cody Hodgson and Marcus Foligno in the lockout lineup as well, it appeared the work stoppage might be a hell of a good time for Tropp and Amerks fans.
Then his knee ripped into 50 pieces.
The Amerks' winger took a hit along the boards. After the game, the media was informed he would be gone for the year.
Tropp had the choice of staying in Rochester for his rehab or going home to Grosse Point Woods, Mich.
He decided to stay.
One night in mid-January, not too long after his surgery, the Amerks were in Toronto and Tropp was back in Rochester attending a charity event. He hobbled around signing autographs and meeting fans. Now and then, somebody would tell him the Amerks' score or that the slumping club could really use his services or that the lockout sucked or that he had impressed them last season. There wasn't much else he could do but nod politely. You could tell that not being on the ice with his team was killing him.
“For me mentally, it's been harder than physically,” Tropp said, leaning against a concrete wall near the Sports Centre's tiny locker room. “You just want to play so bad and be out there so bad and want to contribute. Watching is the hardest. It's probably been the hardest year of hockey I've had yet.”
Tropp has pushed himself physically to meet goals from the time he was little to his USHL days in Sioux Falls to his three years at Michigan State to Portland in the AHL to Rochester to Buffalo. Lifting weights to regain strength in a leg isn't all that different from skating drills or taking wrist shots over and over. Being a spectator? He's never had to do that.
Part of the decision to stay was rooted in being around other players who have been through the same frustration.
“It's been great to be able to bounce things off some of the guys who have had long-term injuries,” the Sabres' winger said, his face back to its normal color. “It's nice to be around my teammates too because we all care about each other. That's something you wouldn't be able to get if you were rehabbing on your own.”
While he's found comfort being around the team, it's double edged. Instead of suiting up, he puts on a suit. At game time, he takes the elevator to the Sabres' box at Blue Cross Arena rather than going out to the inspect the ice before any of his teammates. And when his team is on the road, he sits on his couch instead of checking into hotels and taking buses to rinks.
“You find yourself throwing the TV remote or getting upset during the games because you wish you could be out there helping,” Tropp said.
“It sucks, man. You work and work thinking you can come into camp and show them. That's what you work for and then you don't get that opportunity. I'm not going to lie, it's been tough.”
It's even more frustrating to know he really could have been helping the Sabres, who currently sit in 13th place in the Eastern Conference. The current club has been lacking a few of the attributes Tropp has never been short on: Effort, toughness and defensive skills. Something the team ranking 28th in shots against per game might have benefitted from.
Fearlessness, too. He caught the eye of Buffalo hockey fans last season after a fight with Flyers tough guy Zac Rinaldo. Not that defense and toughness are his only skills. Before being called up to the Sabres in 2011, he scored 22 points in 27 games for the Amerks, then added three goals and five assists in 34 NHL games.
Could he have made an impact on this year's club? “Absolutely,” One ex-NHL player who is fairly close with Tropp said. The former player called the young winger a “future captain type guy” who “is willing to do anything to be great in the NHL.”
Hockey players' obsession with improving themselves and their game is pretty amazing. Few would buy into Brad Pitt's famous Fight Club line about self improvement.
After a nationally televised game between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks – one in which the Hawks extended their streak of 24 games without a regulation loss – Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said “all we can do is keep getting better.” And he said it with conviction. Think about that.
Tropp is no different. He's trying to turn a season-ending knee injury into a lesson about life and hockey.
“Through the process, you learn a lot about yourself,” he said. “You learn to deal with tough situations.
“Sometimes you might forget how much you appreciate this game and being able to play and sometimes you take it for granted. You learn to really appreciate it.”
Tropp is doing more and more on the ice at practice now, even participating with teammates on some drills. It's too early to tell whether he'll be back this season. Listen to doctors, keep working, listen to doctors, keep working, hope for the best. That's all he can do. And remember to appreciate it when he does come back.