Meaghan Mikkelson knew it was bad.
She had skated through groin pulls and muscle tweaks. She knew what it was like to suffer and skate through the bumps and bruises that come with the territory when you’re blocking shots as a blueliner. Mikkelson had even managed to not just suit up in the gold-medal game at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi while nursing a broken hand, but make an impact, too, recording the primary assist on the goal that sparked Canada’s last-minute comeback and overtime victory. She is certified tough, a card-carrying hockey player’s hockey player, with the war stories to prove it.
But this? This was something else. During the late-May PWHPA Dream Gap Tour contest between Calgary and Toronto, Mikkelson collided with two-time Team Canada teammate Renata Fast in a race for the puck, slammed into the boards and crumpled to the ice in agonizing pain. “I almost felt like the bottom half of my leg completely separated from the top half of my leg,” Mikkelson said. “I felt like it basically snapped in half right at my knee. That and the searing pain that lasted for probably a minute or two, those were two things that signalled to me that something big had happened.”
The diagnosis was gruesome: an ACL tear with additional widespread ligament damage. In other words, her knee had exploded. And to make matters worse, the injury couldn’t have been more ill-timed. Hockey Canada was set to gather for its summer training camp and prepare for the World Championship two months later. Mikkelson, who’d been passed over by those assembling the 2020 squad, was on the camp roster and had, only weeks earlier, been named to Canada’s 29-player Olympic centralization roster. She was on course to pull on the red and white at a fourth Olympics. Instead, two weeks after the injury, she was going under the knife.
Realistically, that could have been the end for Mikkelson. After all, she had nothing left to prove. She’s a two-time NCAA champion, a CWHL champion and has stood on the podium 10 times as a member of Team Canada, her international hockey resume highlighted by two Olympic gold medals and a World Championship gold.
She’s one of the most decorated players in Team Canada history and, with her 37th birthday on the horizon, even she could acknowledge she was far closer to the end than the beginning of her career. On top of it all, there were moments Mikkelson thought about what she had at home: two young children and all the joys associated with parenthood.
But then she thought about the old adage, the one about going out on your own terms. “If I would have just retired and given up, for the rest of my life, I would have wondered if I could have done it, if I could have come back in time, if I could have made it to play in a fourth Olympics,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s something I could live with. But I knew if I tried, did everything that I could in my power, as hard as it was going to be, I would be able to look back and say that I did everything I could, had no regrets.”
Four days after surgery, Mikkelson was in the gym. And in the time since, as she attempts to accomplish an improbable comeback, she has had her rehab guided by a return-to-play lead at the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary.
The initial prognosis was nine to 12 months before she could be back playing, but working on an accelerated timeline and pushing her body to its limits, Mikkelson made clear she was striving to be back much sooner. On Oct. 1, she took to Twitter and posted a picture of her skates with the caption, “Back on the jets for the first time.”
Despite being back skating, however, Mikkelson hasn’t been able to participate in a full practice, nor has she played in any of the tune-up games or competitions ahead of the Olympics. As others fighting for roster spots are making impressions on Canadian coach Troy Ryan and director of women’s national teams Gina Kingsbury, Mikkelson is simply trying to get herself back to where she needs to be.
She’s controlling all she can – her effort in the gym one day and her work on the ice the next – as she pushes through what she calls the “hardest thing that I have ever gone through in my hockey career.”
And she’s doing it in an effort to persuade the powers-that-be to put her on the roster for the upcoming games. “I’ll do anything to just be part of the team, and I live that every single day,” she said. “Everything I do with my rehab, recovery, training, skating, everything right now revolves around me getting as strong as I can as fast as I can so that when it comes time to play, I am one of those players they want to take to Beijing.”
This isn’t to say it’s Beijing or bust. Mikkelson won’t go that far. Why put in all this gruelling effort only to pack it up if it turns out Ryan, Kingsbury and Co. believe what’s best for Canada at the 2022 Olympics is a blueline that doesn’t include Mikkelson? There’s the 2022 World Championship and an opportunity to keep a foot in the pro game with the PWHPA. If the way she’s pushed herself through this considerable late-career hurdle is any indication, there’s also no one and nothing that can tell her when, where or how her career has to end. “There’s so much uncertainty, but what I do know is that before I got hurt, I was playing the best hockey I’ve ever played in my life, at 36 years old,” she said. “So, why would I stop then? If I can get back to that and I’m still strong, healthy, enjoying it, can still be the best mother that I can be, why would I stop?”