A normal day for most, March 17 was the best day of the year for Kristaps Nimanis.
Less than five months after suffering a nasty leg injury in the second game of the season, the Quad-City Storm defenseman was back on the ice, playing the game that he loves.
"It was like Christmas, New Year's and a birthday at the same time," Nimanis said. "When I couldn’t play, I felt empty, like someone took something away from me. When I stepped back, put the game jersey on, it was something I can’t describe. It was unreal, pretty much the best feeling I’ve had in my entire hockey career."
Nimanis suffered a complete tear of his ACL and a first-grade tear of his meniscus in his right knee on Oct. 26 against the Peoria Rivermen. He had surgery on Nov. 16, then began the road to recovery.
"It was painful, I'm not going to hide that," Nimanis said. "The first month, month-and-a-half after the surgery, when we started pushing and flexing the leg, it was the worst. But as soon as you get to the one level, where you can start doing things, you just keep going and push a little bit more."
The injury could have potentially ended his season but since it happened so early, there was an outside chance Nimanis could return. It was a possibility head coach Dave Pszenyczny wanted to retain, and so he neglected to put Nimanis on season-ending injured reserve, instead placing him on multiple 30-day injured stints.
"He wanted to come back and play this season, not write off the whole year, and after that injury happened, that early in the season, you’re thinking I can get this guy back for playoffs," Pszenyczny said. "Unfortunately, we put ourselves in that position, but it’s nice to see that he’s back. If he’d been here all year, maybe we’d have a different outcome on the back end because that’s big shoes to fill."
Nimanis was working to get back on the ice right from the start.
"The day after his injury, he was still in the weight room working out his upper body," Pszenyczny said. "I think anybody else would have packed on the pounds, got out of shape, but this guy used it as fuel."
Nimanis' injury forced Pszenyczny to re-evaluate his strategy defensively, especially coupled with the loss of Ludlow Harris Jr. to the ECHL.
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Pszenyczny made several roster moves to try and help fill the void of both, slated to be top-line defensemen. He traded for Tyler Minx, picked Sean Kacerosky off waivers and brought Cody Walsh and Dan Pszenyczny out of retirement.
But it was hard to suddenly adjust when dealt such an early blow.
"You have plans in the summertime and you think, this guy fits here and he’s going to log a lot of minutes," Pszenyczny said. "This season, a lot of guys were forced into positions they normally probably wouldn’t have been, but at the same time, it’s an opportunity, what are you going to do with it?"
Through all the struggles, Nimanis was there. It's not uncommon for injured players to stay away from the team, go back home and often times let rehab fall by the wayside. Nimanis, who is from Liepaja, Latvia, was instead around the team on a daily basis, through the ups and the downs.
Even once the losses pushed playoffs out of the picture, Nimanis still wanted to do all he could to come back and play.
"When the table is full with the food, there’s a lot of people around it," Nimanis said. "But when you only have a sandwich and water, you find out who really cares about the team and hockey in general. It’s always easy to leave, to give up and get out.
"I didn’t want to go home and spend a year without hockey. If I had a chance to jump in, at least for the last month, I was going to take it because the offseason is so long. It brought me back to life, playing this little bit."
Nimanis is now back on the ice, playing out these final games with a renewed appreciation. Though his fourth full season of North American hockey was cut short, Nimanis, 25, wants to return to the Storm next year and continue to try and work his way up through the minors.
Though he won't even play 10 games this season, just getting back on the ice was enough of a success.
"If I see something is possible, I’m going to go for it," Nimanis said. "It was for myself, to win my own battle, prove to people that it’s possible to keep believing and if you really, really want it, you can make it."