Updated: November 16, 2013 at 7:23 am
For a few minutes, Air Force forward George Michalke III thought his hockey career was over.
He was lying in a Buffalo hospital bed on Oct. 25, 2012, after suffering a broken cheekbone, cut face and severe concussion from being checked headfirst into the boards by a Canisius player.
He told his mother he never expected to play again.
"I don't remember saying it," he said. "My mother later told me about it and said a few minutes later I was talking about next season."
He never doubted he would return again.
Any questions from others were answered by his stirring comeback that continues to inspire his teammates and coach.
"It is one of the highlights of my 30 years of coaching," Falcons coach Frank Serratore said. "Seeing him not only come back but come back significantly stronger and better than he was before as a player is remarkable."
"It's inspiring to watch him out there," goalie Jason Torf said. "When you saw the injury happen, you worried that he may never play again. He has answered any doubters he may have had."
Michalke, who recorded 20 points in 70 games, has five points (three goals) in eight games this year. The 5-foot-11, 165-pounder skates faster and plays with more energy, passion and abandon.
"It's definitely a different mind-set," he said. "I have more of a sense of urgency. I know every game could be my last."
"When someone sustains an injury like that you don't know how they will come back or if they ever will," Serratore said. "A high percentage of them never play again.
"Of those who return, it must be even fewer who come back and play at the same level, let alone better."
The concussion affected his vision, which caused headaches and forced him to drop out of the academy for 12 weeks of eye training.
"I had to teach my eyes how to converge like they do when you read," he said.
In July, he was cleared to play. The management major received an NCAA medical redshirt and started over his junior year this fall. The only long-term effect is he now wears contacts.
The Parma, Ohio, native got some closure when the host Falcons rallied to defeat Canisius 3-2 on Oct. 25, exactly a year after the injury.
He had to leave the locker room for a short time beforehand.
"There were so many different emotions," he said. "It was the only time it all got to me."
It was an emotional win for his team too.
"I had to step away a little bit and pull myself together before I went in the locker room afterward," Serratore said. "To win the way we did and to have George play the way he did, getting better and better as the game went on. It was impossible not to get emotional."
Air Force starts a tough four-game stretch at home Saturday against Atlantic Hockey Association rival Robert Morris (1-6-1, 1-1-1). The Falcons (5-3, 3-1) travel to 1-6-1 Colorado College on Tuesday and then have a home-and-home series against Denver (4-5-1) next weekend.
"We play three teams who are much better than their records," Serratore said. "Robert Morris is in every dang game. The Tigers have too much talent and the coaching staff is too strong. They will get things figured out. I just hope it is after Tuesday."
Michalke will savor every minute.
"When you suddenly have something like hockey taken away from you, you realize how much you love the game," he said. "I don't take it for granted."