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This article was published 28/2/2019 (358 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Kevin Hayes was the Winnipeg Jets' prize catch before the NHL's Feb. 25 trade deadline, but it wasn't so long ago that he was a talented yet unfocused junior at Boston College, merely scratching the surface of his potential.
Today, the 26-year-old centre from Dorchester, Mass., admits it took a catastrophic injury to help sharpen his mind and body into becoming a successful pro.
In a game against UMass Lowell on Feb. 26, 2013, Hayes suffered a bruised quadriceps in his left leg that quickly developed from an innocent play into an emergency situation. Hayes was rushed to hospital and surgery was performed to relieve pressure in the leg. He soon underwent additional procedures to treat compartment syndrome and it became apparent his season was over.
"We just finished the game and we’re recapping the game and he said his leg was blowing up like a football," remembered BC head coach Jerry York via telephone Thursday. "It was just crazy. We rushed him to the hospital, but it was scary. It was just a brush, like a thigh on thigh (contact), you know."
Then the news got worse.
"It was pretty serious where I was a couple of hours (away) from amputating the leg, and it kinda hit home pretty serious," Hayes said following practice at Bell MTS Place. "I had four emergency surgeries and then they said I wasn't going to play again.
"I was out for seven months and it was rehab every day once I was allowed, for about 4 1/2 months."
The grisly injury, coupled with a suspension for breaking team rules earlier in the season, turned 2012-13 in a writeoff.
A first-round choice (24th overall) of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 NHL draft, Hayes had plenty of time to consider how he would handle his return to the ice, which would come at training camp in September.
"I was in hospital for 22 days," he said. "I mean, it was no fun and it made me realize some stuff. I think that was a big turning point in my life. Maturity-wise, hockey-wise, I just realized I could do this for a living and should probably take it a little more serious."
Prior to the injury, Hayes would have considered turning pro after his junior season but after the lengthy rehab, he returned to school as a senior.
He started slowly, but in the middle of a November game in which Boston College was trailing by five goals, York sent Hayes out with centre Bill Arnold and left-winger Johnny Gaudreau and the combination clicked immediately — scoring five goals in the third period.
Hayes, a right-winger at the time, went on to pot 27 goals and 65 points in 40 games and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, an honour won by Gaudreau at the conclusion of the season.
Hayes' season point total was two shy of his total output for the first three seasons of his college career.
"I think I take the off-ice, the gym, more seriously," said the 6-5, 216-pounder, who went unsigned by the Blackhawks and eventually inked a deal with the New York Rangers. "That helped me out and I was lucky enough to become a free agent out of college. I had a good training camp (with the Rangers) and a good start my rookie year and I haven't looked back since."
In New York, he became a steady point producer and dependable two-way player. York believes the circumstances surrounding the injury and rehab were pivotal to Hayes' development.
"When he got to the hospital and realized just how serious this was and there was a lot of talk like he was never going to play hockey again — just save the leg, you know," said York. "I think he rededicated himself with one year left. Coming back to school, he got his degree and he had an unbelievable year with Johnny Gaudreau and Billy Arnold, too.
"He was a good player before but he raised his game to all-American status and it was a special fourth year for us."
The Jets believe Hayes can be an important part of a lengthy post-season run.
He made his Winnipeg home debut Tuesday on a line with Nikolaj Ehlers and Mathieu Perreault, but during Thursday's practice, sophomore winger Kyle Connor was swapped in for Perreault and the trio appears likely to play tonight against the visiting Nashville Predators.
"I wanted to see it and spread it out," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. "But I have a certain structure I have in my mind of how you run the bench and eventually put people in those roles and that’s where we started to get to today."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Thursday, February 28, 2019 at 8:46 PM CST: adds quotes