Jordan Klehr sits at his locker room stall in the Omaha dressing room and gets ready to play in his third collegiate game. A black sweater with Omaha stitched across the chest and a number 22 and Klehr on the back hangs in the stall behind him.
Just a few minutes later, the starry-eyed freshman found himself standing on the blue line as the Mavericks got set to play the first-ever game in Baxter Arena. One of the top-ranked teams in the country was raising a banner to the rafters to commemorate a Frozen Four appearance just over six months prior. Everything looked so promising for the Shattuck St. Mary’s product.
Little did he know what the next six years would consist of on that Oct. 23, 2015 night.
“You can never really predict what’s going to happen,” Klehr said. “Obviously when you come in you hope for the best and want the program and team to do well. You hope you continue to get better every year, and by the time the fourth year comes around you want to be a top contributor on the team and in a spot where you can continue to play professionally.
“For me though that all stopped a few games into my junior year. From then until now it’s been just one game.”
Thirteen games into his junior season, Klehr’s career took a turn. In a Dec. 30, 2017 game against Union, he suffered a high left ankle sprain. A typical play any defenseman will use to hold a puck in the offensive zone that changed the next three years of his life.
“The puck rimmed along the wall and I put my skate and body up against the wall to stop the puck,” Klehr said. “Right at the same time the puck was in feet, the Union guy checked me with his stick in my feet. Initially I thought I broke my leg because I felt everything shift in there.”
A high ankle sprain causes the two shin bones to separate and your bones and ligaments pull apart from each other. Klehr said there was no question it’s something he felt. He laughs when talking about it as it was such a harmless play and clean hit by the Union defender. It was just a situation of unfortunate timing and a freak play.
“You can’t really see on the replay because the boards are in the way, but it looks like nothing,” Klehr said. “It’s a play I’d made countless times. Just a freak injury that felt like my leg blew up almost, but I just didn’t know what was going on at first.”
That was the first of many nights where the defenseman wouldn’t know what was going on. He said he found himself lost, frustrated and downright miserable not being able to be on the ice. However, it was just the start of a 3-year process.
At first, the plan was to push the surgery off, let it heal, and try to return later in the season. As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, it became clear something was wrong. He ended up having a successful surgery in April of 2018.
“After about three months of waiting, the playoffs were coming up and it was not getting better, so surgery was inevitable,” Klehr said. “I got it done and everything healed up towards the end of summer. I was still able to have a pretty good offseason and right before we started to get ready for the season I was basically 100%.
“During September though it started to hurt again a little bit and two weeks later I could barely walk. I had so much pain so after a couple weeks of getting looked at I had to go back to get tested and have more pictures taken.”
When that initial surgery was done in April, a combination of a metal wire and screws were placed in his left ankle for support. The original plan was to leave it in forever, but as the fall months went on, the hardware and ligaments started to rub together and cause pain.
About two weeks before the start of the 2018-19 season, doctors determined he wouldn’t be able to play through it and another surgery was necessary. They needed to remove the hardware.
“It was just heartbreaking,” Klehr said. “You do all of the work to get back, you’re finally healthy and excited to have a good senior season, and then two weeks before the season, the doctors tell you that you need surgery again. On top of that, they’re not sure what the recovery is going to look like. I just remember it being such a deflating feeling.”
In hindsight, he admits he probably should’ve handled the situation better. That deflating feeling carried with him and at times he wasn’t the best teammate or person to be around because of it.
“I was miserable and pissed off all of the time,” Klehr said. “I let it affect me at and away from the rink, and it took me a little while to kind of let go of that. My focus then shifted from being a better hockey player to how I can be a better friend and teammate at that point, and it really made me grow up. It was more so about being there with the guys and not slipping away from the team because they were the ones there for me.”
Along with Ian Brady, who he skated with for most of his first two years, one of the people he leaned on the most was Joel Messner. Messner was one of the most supportive people throughout the recovery process and the two still remain close to this day.
“I remember he started off with such a good (junior) year and then he got hurt,” Messner said. “People get hurt all of the time unfortunately, but you’re just hoping this guy can come back. All of a sudden he wasn’t healing right and he was battling so much, so you start to feel bad for the kid.
“When doctors are telling you stuff and you’re not really sure what’s going on or why it’s not healing, I think it takes a toll mentally. I just felt so bad for the guy because he just worked so hard and ultimately he was someone who helped our team out. Guys are always a family, so I think it was pretty easy to include him in everything, and we knew how tough it was for him.”
A lot has changed since that 2017-18 season. Messner and Brady are no longer teammates and have both moved on. The coaching staff has changed, new faces fill the locker room and the Mavericks just spent the past three weeks living in a hotel during a bubble-like format. However, one member of that roster has persevered through it all and kept going. All the way to a return to the lineup.
That return didn’t come without one more hurdle to clear though. Early in October of this season, Klehr suffered yet another setback with a minor high ankle sprain. It caused him to get a cortisone shot the second day of the Pod and miss the first nine games.
After getting over that initial hurdle, he was cleared to return to the ice. On the night of Sunday Dec. 20, Klehr’s phone lit up with a text from Head Coach Mike Gabinet. “You’re in tomorrow. You’ve earned it.”
After 1,087 days, Jordan Klehr was back in the Omaha lineup.
“It’s almost like having a weight lifted off your shoulders,” Klehr said. “I talked to my parents that night, and honestly, it wasn’t as big of a moment as I would’ve thought it would be. You have years to think about it and wonder if it’ll finally happen, but I just tried to take it like any other normal game. I tried not to overthink it or over complicate it and enjoy it.
“I might suck, I really didn’t know what to expect to be completely honest, but all I could control was my effort out there. I just wanted to have fun. After everything I’ve gone through I just knew I was going to work hard and not let guys beat me. I was happy with my performance and we had an awesome game as a team, but it was just special.”
As special as the moment was, the moment meant just as much to the man filling out the lineup card. Gabinet was an assistant coach during Klehr’s sophomore season and has seen his recovery process first-hand.
“He’s been through a lot of adversity with his injury and just the perseverance he’s had to show and the resiliency he’s had to show is very impressive,” Gabinet said. “Just from a human standpoint, anytime you get a guy like that that’s been through so much on the ice, have a great game and get the win, lots of emotions going through when you see that.
“He’s earned the chance to play again and he’s worked his butt off.”
The feeling is mutual. Klehr said he can’t thank his head coach enough for the patience and support he’s shown him the past six years.
“We’ve had a lot of really deep conversations about how hard it’s been and the stuff I’ve gone through, and he’s been the guy there for me through it all,” Klehr said. “He means everything to me and has constantly supported me, and there’s really no point in trying to get back to something without having people like him around.”
That support group was evident as texts from friends, family, ex-teammates, and more were waiting on his phone following the 3-0 win. One constant, they all know how tough and how long the recovery process has been.
“I was a little emotional to be honest and I was just so happy for him,” Messner said. “It just shows the person that he is. It could’ve been really easy for him to graduate and leave or transfer to another school, or he could’ve taken the easy way out. For him to stay in Omaha and battle through everything just shows you the person that he is and he had something to prove.
“Everything you work so hard for in hockey and everything he went through, it finally paid off. I think we all know there’s no better feeling than when something pays off. It was such a cool moment and I texted some other ex-teammates and asked if they saw Jordo play, and we’re all so happy for him. It’s insane to think he went over 1,000 days, but especially today when guys have it hard or difficult, they decide to transfer or quit. It’s an easy thing to do. So for him to stick around and battle his ass off, it’s amazing.”
Battle would be an understatement. The 23-year-old is a sixth-year senior and both a redshirt and medical waiver have been used along the way. His last goal came on Oct. 27, 2017. More than anything, the biggest test came away from the ice.
“You show up for surgery, you do physical therapy, and that’s the easiest stuff,” Klehr said. “Mentally you’re almost figuring out what to do with your life though. Hockey had been almost everything for almost 20 years of my life up to that point. Now it’s gone and you’re not sure for how long. Will it be a couple months? A year? A couple years? You just don’t know. So the hardest part might have been finding that identity outside of hockey. It made me grow up and learn a lot more about myself.”
He said that was also the most eye-opening part of the process.
“If this whole process has taught me anything it’s that hockey can be super important and mean a lot to you, but it can’t be you,” Klehr said. “At times it was tough and I’d ask myself ‘what am I doing?’ I didn’t know if my ankle was ever going to get better, and it just sucked watching everything happen around me.
“Being on the sidelines for months, which turned into years, you ask yourself what is pushing you forward? Sure a big part of it is the love of hockey, but the other big part was teammates. These guys have shown me so much support throughout all of this. I might not be fully part of this team being on the sidelines, but I still see these guys everyday, and I wanted to get out and be fully part of it again.”
As seen in the locker room reaction following the game, it’s no secret what it meant to see 22 back in the lineup. There’s also no denying he’s fully part of this team.
“To have that moment with them, it kind of hits you that this is something bigger than hockey,” Klehr said. “It’s being part of something bigger than yourself. I’d had hockey my whole life and when it’s taken away for so long, you realize how important it really is to you. So to have these people by my side, it made the return that much better.”
Everyone on the Omaha roster has now been waiting for a return. Back-to-back series against North Dakota were postponed due to COVID-19 concerns and the start of this upcoming series at Colorado College was also pushed back three days.
Similar to the last time these two teams met, Jordan Klehr hopes to find himself in the lineup tonight in Colorado Springs. At the same time, after waiting 1,087 days for a return, these past 28 days have been a breeze.