MOORHEAD — It was nothing but a tease when former Moorhead High School hockey standout Carter Randklev put on his Fargo Force jersey and took team pictures for the United States Hockey League playoffs in April. He couldn't even put on his skates.
Randklev had been out since December, when he tore his ACL, ending his USHL season. For months, he came to the rink for rehab and to watch his teammates practice. For months, he watched games from the stands. For months, he watched.
Randklev does not watch hockey. He plays hockey. It's something the University of North Dakota commit has done since he first skated at Satellite Arena in Fergus Falls, Minn., at around the age of 3. The only other sport he really played in his life was baseball and he gave that up as a sophomore in high school to focus on hockey.
And then, on June 17, six months after surgery, Randklev got to feel the ice beneath his skates again. He wasn't able to really even skate, but the gliding was enough.
"My whole life I've been playing hockey," Randklev, 19, said. "To be out for six months and being around the rink every day, it kind of built up. It's hard to explain. Inside you get so frustrated and sad and emotions go all over the place because you're not able to do things physically, so you have to strengthen your mind mentally. But when I got back on the ice, nothing compared to it. The feeling is hard to explain."
Youngstown, Ohio, was the last place Randklev was on the ice in a hockey game. The Force were playing the Youngstown Phantoms on Dec. 1, 2018. Late in the second period, a collision sent Randklev to the Covelli Centre ice awkwardly. He crawled for a bit before pushing himself up on one skate and gliding to the bench. Randklev was just hitting his stride, scoring 11 points in 21 games for the Force at the time. He had five points in his previous five games, including a goal in the game he was injured.
But that all ended.
Randklev had a torn ACL in his left knee. Doctors said he could play on it and have surgery after the USHL season or do surgery right away. With one more year of eligibility left in the USHL, Randklev decided to do surgery right away.
He was done for the rest of the USHL season and his plan to head to UND would have to be pushed back a year.
"His entire life has been focused around the sport of hockey, and when it gets taken away from you, it's a tough thing to deal with," Force coach Pierre-Paul Lamoureux said. "You hope the mental side is becoming stronger and mentally tougher and when you're faced with something down the road you can deal with it and meet it head-on."
Randklev's entire life was indeed hockey. He dreamt of playing for UND since he went to games at Ralph Engelstad Arena when he was 9 years old. The 5-foot-8 Randklev has heard he's too small his entire life. So he got to work on his stickhandling at 12 years old and has never stopped.
"Whenever an athlete deals with this type of injury, one that is a season-ending injury, it forces the player to look inwards and challenge themselves to come back as strong or stronger than before," Lamoureux said. "It's a mental grind, dealing with a surgery and rehab."
About a month after surgery, Randklev went to work with Force trainer Derrick Grieshaber. For about an hour before every practice and occasionally before games the two worked together on his knee.
"I got really lucky being that I live in Moorhead and play for Fargo," Randklev said. "Typically, people take things pretty slow right away and don't get to see a specialist more than two or three times a week. I was getting to the rink every day. (Grieshaber) has been there through it all. He's put up with and sacrificed a lot for me."
Randklev still has work to do. Sept. 17 will be nine months since his surgery and when he'll be reevaluated to see if he is cleared for full contact. He's been cleared to skate and do lower-body lifts. He says he sees no reason why he can't play with the same speed and quickness he had before.
"Right away, I was nervous making a quick cut and something giving out, especially training off the ice," Randklev said. "I was nervous right away because I didn't want anything to set me back. Once I got over that wall and knew nothing was going to happen because we've been healing it correctly, everything fell into place."
Lamoureux says he's expecting Randklev to play for the Force early in the season, but it's an injury that really can't be determined until Randklev is out on the ice. He's hoping he's cleared for contact early in the preseason or right after.
"That's my next goal," Randklev said.
Randklev said he's seen things in regards to strategy and work to learn from while watching from the stands during this recovery. At the same time, the stands is a place he never wants to be again.
"When you're playing hockey as much as junior hockey players play, you get in such a routine it becomes habit versus appreciating everything you get to do," Randklev said. "It's one thing I definitely experienced with this. You really do appreciate being able to play hockey and hockey at that level. It's such a special thing. Sometimes you take things for granted."