A typical day in the life of Karl Alzner might seem a bit mundane to some people considering how much hockey consumes him, but he has found his current situation to be far more unbearable.
While his Hershey Bears teammates continue their quest for a Calder Cup, Alzner must sit and watch and wait to feel healthy enough to play again. Officially, Alzner is dealing with an “undisclosed injury,” but it is clear the 20-year-old defenseman is trying to navigate the aftermath of the first documented concussion of his hockey career.
“It’s been two full weeks now where I haven’t been able to play, so that’s been awful,” Alzner said before his team left for Providence, R.I., to continue its Eastern Conference final series with the Bruins. “Playoffs is the best time of year, and guys play through broken feet and stuff like that. If I could play, I’d be playing without a doubt, so that’s what’s frustrating for me.”
Because of the injury and a brief postseason call-up to the Washington Capitals in which he did not play, Alzner has been on the ice for only six of the Bears’ playoff contests. He thought the effects were subsiding near the end of the team’s second-round victory against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and he was targeting a return early in this series.
That was all for naught because of a setback, and now his wait continues.
“The first few days I had no idea what to do. I was just sitting around and watching TV and trying to rest,” Alzner said. “It didn’t seem like anything was getting better, so I started getting out and walking around. I was just trying to do anything.”
Alzner did try to skate just a couple days after the injury happened, but that didn’t last very long. He rode a stationary bicycle Wednesday, which was the day before his team left for Rhode Island. But the timetable for his return remained unclear.
His biggest challenge recently has just been trying to keep himself busy without pushing his body too far.
“Everything is falling into place now. I come to the rink and I have a 15 to 20 minute shower, then I go back home and eat lunch and sit on the couch,” Alzner said. “I don’t even watch TV - I just sit there and wait for everyone to come back from practice, and then I see what’s up. Maybe I’ll play some poker or go caddy. I might putt some balls here and there, but it is a boring life right now.”
It would be a boon for the Bears to add a player of Alzner’s ability to what is already a deep and talented defensive corps, but the Washington organization is certain to make sure he is not rushed back. Alzner was the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft and remains one of the franchise’s prized prospects.
This is his first full season as a professional, and he has had mixed results. He began the season with Hershey in the American Hockey League but eventually earned a promotion to the NHL and ended up playing 30 games for the Caps.
His contract, which would have counted $1.675 million against the salary cap for the full season, might have played a role in keeping him off the cap-strapped team’s roster in the early part of the campaign. Still, Alzner found his early days with the Bears to be helpful.
“When I came here, I was second-guessing my ability for the first two months of the season or so,” he said. “I wondered if I was good enough to play [in the NHL]. As soon as I got up there, I realized I can play there and it is not out of my reach. Each game after that was great - just being in the dressing room and seeing all those guys and knowing they are just regular guys is really great.
“I gained a lot more confidence playing down here [in Hershey] than I would have up there because I wouldn’t have tried half the things I try down here, and I realized that it does work and I just have to have the guts to actually try it.”
Alzner’s time with the Caps began quite well, and he quickly became one of coach Bruce Boudreau’s most reliable defensemen. Not only he did he show a high aptitude for defensive awareness, he was also skilled at keeping himself out of the penalty box. He committed one infraction in 30 games - a delay of game penalty for putting the puck over the glass in which he didn’t shoot it but actually knocked it out of the air.
He also had his struggles, particularly as the season progressed. The Caps sent him back to Hershey to regroup, and he was playing better before this injury derailed him.
“He’s been good - very steady,” Hershey coach Bob Woods said. “We have to realize he’s a young kid and he’s been through a lot with the world juniors in back-to-back years and the Summit [Series] with the Russians. He’s played a lot of high-intense hockey, and he’s been up and down from [Hershey]. That can wear on a young guy.
“This break might not be killing him that much. He could probably use a little refresher, and I’m sure once he gets healthy and we can get him back he’ll be better off.”
Alzner could be cleared to return in time to help the Bears, but his main focus after that will be trying to prepare for next season and earning a full-time spot on the Caps’ roster in training camp. He will turn 21 during camp, but he expects to make a more significant contribution in his sophomore campaign.
“I’d say I was happy with 75 percent of the time I was there, but there were a few games where I was very unacceptable or at least not up to my standards. There is obviously a lot of room for improvement,” Alzner said. “This summer is going to be a ton of working out. I thought I worked out a lot this last summer so I could be strong enough to battle, but I wasn’t anywhere near [ready]. I had no idea. I noticed it the first game when I was getting pushed around by finesse players.
“You don’t think of them as being strong, tough guys but there are. That’s the scary thing. I am going to try and get a lot stronger and also try to work on my hands because I’ve got to have good hands to do the things I want to do.”