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Bemidji State's Eric Martin reaps the rewards of powering through horrific leg injury

Mar. 8—The Senior Night pageantry is an opportune time for the most veteran Bemidji State men's hockey players to reflect on their time as Beavers.

The night begins with the team lining up across the goal line in the BSU defensive zone. One by one, the fourth-year seniors wait for public address announcer John Svingen to call their name.

Each player takes a slow skate to the Bemidji State bench. They remove their helmets and gloves, handing them to equipment manager Toby Palmiscno. He places them on the half wall overlooking the ice before handing each player a bouquet of flowers to give to their parents.

With the arrangements in hand, the honored player skates under the Sanford Center spotlight to the opposite end of the rink, where their parents and other loved ones wait with open arms.

It was one of many moments from last weekend Eric Martin won't soon forget. The senior forward out of Calgary, Alberta, was joined by his parents, Anna and Charles, for Senior Night and the MacNaughton Cup-clinching games.

"My parents came down, and they hadn't been here in four years," Martin said. "It was their first time watching me play here. I was talking to my mom, and I was like, 'It's crazy how far we've come (to get) here. Last year, I wasn't even playing games, and now we're sitting here holding this trophy.' It was a special moment for me."

A year ago, Martin's career was in limbo.

During a Jan. 21, 2023, game against Northern Michigan, Martin suffered a gruesome leg injury that sidelined him for six months.

"We got two penalties in a row," Martin said. "Somebody took a five-minute major, and as soon as it ended, we (were called) for another penalty. We were killing for almost seven minutes straight. I tried to reach around a guy. I was basically on one knee, and he took a stride across my knee. His skate (cut) my quad tendon."

Martin didn't leave the ice, but also he didn't know it would be the last time he skated until July.

"(The bench) was on the other side of the ice, and we were on the penalty kill," Martin said. "I kind of just stood there for 20 seconds waiting for (the shift) to end. It was strictly adrenaline because as soon as I got to the bench, I couldn't put any weight on my leg.

"I remember looking down and just seeing blood everywhere on my sock and inside my leg. I could tell I was done for."

Martin found out the following Tuesday that he was due for a surgical repair. As painful as it was sustaining the injury, the recovery needed a newfound toughness that required him to re-learn how to walk with his right leg.

Martin said it was harder to deal with the emotional struggle of watching his teammates play their most important games of the season while he was on the shelf.

"I remember just sweating in the stands every single game," Martin said. "Me and (Austin Jouppi) would be watching the games together on FloHockey every weekend when the guys were gone.

"Not even being able to travel to Northern (Michigan for the Mason Cup playoffs) with the team was tough. All of those guys I played with like Ross (Armour), Will (Zmolek) — guys that I'm good friends with — I wasn't able to be there for their last game. That was the hardest part for me."

The early days of his rehab included getting his range of motion back. He progressed to light movements, then to exercises like air squats and lunges.

Martin called the process a grind, one that tested him mentally as much as it did physically.

"When you go through something like that, doubt creeps in a lot," Martin continued. "You wonder if you'll ever be the same player again. ... There were days when I went to see my physiotherapist and I was on the verge of tears because it hurt so much when he was trying to stretch me out. At some point, you just have to accept (the situation) and keep pushing. You have to have a positive attitude."

Martin's rehab got him back on the ice in July. He started slowly but worked his way back to a playable form by the beginning of the 2023-24 season with Bemidji State.

"It probably wasn't until a month before the season when I could actually start lifting again," Martin said. "In the summer, it was rehab and biking every single day for 30 minutes. It was long, and it hurt. ... Once I stepped on the ice again, I realized, 'I can do this.' I found the belief in myself again. It took a while to get back to normal, but it was worth it, for sure."

Prior to his injury, Martin missed just two games during his first three seasons. After a seven-point freshman season, he scored three times and assisted on 16 more goals as a sophomore. He was on pace to be more productive during his junior campaign, scoring four goals and nine assists in 24 games.

But Martin's setback trickled into his senior season. He had just three assists in his first nine games. He didn't score his first goal until Dec. 8 against Lake Superior State.

"When you get injured, you think about it," head coach Tom Serratore said. "It's hard on a player. It's natural to think about it when you go through it. It takes a while. Once you overcome that, your game will take off."

Martin said he didn't feel 100% until December. Since scoring his first goal, Martin was held without a point in just six of the Beavers' 18 games. He plays on BSU's top line with Lleyton Roed and Kirklan Irey, totaling six goals and 17 assists.

More noticeably, Martin hasn't missed a game on a team riddled with injuries throughout the season.

"Marty is really emerging," Serratore said. "His game has really matured over the last year and a half. It's taken another step this year. The first half wasn't easy for Marty. ... He's playing a lot faster. When he's playing fast, he's really effective because he's got great legs. The times he wants to slow the game down, that's where he's gotten in trouble in the past. But when he plays and thinks at a high pace, he's a big threat."

As the Beavers turn their attention to Ferris State in the quarterfinal round of the Mason Cup playoffs, Martin isn't taking an opportunity to play postseason hockey for granted.

As he recalled his recovery process, he thought about the adversity he had to overcome. He said there were games this season where he felt like his "leg was in shambles." But he also thought about the eventual rewards that came with a trying period during his hockey career.

Those painful recollections were out of sight and out of mind last weekend during BSU's MacNaughton Cup celebration. For the first time, he shared the ice with his parents in a Bemidji State sweater.

"I don't think I could've scripted that any better," Martin said. "The first time they came to watch me play, we won 6-0 to win the MacNaughton Cup. It's something I'll never forget. Just having them on the ice after and being able to take a picture with them and the Cup, that's one of the best moments of my hockey career."