Smallidge happy to return after ‘long journey’ back from wrist injury


Jordan McAlpine

Jason Smallidge has played in just four games this season as he’s recovered from a wrist injury. The senior defenseman played in all 26 of the Mavericks’ games last season. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

In the second game of the season last December, Jason Smallidge had a goal and four assists in a 10-2 win over Western Michigan. Those five points were a career-high and tied both the school and NCHC single-game record at the time. However, during the second game of the Mavericks’ 2021-22 season, Smallidge found himself watching from the upper bowl of Baxter Arena in a suit and tie.

At that point in the season, Smallidge hadn’t even begun skating yet, as the senior defenseman was sidelined with a wrist injury that he initially sustained in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff loss to Denver last March. He watched the third game from that same spot, the fourth, the fifth and so on, ultimately missing all 10 games of the Mavericks’ season-opening 10-game homestand.

Smallidge missed the first road game of the season as well on Nov. 12, but made his season debut the next night, playing limited minutes against St. Cloud State in his home state of Minnesota. He played the following Friday night in Fairbanks as well, but he fell victim to the cliche term two steps forward, one step back. Smallidge was dealt another setback as he suffered another injury in the win over the Nanooks.

“It’s been extremely frustrating and it feels like I’ve just been battling one injury after another this year,” Smallidge said after practice Wednesday afternoon. “As a competitor obviously you want to be out there playing and I finally was able to come back at St. Cloud after dealing with the wrist. But then I injured my knee at Alaska.

“It’s been tough, both mentally and physically, but it’s been a long journey. I’ve tried to remain positive and take it one step at a time.”

For most of the first half of this season, Smallidge watched from the sidelines and gutted through practices, dealing with the lingering effects of a torn ligament in his right wrist. He underwent surgery on that wrist at the Mayo Clinic this past summer and will need further treatment at the end of this season, potentially another surgery.

“When I tried to come back there was still a problem with my wrist, and I’m still battling with it,” Smallidge said. “The surgery I had was kind of a big surgery and obviously I still want to use my hand to its full function for the rest of my life.”

The Minnesota native admits at one point this summer he contemplated his future in hockey, weighing the potential long-term risks, saying there’s ‘more to it than hockey.’ His summer workouts were cut short due to the surgery, and once he returned to the ice, he was still dealing with severe pain.

It was a struggle to do much with the puck on his stick, especially an issue in a sport where your wrists are so important. Smallidge said it even hurt to simply grip his stick at first and he worried there were further issues with his hand.

“The first few times I got on the ice I couldn’t shoot, couldn’t pass, couldn’t do anything really with the stick and it was just a very sharp pain, almost like a stabbing pain,” Smallidge said. “So I went back to the doctor that did my surgery and she had said the torn ligament that she repaired was causing referred pain. She said that I might’ve had another torn ligament and it could take one to two years to completely heal.

“So I’m thinking I might be done and I ended up getting a second opinion at Mayo (Clinic). Honestly, they still don’t understand what exactly happened — it’s kind of up in the air. I’m going to get it looked at more after the season, but they had these casts made for me and I can still play.”

Smallidge missed all of the Mavericks’ training camp this fall and worked his way back over the course of the fall. He returned to the ice and started skating with the team during the Mavericks’ first bye week in late October. He still visits Omaha’s physical therapist, Taryn Ninemire, multiple days a week, as he has done all season.

Tucked under Smallidge’s right glove there’s a black cast too, which he has to wear whenever he’s on the ice. Learning to play with the cast was an adjustment on its own, but Smallidge has had to change his style of play, knowing his wrist isn’t 100%.

“I’ve almost had to change my game in a way because I can’t stick handle nearly as well as I usually can and I can’t shoot the puck as good,” he said. “I can’t really play the way I want to play — but I guess as a defenseman I’ve been able to make it work. It’s just been a lot of learning to work with what I’ve got.

“It’s been tough and more so frustrating than anything, but there’s a learning curve with everything in life. I’m trying to make the best of it.”

This past weekend, Smallidge played his first full series of the year, as he played in both games at Denver. For someone who played in all 26 games last season and was a fixture in the top-six on the blue line, the senior defenseman is happy to be back. He’s played in just four of the Mavericks’ 22 games so far this season.

Although he’ll have to continue working and earning his ice time, he’s hoping to put the injury behind him. This process has provided him another opportunity as he’s been able to expand his leadership role, especially with so many young defensemen on the Omaha roster.

“Being out the first 11 games of the season, I watched every game from the stands,” Smallidge said. “Obviously it’s not fun sitting up there and you want to be playing, but I’ve tried to be a leader and it gives you a chance to see areas of other guys’ game from up top and help them improve.

“Even on the ice during practices after I came back, I’ve tried to lead however I can. I’m happy for these guys and they’re a talented group. They’re getting better and since they’re the ones playing, I’m just trying to be positive and be there for them because it helps us as a team.”

No. 16 Omaha will face No. 7 Minnesota Duluth this weekend and Smallidge hopes to remain in the lineup, as he’s yet to appear in a game at Baxter Arena this season. He spent Wednesday afternoon skating alongside Nate Knoepke at practice as the Mavericks’ lines were reshuffled after being swept at Denver.

Whether he’s in or out of the lineup though, Smallidge knows how important this series is for this Omaha team to get back on track. The Mavericks have dropped five of their last seven coming into this weekend.

“We’re still trying to find ourselves in a way,” Smallidge said. “Especially against some of these tough NCHC teams, but I think we believe in each other and if we stick to our game we can compete with all of these guys. Last weekend, I think that Denver’s a very skilled team and we just kind of got away from our game, but I feel positive about this group. We know what we’re up against and just need to find ways to win these games coming up here.”

Game one between the Mavericks and Bulldogs is set for a 7:07 p.m. faceoff Friday night at Baxter Arena. Game two will follow at the same time on Saturday.