Injured Illini hockey player skates one last time


Zoe Grant The Daily Illini Ricky Kokoszka (6) is acknowledged during Senior Night at the University of Illinois Ice Arena on February 28, 2015.

Ricky Di Legge Kokoszka was nervous. It was the most nervous the senior had felt for a game in his life. The defenseman hadn’t put on full pads since September for the Illinois hockey team, yet he was on the ice awaiting the opening faceoff against Eastern Michigan on Saturday at the Illinois Ice Arena.

The referee dropped the puck at center ice for the opening faceoff and after four seconds, Kokoszka was on the bench, done for the night.

Kokoszka was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his shoulder early two games into the season. It was a season-ending injury, but it wasn’t going to stop him from wearing his Illinois jersey one last time for Senior Night.

“Knowing it was going to be my last time was sad, but at the same time, it was a little bit of closure,” Kokoszka said.

At the beginning of the season, Kokoszka was set to be a key contributor for the Illini defense. He had played in 69 games and registered nine points, while only serving four minutes in the penalty box in his first three seasons. Head coach Nick Fabbrini described him as a dependable, valuable player who had a knack for analyzing the game.

Kokoszka’s senior-season hopes were extinguished on Sept. 20 during an away game against Illinois State. In the second period, Kokoszka was attempting to dodge a hit when his legs were taken out from under him. He landed directly on his left shoulder, immediately dislocating it.

“It popped out and my shoulder was pretty much in my armpit,” Kokoszka said. “It was just hanging there until I got to the hospital.”

Kokoszka knew something was wrong, but he didn’t know the severity of the injury until an MRI revealed a torn labrum. He participated in physical therapy for eight weeks and had surgery in late November. After surgery, doctors told him he could not play contact hockey for at least six months.

Fellow defenseman and senior Jacob Matysiak could tell Kokoszka was disappointed.

“Finding out that he would have season-ending shoulder surgery his senior year hurt a lot,” Matysiak said. “He loves the game and works hard all the time whenever he is on the ice.”

However, as it turned out, Kokoszka’s senior season was far from over.

Fabbrini acknowledged Kokoszka’s leadership skills and ability to analyze the game by naming him an assistant coach in charge of the defense.

The job requires Kokoszka to match lines, assign Illinois’ top defensive pair to the opposing team’s best offensive line and help the defensemen analyze what is happening on the ice. 

“It’s always nice to have another set of eyes and somebody who can definitely relate to the players a little bit easier than I can,” Fabbrini said. “It’s really been a big addition to the coaching staff.”

Kokoszka said the transition was awkward at first. For the first weeks of the season, he was a player and teammate. Now, he is suiting up as a coach. Matysiak said it took some time to adjust to seeing Kokoszka in a suit on gamedays. Eventually, Kokoszka became comfortable in his new position.

Although it’s not how he anticipated his senior season to pan out, Kokoszka has enjoyed his new role on the team. Matysiak gets a kick out of calling him “Coach Rick.”

“I respect him just as any other coach because he does know the game well,” Matysiak said. “It’s been great that he’s still been around and still been a huge part of this team even though he’s not dressed.”

Fabbrini allowed Kokoszka to start Saturday’s game in his white, No. 6 jersey one last time after Kokoszka and teammates asked if the he could be recognized at Senior Night.

Once he completed his four seconds of action, Kokoszka resumed his coaching duties in his uniform. He assumed his night on the ice was done, but in the third period, a minor penalty for tripping was called on the Illini.

The referee forgot whom he called the penalty on and told the Illini to send the player who committed it to the box.

Because Kokoszka dressed for the game, he was taking up a roster spot, which left Illinois with five defensemen for the night instead of the usual six. Kokoszka saw an opportunity to help out the team and he skated to the box.

The Illini laughed and jeered with their defensive coach who sat in the penalty box, but Kokoszka was fine with it. For the first time this season and the last time of his career, he had stats in the box score.

“It was pretty funny. All the guys were laughing because I’m sitting in the box and played four seconds of the game,” Kokoszka said. “I took one for the team, but I’m just happy I got in the score sheet.”

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