It has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs the last year for former Prairie Hockey Academy netminder Chase Coward.
At the conclusion of the 2021/22 season the netminder was selected to attend Team Canada’s World Junior Summer Development Camp in Calgary, AB. But just a few weeks prior, at Buffalo Sabres Rookie Development Camp, Coward would receive news that ultimately would lead him to believe his playing days were over.
Having battled a combination of wear and tear and genetic hip issues all season, Coward was left off the ice in Buffalo, and his future in the game of hockey was left uncertain.
“Probably a week before I left for Buffalo a doctor told me I had FAI (Femoroacetabular Impingement),” said Coward. “My first thought was okay; I’ll just play through it. I went to Buffalo and they said they we’re going to keep me off the ice, and save me for World Junior camp.”
A week later after some more medical testing and MRI’s Coward was told he had the option to quit hockey or he could try and continue to try and play through the pain.
“To think you’ve trained your whole life for an opportunity to get invited to an NHL development Camp and World Junior summer camp, and you’re not allowed to attend, that is earth shattering news to anybody, never mind when you’re still a teenager,” said Ian Gordon, the Red Deer Rebels goalie coach who Coward has known since he was 12 years old.
Wanting to stay involved in the game, Coward began the 2022/23 season as an assistant coach in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL) with the Prairie U16 Prep team, a team he had played for just a few years before during the 2018/19 season.
“I had a lot of fun. It was good too. I got to see two completely different sides and all the stuff that goes on with the team, like the planning and everything. Just like kind of that side of the hockey aspect,” said Coward.
“He wasn’t that far removed from playing so it was comical at times for me because he was learning the different things as far as coaching goes. And he worked extremely hard at the coaching part of it and with the video and the computers and setting up different programs as far as where players could see the systems and designing the practices. So, he was totally committed to that,” added Lorne Molleken, Prairies U16 Prep head coach during the 2022/23 season.
A former professional hockey player and NHL Head Coach, Molleken coached both Coward at Prairie Hockey Academy, and Gordon with the Saskatoon Blades. “I really enjoyed my time with Chase and our bus trips. It’s funny because we would often talk about goaltending, and there was even times when we’d get Ian Gordon on the phone and talk about different things. “We had a lot of fun with it, and I really enjoyed my time with him.”
Just a few months into his coaching career Coward would get booked-in for his first of two hip surgeries. “I’d be checking on him still every couple weeks, I’d call him and see how he is doing mentally. And, then he got booked in to get his first surgery done and it went really well and he walked out of there without a cane, or crutches or anything,” added Gordon.
Coward would then begin his rehab process, doing physio with Erin Baker from True Movement in Edmonton, AB. “She is a huge part of the recovery for me, that program and everything is just awesome, and it helped me come back quicker,” said Coward.
In December Coward would have his second hip surgery, a process that usually takes three-to-six months to recover from. “After his second surgery we got the green light to go on the ice, and with me being based in Edmonton on the days that I wasn’t in Red Deer, he was doing all his rehab here,” added Gordon. “So we started going back on the ice together in Edmonton, very slow-moving to start. The first few ice times, he didn’t even go down. We just wanted to see how he would feel, just like even carrying the equipment on his body again.”
About five weeks into his recovery program with Gordon, Rebels netminder Rhett Stoesser suffered an injury, leaving the team shorthanded in the crease. Gordon and the rest of the Rebels staff made the decision to bring Coward back into the fold, having him participate fully in team practices.
“There were a lot of days when you don’t want to do something that you have to do. There were a few days I didn’t want to do my rehab exercises or stuff like that, but you just have to get it done and bear down, so it took a lot of perseverance,” mentioned Coward. “I told some of my buddies and my agent ‘yeah, I’ll be ready to go for playoffs’ and I just stuck with that all through everything, and then I ended up being ready before playoffs.”
Having went undrafted in the Western Hockey League (WHL) Draft, Coward built off impressive seasons with Prairie’s U16 Prep team and the Moose Jaw Warriors U18 AAA team to land a spot with the Rebels during the 2020/21 season.
“I think back to when I coached Chase at 15 years old, nothing seemed to bother him. He would work every day at what he needed to improve on,” added Molleken. “When he was 15 years old you could see that he had the makings to be a good goaltender because of his commitment to be better each and every day.”
With a foot back in the door, Coward was determined to make himself an option for the Red Deer staff at the conclusion of the 2022/23 season.
“Through all of his hard work, and his character and resiliency, he was there and gave us some games at the end of the regular season and even two in the playoffs. It’s just a testament to who he is as a human being. Because he is just such a great person to be around,” remarked Gordon.
Coward, who is originally from Swift Current, would play in four WHL regular season games and two more in playoffs at the end of the 2022/23 campaign, defying all the odds.
“It was kind of surreal, just with all the emotions I went through in the past year, and just being able to step back onto the ice as a player, just kind of a surreal moment. It felt like my first Western League game again,” said Coward about his return to the net on March 8, 2023 against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Back on the ice and playing WHL games again, Coward would earn an invite to the Minnesota Wild’s NHL Rookie Development Camp at the start of July.
“The organization was so good to be around and just hang out there for a few days, and the coaches were great. They gave me lots of feedback to work on for the rest of the summer going into camp, and this was just a great experience,” mentioned Coward on his time in Minnesota.
“I got a message from Minnesota’s goalie coach and they said he performed really well while he was there. I couldn’t be more proud of him to be back in a net and it’s just a testament to who he is as a human being,” added Gordon. “You think you’re on a really strong trajectory and then you get that type of medical diagnosis. And then to turn around and overcome it, in less than a year, you don’t do it unless you are the type of person that Chase is.”
Coward has one more year of junior eligibility remaining before he can embark on a professional career, or look to use his WHL Scholarship and attend university. Regardless of the path the 20-year-old chooses, with his dedication and perseverance, it’s fair to say the future is bright.