After long road back, Marco Rossi reflects on the toughest year of his life

Austrian forward Marco Rossi during his time in Ottawa. (Valerie Wutti/CP)

The wait was so long, and the months in between so difficult, that when Marco Rossi finally held his Minnesota Wild jersey in his hands last week at Saint Paul’s TRIA Rink, he couldn’t help but pause for just a second.

It was a step worth savouring, and one that didn’t come easy, requiring the young NHL hopeful to navigate the most difficult year of his life.

“I was waiting for that moment for a long time now. When I grabbed the jersey, it just gave me, like, goosebumps,” Rossi said in an interview with Sportsnet on Monday. “Because I know, ‘Okay, now it’s time. Now it’s time to go on the ice, with the team.’ It was an unbelievable moment. Because so many things go through your mind, what you [went] through. Yeah, it was a very special moment.”

What Rossi went through was one of hockey’s most harrowing tales of the past year and a half.

Drafted ninth overall by the Wild in 2020 after a dominant final campaign in junior saw him lead the CHL in scoring and claim OHL MVP honours, the Austrian prodigy’s ascent was abruptly halted when he tested positive for COVID-19 during a stint with Zurich’s ZSC Lions. Complications from the virus soon after resulted in Rossi being shut down for months, unsure of what his future held, and eventually diagnosed with myocarditis — inflammation of the heart muscle.

After a long, arduous road back, his recovery took a triumphant turn late last week at Minnesota’s prospect showcase, with Rossi finally getting the chance to take the ice for his club. He commemorated the moment with his first goal in that Wild jersey, scoring against Chicago in the first of two prospect tilts — adding another in as many games a couple days later — prompting showers of cheers from Wild fans in the building.

“It was really a big moment for me, because I went through a lot of things in my life,” Rossi said. “What I did in January, February, like ‘til May, it was the hardest moment of my life… I just have the appreciation way more right now, because I know now how it feels to be healthy. I know how thankful I am right now every day when I can go on the ice, or just when I’m getting up in the morning and I’m healthy. It’s the little things.

“I’m here now, I can practice with the team, I had some games here in Minnesota, that was unbelievable. Especially with the fans back. It felt amazing.”

Looking back on it all now, after battling through and coming out the other side, the weight of all Rossi endured hangs in his voice as he recounts the difficulty of those months.

The waiting was the hardest part.

“I think for every athlete, it’s the worst thing when the doctor’s telling you, ‘You can’t do anything.’ Because you’re used to doing at least something,” he said. “So, it was hard for me. Especially that first week, to get used to that, not doing anything — there’s times you’re like shaking when you’re just sitting, because you want to do something. But you can’t. For the mental part, that was really, really hard, because you need something to do to not think about your heart all the time.”

Worst of all, he couldn’t turn to the one thing he loved most, with playing hockey out of the question and watching it granting little relief, either.

“To be honest, I didn’t watch too much hockey last year,” he said. “When I was injured, I didn’t want to do anything with hockey. Because it was just hurting so much to see other guys were playing hockey and I couldn’t. So, I couldn’t see any hockey at that moment.”

In the darkest hours of it, with little to distract from his new reality, it was difficult not to let the mind wander. To wonder if his career, his dreams, all he’d worked towards, might be over.

“It was really hard. You’re thinking about everything at that point, because the doctors are all saying, like, ‘After you’re recovered, we don’t know if you’re ever going to be the same person as before. On the ice, we don’t know if you can perform on the ice. We have no idea,’” Rossi said. “So, these were scary moments for myself, because it’s my hockey career. You’re thinking 24/7, every time, ‘Can I be a hockey player again? Can I reach my goals? Can I perform better than before, or not?

“It was really hard for me at that point, because you can’t do anything. And you just have to be patient, for like four or five months. That was mentally really, really hard.”

What got the 19-year-old through it was the outpouring of love that came from every corner of the hockey world. It was the fans in Minnesota, who had his back from the very beginning. It was players reaching out and offering support. It was his family, and girlfriend Stefanie, who were so happy when Rossi was able to step on the ice again for the first time in June, they were more emotional than even he was, understanding how much the moment meant to him.

“At that time, it was really important for me, because you’re really sad every day and you’re thinking so much. And these supporters are giving me so much extra energy — and it also gives me hope, you know?” he said. “So, I’m really thankful that I’m here in Minnesota, because these fans here are amazing”

Now, after months of work to regain his fitness, to get his feet under him again and find his feel for the puck, Rossi’s back. In fact, according to him, he’s better, the young centreman saying often that he feels he’s in even better shape now than he was this time last year, before his health sidelined him. He showed as much over his pair of games during the Wild’s prospect showcase, wreaking havoc on the opposition alongside fellow top prospect Matthew Boldy.

But while his big-league goals remain the same as they were pre-pandemic, Rossi’s on another mission now, too: to show the hockey world that his struggles over the past year don’t define him, that he’s still the player who lit up junior hockey just 18 months ago.

“I just want to show everyone who I am, because a lot of people haven’t seen me now in a while,” he said. “Now I have two games in me, I got to show some people how I feel and how I look. … My goals are exactly the same. It’s to make the NHL team now, and I think I did a really good job so far. But now training camp’s going to start and you’ve got to earn the spot. Nobody’s going to give it to you. You just have to earn it, and show everyone why you want to make the team — why you have to be on this team.”

Whether it’s as soon as October or further down the line, there’s no stopping Rossi’s pursuit of that dream now, his resolve only hardened by nearly having it taken away from him. But while the endgame is the same, his approach won’t be. It’s been altered by all that’s transpired since the last time he was in Minnesota getting ready to fight for his spot, his focus now layered with a newfound sense of gratitude.

“I just feel so much more mature, and thinking, like, different, you know?” he said. “A lot of things changed for myself too… When I’m getting up in the morning, I’m just thankful to be healthy. It sounds maybe, like, crazy — normally a guy like me, before, you don’t wake up every day in the morning and say, ‘Thank you that I’m healthy.’

“But when you go through some really hard times, then you appreciate it way more. You’re more thankful. I’m really, really happy, and thankful to be healthy now.”

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