By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
Rutger McGroarty was desperate to play for his country.
The Winnipeg Jets prospect also didn’t want to have a tube inserted into his chest to make it happen.
McGroarty was injured after getting checked awkwardly into the boards while playing for the University of Michigan in mid-November. The winger had to be stretchered off the ice with a fractured rib and punctured lung.
His chances of suiting up for the United States a second time at the world junior hockey championship appeared grim.
“(The doctors) were saying a bunch of stuff: ‘It could take two months or it could take a week … we don’t know,'” McGroarty recalled of his four days in hospital. “And then they wanted to shove a tube in my chest to heal it. I’m like, ‘I’m not putting a tube in my chest, guys. I’m gonna let this heal naturally.’
“I trusted the process.”
After another week of bed rest at home, that belief paid off.
“Next thing you know, they do some tests and they’re like, ‘Oh, the lung’s healed,'” he said. “Perfect. Let’s go.”
After winning bronze at the 2023 tournament in Halifax, the 19-year-old U.S. captain is back hoping for a medal upgrade in Sweden.
McGroarty and his teammates finished first in Group B at the annual under-20 showcase and will play Latvia in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
Selected with the 14th pick at the 2022 NHL draft by Winnipeg, the Lincoln, Neb., product had two assists through three games before finally finding back of the net three times for a hat trick in Sunday’s final preliminary round contest, a 10-2 dismantling of Slovakia.
Head coach David Carle said that while the six-foot, 201-pound McGroarty is keen to drag his group into the fight on the ice, he also has significant value in the locker room and away from the rink.
“Great at bringing people together,” Carle said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who know each other, but different walks of life, different teams. You need someone who can connect the dots. He does that at a really high level.”
Carle, whose playing career was cut short by a medical condition when he was around the same age as McGroarty, reached out soon after hearing about the injury.
“Spoke to him, texted him,” he said. “Initially your heart breaks for the kid to potentially lose that (world junior) opportunity. The fact that he’s here, I’m just really happy for him.”
McGroarty didn’t take the usual route to Gothenburg after spending a chunk of his youth in Nebraska.
His dad, Jim, was head coach and general manager of the USHL’s Lincoln Stars. The Mississauga, Ont., native made sure his son had every opportunity to succeed in the sport.
“I was on the ice more than probably every other little kid across the world,” the younger McGroarty said with a grin following a recent practice. “I was skating all day, every day. My dad had the keys to the rink.
“Always there buzzing around.”
The family eventually moved onto Michigan before he joined the U.S. National Team Development Program alongside players from more traditional hockey locales.
“Once my story started coming out, people were like, ‘He’s from Nebraska? What the heck’s going on?'” said McGroarty, whose mom, Cindy, is also from the state. “But I love my story, and I love where I came from.”
The 19-year-old, who could one day become the fourth player from the Cornhusker State to make the NHL, had a strong start to his NCAA season with 12 goals and 18 points in 13 games before getting hurt.
McGroarty isn’t satisfied with those numbers.
“A lot of room for improvement,” he said. “Need to dominate more games.”
He’s focused on the world juniors and winning a national title with the Wolverines, but the professional ranks loom large. McGroarty hears about it all the time from best friend and former Michigan teammate Adam Fantilli, who was selected No. 3 by the Columbus Blue Jackets last June and is in his rookie season.
“He’s like, ‘Oh man. This is the life, this is unreal,'” McGroarty said. “He’s loving life, but I’m at Michigan. You only get so many years in college. The best time of your life.
“There’s nothing like Michigan and there’s nothing like college. I’m in no rush.”
He was, however, in a race to get better following that scary injury that almost derailed a dream.
“It really seemed unlikely — almost like 100 per cent — that I wasn’t coming to Sweden,” McGroarty said. “A tough time, I was going through a lot. But I’m here now.”
And looking for gold.