ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Joe Molenaar can't put a date or a specific play on when it started to hurt, but eventually, it got so bad that he decided to end his last junior season in the United States Hockey League in the middle of December.
"I'd never had a shoulder issue and there was never a moment where I thought I'd pinched it or pulled it, but it had been bugging me since October," he said. "Once I got to Cedar Rapids, our first game (Nov. 28), I felt my shoulder come out and it popped right back in on its own.
"I didn't know that's what happened. But when I started describing what was going on to the surgeon after he told me the news, he was like, 'That makes sense. That's your shoulder dislocating and coming back on its own.'"
Molenaar moved back to Minnesota, had surgery to repair a torn labrum and did not play another game of the 2019-20 season. The good news for Molenaar and the St. Cloud State men's hockey team is that he said that he has had no setbacks in his rehabilitation and should be ready to join this Huskies, as planned, in the fall.
Good rookie season finish
Like most players, Molenaar's two seasons in the USHL had some ups and downs. After graduating from Minnetonka High School in 2018, he played wing for his rookie season with the Tri-City (Neb.) Storm in the USHL.
Molenaar got better as the 2018-19 season went on. In his first 18 games, he had four goals and nine points. In his last 38 regular season games, he had 11 goals and 13 assists on a Storm team that won the Anderson Cup for having the league's best record (45-12-3-2).
"I got lucky being on as good a team as we were," Molenaar said of Tri-City, which reached the Western Conference finals in the playoffs. "It was a great group of guys.
"Right around Christmas time was where it kind of slowed down for me," he said of keeping up with the pace of play. "I was able to settle into a role with the team and things went really well for me and I'm happy with how that year went.
"That was where the most development happened as far as play. I got to try out a couple different roles that year. That first year was a huge step for me in terms of getting ready for college hockey."
Molenaar said that he played on every line on the team that season. He got off to a strong start last fall with a goal and three assists in Tri-City's first four games (through Oct. 10). In the next 15 games, though, Molenaar had a five-game stretch where he did not have a point and the Storm were in the middle of the conference pack, he got traded to Cedar Rapids on Nov. 25.
Less than a month later, Molenaar went home for his team's winter break and had his shoulder examined.
"I got an MRI done," he said. "I really didn't know what was going on. I was hoping that there was just some stretches I could do or a brace to wear. I got back to Cedar Rapids and the practice before a game, I got a call from the surgeon in Minnesota and he said that my shoulder was going to require surgery at some point if I wanted it to get better.
"There's no real exact timetable for how long (rehabilitation) can take and said, 'I can't tell you not to play. But I would advise getting the surgery done as quick as you can.' I was so excited to be there in Cedar Rapids and play for that team ... My mind was made up that I was going to keep playing."
But Molenaar said that he had a long conversation with Roughriders head coach/general manager/president Mark Carlson after he heard the injury prognosis.
"I wanted to help and I came back the next morning for morning skate, got dressed and sat and talked to coach Carlson for a bit more," he said. "We ended up agreeing that it was the best thing to get the surgery done.
"That was super cool of him to be looking out for me more than himself. I was really lucky to be playing for this guy. He had my best interests in mind."
Seeing SCSU up close
The surgery went well, but the inactivity that followed it was difficult mentally.
"We decided to do the open surgery instead of the arthroscopic and it was definitely the right decision," he said of the January procedure. "The first 2-3 weeks were really tough, dealing with the pain and no movement and being kept home. The only time I would leave was for physical therapy.
"I remember going out and seeing somebody's face other than my mom's, my sister's or my physical therapist. Then about 6 weeks in, all this stuff with the (coronavirus) starts coming out. But I was lucky that my (physical therapy) was able to stay open throughout and I've never had any setbacks. Now I'm getting to almost full motion."
But there were some other good things that happened during the season. Molenaar said that Huskies head coach Brett Larson and assistant coaches Nick Oliver and Mike Gibbons stayed in close contact with him after the surgery.
He also was able to attend four St. Cloud State games in the second half of the season and was able to make closer contact with future teammates than a typical incoming freshman would.
"I watched every single game on TV because they're on TV all the time," he said. "The hardest part is just watching hockey. I'm hungry to get out there and to play."
So what can St. Cloud State fans expect to see when Molenaar joins the Huskies?
"A (former) captain, a kid we think can come in and score," Larson said of Molenaar, who had 31 goals in 31 games as senior at Minnetonka. "He's a kid who brings speed and skill and size (6-foot-1, 180 pounds).
"We're really excited about what Joe can do. He was out for quite awhile, but we think he's a kid who can come in here and have a great college career."