Collin Pederson played in his first junior hockey game, in the North American 3 Hockey League, on Oct. 2.

A few days later he began to feel ill.

Pederson tested positive for COVID-19. He quarantined. He did everything recommended by doctors to get over it.

The Owatonna native and rookie forward for the Rochester Grizzlies just couldn’t shake it, though.

“It was pretty concerning,” Pederson said. “It was COVID. It did some damage to my heart. The doctors ran just about every test in the book on me. It hit me hard right away, it was miserable. … I was laid up at home; it wasn’t fun.

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“It was scary, but I got through it.”

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Pederson’s symptoms didn’t worsen to the point of hospitalization, but the 6-foot, 170-pounder certainly wondered if he’d ever start to feel like himself again, if he’d ever get back to the form he showed on the ice in his senior season at Owatonna High School.

Pederson was the third-leading scorer (14-15—29) on a Huskies team that went 19-7-0 in 2019-20. The Grizzlies’ coaching staff liked his all-around game so much that it did everything in its power to get him to commit to their organization.

“We watched him throughout last year and thought he was the best player on Owatonna’s team,” Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. “We knew other (NA3HL) teams were kind of on him and we wanted him pretty bad. We really liked him and saw a guy who we could use in different ways.

“‘Pedey’ can be a role player if you need a role guy and he has enough skill that he can really produce (points), too. He was one of those guys who we just couldn’t let slip away.”

They didn’t.

Pederson signed a tender with the Grizzlies shortly after his senior season in Owatonna finished, committing to play his rookie season of junior hockey in Rochester. But as quickly as that rookie season with the Grizzlies started, it came to a screeching halt, with COVID hitting the talented athlete hard.

“It was tough,” Pederson said in regards to missing more than three months of his first junior hockey season. “I got sick of sitting on the sidelines and watching my teammates play. I wanted to be down there with them, fighting.

“I was able to … I have a rink in my backyard at home and was able to do a little bit in those three months, but when I got back it took me at least a month to get going and feel good again.”

Pederson was greeted with open arms in the Grizzlies’ locker room when he returned to practice on Jan. 13. And he couldn’t have been happier to be back in the lineup two weeks later, in a 7-2 Grizzlies win at home against Wausau on Jan. 29.

Pederson didn’t have any points in that night’s win against the RiverWolves, and it was another three weeks before he was inserted into the lineup again. But he hasn’t left since, averaging a point per game over his past 12 games and playing so well, being so versatile, that the Grizzlies’ coaches can’t stand the idea of him not being in the lineup.

“When he came back we just wanted to get him back in the lineup,” Ratzloff said. “He’s such a good kid. Then it got to the point where we can’t keep him out of the lineup because he’s playing so well.

“His hockey sense, to me, is what separates him and makes him so effective. He can play on our first line or he can change and he’s smart enough to adapt to a fourth-line role. Whatever you want him to do, he’ll do it.”

Pederson’s return has added even more depth to an already deep lineup for the Grizzlies (38-6-1), who will make their first-ever appearance in the NA3HL championship tournament, the Fraser Cup, this week in suburban St. Louis. Rochester opens round-robin play at 7 p.m. Thursday against the Texas Brahmas (a livestream is available at HockeyTV.com).

The Grizzlies secured their spot in the Fraser Cup last weekend, winning back-to-back games against rival Peoria to secure the franchise’s first NA3HL Central Division postseason title. Pederson’s line, with center Cole Gibson and fellow wing Micah Gernander, was pivotal in both victories at the Rochester Recreation Center.

Their line was the only line to provide some energy and create second and third scoring opportunities as Rochester trailed 1-0 through the first 38 minutes of Friday’s game, which the Grizzlies rallied to win going away, 6-1.

Saturday, in a 5-0 victory in which Rochester dominated from the opening faceoff, their line accounted for two goals and four points.

“He does the little things right, all the time,” Ratzloff said of Pederson. “He takes care of details. ... His awareness, we talk about kids who have hockey sense. Just his situational awareness is incredible. What’s happening on the rink, on other parts of the rink? He has that awareness.

“And he’s strong on his skates, doesn’t get knocked off them easily. He’s a tough kid.”