ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there was quite a delay from when John Opilka injured his hip to the time he was able to get surgery scheduled to repair the damage.
"I played in an exhibition game, got hit awkward and I heard a pop," Opilka said of a game on Oct. 3, 2020. "So I knew for sure I needed surgery after that.
"It happened in the first period of the first game against the (USA) NTDP. It was a hit, knee to knee almost. My head flew back, my hip popped and I couldn't put any weight on it ... It wasn't good."
Because of the pandemic, the 18-year-old from Effingham, Ill., was not able to get surgery scheduled for his hip until Feb. 9. So the defenseman ended up leaving the North American Hockey League's St. Cloud Norsemen and moving back in with his parents.
Opilka has made it through this preseason for the Norsemen and is likely to be in the lineup at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday when St. Cloud opens the regular season with a game against the Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks at the National Sports Rink in Blaine.
In 2019-20, Opilka, a St. Cloud State recruit, played 30 games in the United States Hockey League (18 for Omaha and 12 for Sioux City). During that season, Opilka began having some problems with the hip that would require surgery. When the surgeon got a look at what all was on the X-ray, there were a number of issues.
"There was some degenerative issues, some impingement, a torn labrum and some pelvic tilt," said Opilka, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds. "I went back home and helped renovate our house for a bit."
Wait, hold on. So what kind of renovating did he help with?
"How much time do you have?" Opilka said with a smile. "Tiling, we built a new addition, plumbing ... pretty much everything that goes into a house. It was pretty fun. It was a good learning experience. My dad is a doctor and I helped our contractor with a helping hand."
As enjoyable as that may have been, the hope is that Opilka does not have to do any handyman work for the rest of this season. It took some time to rehabilitate from the surgery.
Two months after the surgery, he was able to do some forward skating. At four months, he was able to begin doing sharp turns, crossovers and transitions on the ice. Six months after the surgery, he was cleared to play games.
"It was definitely different and it was like learning how to skate all over again," Opilka said. "Skating is a lot of timing and where you are placing your feet. So there was definitely an adjustment period.
"I feel like myself again. I feel like I can skate and play again, like in previous years. I don't have to worry about my hip going out on me. It's been really nice to play without any limitations."
When he has been healthy, he has been a steady, defense-first defenseman who can play a physical game. He verbally committed to St. Cloud State at age 15 as he was beginning a season with the St. Louis AAA Blues Under-16 team in August 2018 as the sixth player to commit to new head coach Brett Larson. Opilka finished that season playing two games for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL.
"I feel like I make a good first pass, making sure our forwards use their speed to get up the ice and make plays," Opilka said. "Obviously, I think I have a good stick on the defensive side of the puck, making sure I'm in the right spots and using my feet to defend.
"I have a pretty big frame and I try to use it when I can, especially in battles in the corner. I don't try to lay a lot of open-ice hits because it usually leaves you out of position."
Corey Millen, who was an All-American for the University of Minnesota and played 335 games in the NHL, is the Norsemen's second-year coach. Millen said that Opilka is working his way back.
"He's moving pretty well, but it's tough when you miss a whole season," Millen said. "It takes a little while to get your feet under you and get your timing.
"I don't care how young you are, it's going to take a little time to get comfortable. That surgery — I talk to him all the time about it. He says he feels pretty good, but there's still room to feel better and stronger.
"I hope he's thinking he's going to be a real solid entity for us, a good first pass and he seems to have a pretty good brain and sees the ice well. He defends well."
Opilka is glad to be playing again and it is a bonus that the college that he has committed to is in the same city. He said he is enjoying living in Minnesota, where hockey is such a big part of the state.
So how did a kid from a city of 12,500 about 80 miles south of Champaign, Ill., get interested in hockey in the first place? His uncle, Chad Cassel, played for the club team at the University of Illinois and eventually coached the Illini to a national title.
Opilka's two older brothers, Tyler, 26, and Luke, 24, both played hockey. Tyler played defense for the University of Illinois from 2015-20. Luke played goalie for the US National Team Development Program, was taken in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the St. Louis Blues and then played two seasons for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. Luke's career ended due to hip injuries and he is about to begin his fourth season as the goalie coach for Maryville University (Mo.).
Millen ready for Season 2
While Opilka is ready to play his first season in the NAHL, Millen is ready for his second season with the Norsemen. Millen took over after St. Cloud went 10-37-4-1 in 2019-20 in Moe Mantha's last season as head coach.
The Norsemen were in the playoff hunt at the end of last season and finished 22-33-1-5 under Millen.
"It was a challenge in all kinds of ways," said Millen, who has also been a head coach for the NAHL's Alaska Avalanche (2011-12) and Minnesota Wilderness (2013-16). "Dealing with COVID was tough and having only two guys returning from the previous year puts you in a really tough spot.
"There was a bunch of challenges. I learned a lot about a lot of different things. Our group changed significantly from Game 1 to Game 40. Unfortunately, it changed a lot again because we lost some really big pieces due to injury and that hurt us down the stretch. But, our group was super competitive at the end of the year. Our (2-13) start hurt us down the stretch because we had to win almost every night to get into playoff contention."
Going into the opener, the Norsemen have six players who have committed to NCAA Division I schools: Opilka (SCSU), defenseman Sam Duerr (Maine, 6-2, 200, 19, Chicago, Ill.), goalie Josh Langford (Maine, 6-6, 175, 20, Frisco, Texas), forwards Chase Freiermuth (Air Force, 6-2, 208, 20, Hastings), Blake Perbix (Northern Michigan, 5-9, 165, 19, Princeton) and Nate Warner (Minnesota, 6-0, 180, 20, Sartell).
Perbix and Warner both played for Cathedral High School and helped the Crusaders win the 2019 Class A state title.
The Norsemen will have their home opener at 7 p.m. Sept. 24 against the Bismarck Bobcats at Municipal Athletic Complex.