Kevin Kerr had trouble watching sometimes. After having his 2016-17 season cut short due to a “lower-body” injury, Kerr spectated from the sidelines for his team’s final 14 games.
He watched as Penn State struggled through its Big Ten schedule to a 10-9-1 record in conference play, through a pulse-pounding Big Ten Tournament Championship run and an impressive showing at the NCAA Tournament.
But the toughest moments to watch came early in his time on the shelf. It was the second game of the series, at home in the friendly confines of the Pegula Ice Arena, on Saturday night of THON weekend that he spoke of recently.
As the Nittany Lions battled back-and-forth against Minnesota in mid-February, things got especially difficult for Kerr. The Golden Gophers tied the game with under three minutes to play, but the Lions regained the lead not even a minute later on a Denis Smirnov penalty shot. Take a look at the atmosphere, just a few hundred yards from thousands of dancing feet across the street inside the Bryce Jordan Center.
With the crowd still on its feet, the Gophers once again tied the game with just three seconds remaining in regulation before capturing the win in overtime.
“It was a hell of a lot harder to watch than to be in it, I think,” he said Monday. “I’ve been in a lot of games like that. When you’re in it, you’re so focused on what you have to do. When you’re in the stands, you kind of feel helpless and you’re just praying.
“I’ve never sweat that much in my life.”
While the Lions left that game with a loss that completed a regular season sweep by the Gophers, it provided Kerr the spark he needed to strive to get back into the lineup.
“Those guys battled so hard and it was inspiring,” he said. “It motivated me to get back and be able to play at that level again.”
The road back to recovery was not easy for Kerr. Through the remainder of the season and into the summer, he was rehabbing as much as possible to be prepared for opening night this season.
While he was watching from the sidelines, one of the Lions’ leaders was doing all he could to help Kerr through the process.
“It’s really tough to just maintain that positive energy and that positive body language when you’re coming to the rink knowing you’re not going to be able to play,” captain James Robinson said.
Robinson was injured in his first shift of the season during his sophomore campaign and sat out the rest of the year. He came back the next season with a letter on his jersey as alternate captain and chipped in three goals in 26 games.
Now the leading voice in the locker room, Robinson’s personal experience gave him the ideal perspective to help Kerr through his ordeal.
“I just tried to push Kevin through it and tell him to stay positive,” he said.
The push seems to have paid off.
Kerr lined up on the top pairing with Trevor Hamilton for the Lions’ exhibition game against the University of Ottawa as well as their first regular season series against Clarkson and St. Lawrence, and he couldn’t have been more enthused to get back out there.
“It felt great,” he said. “The injury turned out to be a little bit longer than we expected and just to finally be able to get back out there, it was a fantastic feeling.
“I had a little bit of jitters and it took me a little bit to get used to the game again, but it feels great.”
Kerr was held off the score sheet against the Golden Knights, but picked up a pair of assists — including one on the game-winning goal — to help guide the Lions to a 4-1 win over the Skating Saints.
Captain James Robinson certainly spoke for the rest of the team when he shared his excitement for Kerr’s return.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “He’s not a guy you can replace just by plugging someone else in... It’s going to take multiple guys to replace the things that he does.
“We’re happy to have him back.”