The month was March and the Gryphon Centre was the scene of the 2009 OUA women’s hockey playoffs between the Brock Badgers and the Guelph Gryphons. The game had just begun and the ice was still fresh as the Gryphons looked to capitalize on the powerplay.
The Gryphons came into the series ranked second in the OUA, sporting one of the most prolific offences in the country, led by Jessica Zerafa, the league’s leading goal-scorer.
After narrowly missing a scoring chance in front, Zerafa, on just her second shift, chased a loose puck into the corner, when she took a light push from behind, sending her feet-first into the boards.
What happened next remains somewhat of a blur for Zerafa, but she does remember being unable to feel her leg as she was helped off the ice, assuming that it was shattered.
“It was really emotional for me,” said Zerafa. “I instantly thought that my leg was broken and I figured that I would be out for the rest of the playoffs.”
Zerafa already had shoulder surgery (her third) planned after the season, so the expectation of being bedridden already existed prior to injury. Nevertheless, her season was over, forced to watch her team from the stands as they defeated Brock in the OUA semi-finals, only to bow out to rival Laurier in the championship series.
“It was so difficult to have to watch,” Zerafa said of observing the remainder of the playoffs from the sidelines. “I even tried to skate before the first Laurier game but there was no way I could get out there and I had to accept that I couldn’t be out there and I had to be a cheerleader from the sidelines. It was great to watch but it would’ve been better to be out there.”
Upon diagnosis, the leg was not broken, but rather, Zerafa had suffered the dreaded high ankle sprain, an injury that sounds simple, but as any athlete rightfully knows, the type of injury that has a long recovery period and uncertainty about how the ankle will respond following rehab.
High ankle sprains are usually not dealt with via surgery, but rather, a slow rehabilitation process.
“I knew that one way or another, I’d be back on the ice one day,” said Zerafa of her optimism following the injury. “I’ve been through a lot of injuries in the past. This one was just frustrating.”
A high ankle sprain, besides being more complicated than a break, meant two months in a walking cast and six months off the ice, an excruciatingly long time away from the ice for a player as dedicated to her sport as Zerafa. When she was able to resume skating in August, there were definite reservations about how quickly she could return to the form that led to her being named an OUA Second Team All-star in 2009.
“When I first put my skates back on, I was experiencing some pain,” Zerafa said. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to get back out there in time for the season.”
Watching Zerafa’s triumphant return to the ice this year, however, her ankle – as well as her shoulder – seems to be responding admirably.
Zerafa has played in all 24 games thus far, and has scored ten goals and 24 points, good for third on the team and a tie for 11th in league scoring.
With the injury still relatively fresh in her mind, visions of March still go through Zerafa’s mind every time she chases a puck into the corner.
“In the first few games, I felt a little traumatized to go into that same corner where I got hurt,” admitted Zerafa. “I wondered, ‘Am I going to lose my footing? Am I going to get hit?’ It became the evil corner, but I’ve looked past it now.”
With only three games left in the regular season before the playoffs begin and the Gryphons starting to peak, Zerafa relishes the idea of a rematch with Laurier, the league’s only undefeated team and the OUA champions for the past six years.
“Every time we play them we’re just so close [to winning],” said Zerafa. “Our coach (Rachel Flanagan) said the other day that once we beat them one time, we’ll be able to keep it up. I feel good about the playoffs. If we play Laurier again, we’ll get it done this time.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs this year, but we have a really good team on paper,” said Zerafa. “I definitely think we’re peaking at the right time and things are going our way right now.”