By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Many of the players in Florida Everblades training camp have experienced ebbs and flows of stardom — from notoriety to anonymity — from the first round of the NHL draft to a long bus ride in hockey purgatory.
They’ve all been up and down. But it’s hard to find a Blades player who has been much higher, or lower, than Nate Hagemo.
“I lost my way,” he said, last week, wincing. “I don’t know how much detail you want me to get into.”
A photo taken in a Minnesota jail in January, after Hagemo was arrested on suspicion of possessing a controlled substance, tells the tale of Hagemo’s devastating collapse better than his words could.
The former University of Minnesota blue-chip defenseman, whose face was once the picture of an athlete toned to his physical peak, had a haggard look, his eyes blank — his face covered with pockmarks, cuts, bloody scrapes and scars.
After suffering a shoulder injury that doctors said required a year off, Hagemo struggled with time away from the game.
Doctors prescribed powerful painkillers. Hagemo mixed them with a little college partying, and suddenly a shoulder injury had led him to an all-consuming addiction.
• • •
Truth is, Hagemo’s not even a Blade yet. He’s trying out over the next two weeks, trying to earn a roster spot by proving himself on the ice.
He just wants on the team. Three years after being selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round of the NHL draft — less than four months removed from his latest arrest — Hagemo, 21, doesn’t really care about the headlines or the stardom anymore.
He just wants to play hockey again.
The Edina, Minn., native was once a part of a proud tradition of gopher state hockey. He won a high school state championship with the Academy of Holy Angels as a sophomore in 2002, then spent the next two seasons at the U.S. National Under-18 Team development site in Ann Arbor, Mich., with Blades defenseman A.J. Thelen, who’s also from Minnesota.
“We’ve been skating and playing against each other since we were 10, 11 years old,” Thelen said of Hagemo. “Especially that year in Ann Arbor, we were always going against each other. We could relate to each other.”
“Whenever we played together, it made me pick up my game,” Hagemo said. “I always looked at (Thelen), and he made me want to get better.”
In 2004, the Minnesota Wild made Thelen the 12th overall selection in the NHL draft. A year later, Hagemo was picked 58th overall by Carolina.
Thelen headed to powerhouse Michigan State, while Hagemo picked perennial Frozen Four contender Minnesota. The hometown hockey heroes were on their way.
• • •
For Hagemo, though, his hockey road was about to take a detour.
Midway through his freshman year at Minnesota, Hagemo was hit from behind in a game against Minnesota State-Mankato. His shoulder pained him each time he moved it, but he was just 18 years old and didn’t know much about rehab. He was just trying to make it to the NHL. Hagemo didn’t think he could miss more hockey, so he played again a few weeks later.
“I wish now I would’ve waited,” he said.
Hit again — same spot. This time doctors put it plainly: no hockey for a year while Hagemo’s shoulder (brachial plexus, to be specific) healed.
“At that time, hockey was really the only thing in my life,” Hagemo said. “Once you’re not skating and you’re not in the locker room with the guys … you’re not going to team dinners, you’re not working out. … It was a huge shock.”
He felt as if his life had been ripped away. Sure, it was just an injury, but Hagemo didn’t know how to deal. His classes were meaningless — since when do draft picks have to study? A year seemed an eternity, and worse yet, his shoulder always hurt.
• • •
The January arrest was Hagemo’s third run-in with the police since quitting Gophers hockey in 2006 due to complications from his shoulder injury and the addiction that was starting to interfere with his life.
That same year, he was arrested on suspicion of attempting to burglarize a house. In 2007, he was ticketed for refusing to take a blood-alcohol test after a traffic accident and for careless driving, with a revoked license.
Looking at Hagemo now, quiet with his teammates at Germain Arena, you’d never guess his past troubles. He’s one of the youngest players at Blades training camp and could almost be everyone else’s kid brother.
But Hagemo’s not just a wide-eyed hockey recruit anymore. Through his addiction, Hagemo saw places — including jail — he never thought he’d go. He knew he had to get help.
After his arrest in January, Hagemo enrolled in a 30-day treatment program in Minnesota. He says he has been sober since then and has just been focusing on getting back to hockey.
“The good thing is, my shoulder finally feels great,” he said, allowing himself to smile a second. “I knew I had to get sober before I did anything else.”
• • •
Hagemo was able to get ice time virtually anytime he wanted it during the past few months at the Blake School ice arena in Minnesota. He also practiced with an elite group of players in Minneapolis over the summer before his agent, Neil Sheehy, called Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford.
Sheehy asked if the Canes could just let Hagemo come to conditioning camp with the team, telling Rutherford that continuing to play hockey was an important part of Hagemo’s sobriety and recovery.
Hagemo agreed: “It was (playing hockey again) that turned everything around for me.”
So Rutherford and the Canes, who hold Hagemo’s rights until 2009, gave him a second chance — even though he hadn’t played pro or college hockey since the beginning of the 2005-06 college season.
After seeing Hagemo play at that conditioning camp, the Canes organization contacted Blades general manager Craig Brush. They told him Hagemo’s conditioning wasn’t the best at camp, but it wasn’t the worst.
They wanted Brush to give Hagemo a shot — at least a tryout — with the Blades.
• • •
And so nearly three months later, here Hagemo is in Estero — rooming with Thelen and defenseman Kyle Peto in the team apartments. Playing hockey every morning. Staying sober.
“(Drinking) is something I just can’t do. … Other guys can just stop, but it’s not like that for me,” Hagemo said. “It’s something I always have to pay attention to. I let people know right away. To be honest with you, the hardest part is explaining to girls that I don’t drink.”
He laughs a little bit, finally comfortable in his decision to remain sober.
While sobriety seems to be working for Hagemo, the hockey part of it all is still up in the air. First-year Blades coach Malcolm Cameron had never met Nate Hagemo or heard much about him before the 5-foot-11 blueliner showed up to pre-training camp workouts at Germain Arena last week.
“He was never really in my recruiting areas,” Cameron explained. “The true test for him will come (this week). He skates very well. He looks like he’s in pretty good shape. … Of course, it’s different playing at training camp than playing (pickup) hockey over the summer.”
The 2008-09 Blades are stocked with plenty of talent. They’ve signed eight defensemen, and former all-star Jonathan Paiement is also expected to join the Blades from Albany of the AHL this week. Cameron said for Hagemo to make the team, if all the expected players arrive in camp, a contracted player would have to be cut.
“I’ve never had a situation before where everyone came as planned, though,” Cameron said.
So Hagemo has another shot at hockey. He can skate around the rink at Germain Arena, enjoy the Florida sun, work hard and forget about the probation that follows him from his past arrests. He can forget about the injury that tore up his once-promising career in front of crowds that average almost 10,000 at the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena.
Before his shoulder got hurt and addiction took hold, Hagemo had dreams of million-dollar contracts, of fame in his home state, of playing with the world’s best on ice.
Today, Hagemo’s dreams have shrunk. Make the Everblades. Keep playing hockey. Stay sober.
“I know right now is kind of my last chance. … I was off for two years. … It could’ve been too late,” he said last week. “It was a nice surprise coming here. … Playing hockey again the last seven to eight months has brought something back to my life that I missed a lot.
“This was exactly what I needed.”