Don't call it a comeback

From the outside looking in, Jimmy Mullin’s 2017-18 ECHL season has all the makings of a comeback story. A talented hockey player set to make his professional debut.  A devastating pre-season knee injury which sidelined said athlete for an entire season prior.  Hours and hours of working with trainers to restore that knee back to playing shape. And finally, a return to the game in the city in which he laced up skates for the first time as a child.

But if you ask Mullin, he wouldn’t want you to call it that.

“A comeback to me would be if I stepped away from hockey. But no, I had unfortunate things happen that didn’t allow me to play the game. But I’m still here.”

It would, however, be easy to understand if he had stepped away from hockey after sustaining the knee injury in Training Camp with the Kalamazoo Wings last fall.  After all, he has only played one full season of the last four, a stat that he admits with such casualty you barely bat an eye, until you realize the significance of his injuries.

Mullin suffered a knee injury and then a nerve disease in his shoulder which kept him sidelined for half of the 2013-14 season and the entire 2014-15 season while enrolled at Miami University of Ohio.  He transferred to Minnesota State University at Mankato where he played the entire 2015-16 season, registering 10 points in 31 games before signing with the Wings last fall.

Set to get his professional career underway, Mullin suffered a knee injury in Training Camp which would leave him sidelined for the entire season – once again, taken away from the game he loved because of an injury.  Now in the pro ranks and faced with the potential of being sent home, he pleaded with his new bench boss.

“Coach Bootland, I went up to him.  I said, ‘Please don’t send me home. I’ve been out of hockey practically three out of the last four years.’ If I would have been sent home and not part of a community, I think my intrinsic motivation may have been a little hindered.”

Bootland obliged and worked with Mullin to find other ways for the rookie to contribute to the success of the team, an opportunity which Mullin dove into head first.  While he worked on rehabbing his knee, Mullin appeared at a number of community events in the Kalamazoo area as a representative of the Wings organization, earning himself the Team’s Community Service Award for the 2016-17 Season.  He also supported Wings broadcaster Joe Roberts with color commentary during the team’s 2017 Kelly Cup Playoff run and offered an extra set of eyes to his coach, despite not being out on the ice.

“To be honest with you it was something that I needed for my own mental state.  The Kalamazoo area is hard working – they have a lot of teams to choose from.  It’s our job to help our team and marketing department and show people that we are in town.  Our whole coaching staff and broadcaster Joe Roberts did a great job of getting us all involved. And it was something (the community efforts) that I really enjoyed. Understanding that hockey is just a kid’s game and we’re adults being able to play it, it kind of puts things in perspective a little bit.”

Perspective, indeed, has made all the difference for Mullin as he prepared himself for the start of the 2017-18 season, re-signing with the Wings and awaiting his professional hockey debut.  The first game of the season held additional significance for Mullin – aside from his first game as a professional hockey player, and the post-injury work he had to put in in order to even be back on the ice, it was also in his hometown of Cincinnati.

“The first ice I was ever on was the Cincinnati Cyclones in the IHL, so it’s weird how things come full circle.”

And come full circle they did, as Mullin and his Wings teammates defeated the Cyclones in Cincinnati in a 3-2 overtime victory, in front of a crowd of  6,773 people. The crowd included about 40 friends and family members there to support Mullin in his debut, many of whom’s attendance was unbeknownst to him until after the final buzzer had sounded.

“It was really cool. My grandmother showed up, my aunt, my cousin, and my Dad and Stepmom.  Little did I know that kids I had coached – a handful of those kids came to the game.  Kids I used to play with growing up – them and their families came to the game.  So coming out of the locker room when we won and going to the bus – there was about 40 people just waiting to see me. It was honestly a shock. I knew my immediate family was coming but then everyone else was a surprise, I didn’t expect it.

“We had just won in overtime which was awesome. I think I was still trying to process the game and how I had played.  I barely had any time to talk to my family because I was talking to some people I hadn’t seen since I was 10 or 12 years old.  It was something I’ll always remember.”

The thrill of the overtime victory season opener, long awaited return from injury, and professional debut in front of family and friends didn’t last too long, as Mullin’s grandfather passed away shortly after the start of the season.

“I know I have another guardian angel looking out for me, but the second and third game of the season I was kind of a shadow of myself.”

With another challenge thrown his way, Mullin continues to keep his perspective in check and see the bigger picture.

“I feel like I put in the work. My body’s starting to feel better each and every day and now, I just have to get back the whole mindset of the hockey game, just get back into the mental part of it.  The mental part is coming back game by game.  There’s going to be a lot of challenges, understanding the system, understanding you may have more time in a game than you think. I guess combating the adrenalin with emotion and with trying to do everything to help the team.  So I think mentally right now I’m way better than I was the first game.”

For someone who has experienced the injuries and obstacles to the extent that Mullin has over the last four years, experiences that would force many other players to trade in their skates, his attitude stands out.

“Unfortunately I’ve had a little bit of practice when it comes to coming back from a year long injury.  I think the first time I missed time, I had so much emotion going into my first game back.  I was thinking about it so much and was so emotionally invested that by the end of the game I was just exhausted.  This season, it was just like ‘OK, we’re playing 72 games,’ I tried to somehow trick myself that it was just another day and just another game.  But the one thing I was thinking was that I put in all the time and all the work over last season and this summer, I had to just let the chips fall where they may.  And that’s literally what I wanted to do.  I know my heart rate was going, but I tried to stay at an even keel mentally.”

The extra year around a professional organization has helped Mullin in his physical transition, as well as mentally.

“I’m starting to understand when you play 72 games in a season – and maybe 2-3 games in a weekend – you really have to pay attention to your diet, how much water you’re drinking, how much sleep you’re getting.  Being a professional isn’t just showing up to work every day, it’s everything you do away from the rink as well.”

Mullin credits the veterans on the Kalamazoo Wings team for leading by example – pointing out goaltender Joel Martin specifically.

“Joel Martin has been in the League for a long time.  He trains like a rookie but plays like a veteran. He’s still the first one to show up to the rink and probably the last one to leave every single day.  So you open your eyes to what’s around you and see what it takes to be a professional in this league for many years.”

Mullin has appeared in seven games for the K-Wings so far this season. Though he has yet to record a point, he is eager to help his teammates and confident that the success will come soon.

“I want to be a constant contributor. I want to be someone who can play at the end of the games, who Coach can put out to score a goal at the end of a game.  I want to be a great teammate.  Good things are rewarded to people who deserve them and I feel as if I keep going down the track that I am, I’ll be rewarded. I know I’m a rookie and I need to earn everything right now – but that’s a challenge I’m excited for.”

Forgive us for calling it such, but we can’t wait to see how this comeback story pans out.