MINNEAPOLIS — When Derek Lee trudged out of practice Wednesday afternoon and climbed aboard a waiting bus, the junior center for the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team took with him a somewhat cruel reality.
Lee is still feeling the effects of a concussion suffered Jan. 28, which means he won't play for UW Friday and Saturday nights when it faces Minnesota in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series at Mariucci Arena.
It also means the Badgers will go an entire regular season without having their full complement of players due to injury, illness or recuperation.
"He's making progress, but not enough to jump in and play," UW coach Mike Eaves said of Lee after practice at the McFarland Ice Arena.
As such, the ninth-place Badgers will look to continue a late-season surge — they've won three straight, the last two on the road — while trying to make life difficult for first-place Minnesota as it tries to secure its first MacNaughton Cup since 2006-07.
The injury report goes back to preseason training camp and the opening month of play when sophomore winger Jason Clark was on the mend from offseason surgery to repair torn labrums in both hips.
It continued with hand injuries involving Lee, freshman defenseman Jake McCabe and junior winger and assistant captain Ryan Little. Those gave way to concussions for Clark, Lee and sophomore center Jefferson Dahl as well as a leg laceration for freshman goaltender Joel Rumpel.
There were other dings along the way for the Badgers, but these overlapping episodes were most prominent during a regular season largely defined by inconsistency.
Three cases oddly involved players getting cut with skate blades — McCabe and Lee, who sat out 11 games each, and Rumpel, who miraculously missed only one game — but the concussions get the most attention from the periphery.
Dahl suffered one in practice last month and ultimately missed two games, while Lee has been out for five weeks now. Clark, meanwhile, experienced his concussion just before the holiday break in December and played again in early January.
"Everybody's different. You can't see it. You can't really X-ray it," Eaves said of those dealing with a concussion.
"It happened one day in practice," Dahl said, recounting a seemingly innocent collision he had with a teammate during a drill. "I was feeling fine when I finished practice, but the next day something felt off.''
Dahl, who had never had a concussion before, called UW athletic trainer Andy Hrodey and participated in something called an ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test). The 20-minute exercise measures aspects of cognitive function, including attention span, working memory, sustained and selective attention time, response variability, non-verbal problem solving and reaction time.
If it's determined the student-athlete has concussion symptoms, UW protocol maintains they must follow up with a satisfactory ImPACT session to play again.
The evaluation process reflects efforts to pass a bill that would direct the Department of Public Instruction, in conjunction with the WIAA, to develop guidelines and educate coaches, athletes and parents about the risk of concussion and other head injuries in youth athletic events.
The legislation, which requires a person suspected of suffering a concussion or head injury in a youth athletic activity be removed from that activity immediately, sailed through the Assembly, but remains stalled in the Senate.
Eaves is sensitive to the concussion issue. He estimates he had a dozen before the effects forced him to retire from the NHL before he was 30. Now his son, Patrick, is dealing with one he suffered earlier this season as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.
"We're trying to learn as we go along," the coach said.
About the Badgers
Record: 15-15-2, 10-14-2 WCHA
Coach: Mike Eaves, 207-153-44 in his 10th season at UW.
Player to watch: Michael Mersch: The sophomore right winger has scored a goal in three straight games. He had two goals the last time UW played at Mariucci Arena.
F Ryan Little-Mark Zengerle-Tyler Barnes
F Matt Paape-Brendan Woods-Mersch
F Joseph LaBate-Jefferson Dahl-Sean Little
F Brad Navin-Keegan Meuer-Jason Clark
D Frankie Simonelli-Justin Schultz
D Jake McCabe-John Ramage
D Eric Springer-Joe Faust
G Joel Rumpel/Landon Peterson
Injuries: C Derek Lee (concussion) is out.
You should know: This is the fifth time in the past eight years the Badgers have closed the regular season with consecutive road series. If nothing else, they seem to be getting better at it, finishing 0-2-2 in 2004-05, 1-2-1 in 2006-07 and 2007-08, and 3-1 in 2009-10. They're 2-0 in the latest stretch having won twice at Bemidji State.
About the Gophers
Record: 23-11-1, 19-7 WCHA
Coach: Don Lucia, 592-325-83 in 25th season as college coach.
Player to watch: Kyle Rau: The left winger is the top-scoring freshman forward in the WCHA with 16 goals, 18 assists and 34 points. Only Denver defenseman Joey LaLeggia (11-25-36) has been more productive.
Injuries: C Nick Bjugstad (undisclosed) is questionable; W Nick Larson (wrist) and D Ben Marshall (undisclosed) are probable.
You should know: The Gophers have played in 18 one-goal games this season, the most among the 58 teams in NCAA Division I. Their nine one-goal wins are tied with Boston College, Lake Superior State and St. Lawrence, one behind Mercyhurst.