MANKATO — Perhaps more than any other player on the Minnesota State men's hockey team, Josh Nelson was looking forward to the end of 2013 and the beginning of the new year.
The senior defenseman has missed all but the first three games of the season with a lower-body injury that he feared would cost him the final season of his college career.
But Nelson is back on the ice now and could be in the lineup tonight when the Mavericks take on Alaska in the first game of a WCHA series at Fairbanks, the city Nelson called home for two seasons as a junior player.
"It's a brand new year," Nelson said Wednesday before the team left for a 12-day trip to play the Nanooks (tonight and Saturday) and Alaska Anchorage (Jan. 10-11). "I'm pretty much trying to take on everything as positively as I can. I'm trying to enjoy everything."
Nelson wasn't sure if he'd be able to play for the Mavericks again. He considered hip surgery, but an appeal to the NCAA for a medical hardship waiver and an extra year of eligibility was denied.
"It was definitely really difficult," said Nelson, one of the Mavericks’ alternate captains. "It was a really long process. Each day, probably 10 guys asked what the news was."
He never had an answer.
"That was a tough time," coach Mike Hastings said. "You have visions as a player of how you'd like your senior year to go. I don't believe he wrote this book or this chapter for his senior year. But he did a real good job of being selfless in the process."
He continued to get treatment on the injury and, when he started to feel better, decided to give it a go for the second half of the season. Nelson said he felt good in practice this week and is hoping he can hold up. He said surgery is still a possibility after the season.
“I was supposed to figure out what I was going to do if I didn’t get the redshirt,” he said. “(Playing) was a no-brainer if I could handle it physically. I wanted to try to play with the guys again and help lead this team again. …
“Now the thing is to get through this year. After that, I have no idea what’s in store.”
A year ago, Nelson had his best college season, scoring 14 points. He was a key member of the Mavericks’ power play, scoring four of his five goals with the man advantage.
Hastings said Nelson’s health and progress will be monitored closely. But when he’s in the lineup, Nelson will be back in those important roles.
"Power play, penalty kill, a top-four D," Hastings said. "He'll allow us to distribute our minutes throughout the group of six that plays on a given night.
“He was elected one of our captains by his teammates. It's hard being a leader when you're not on the ice everyday. ... And we don't have many seniors."
Nelson’s return also gives him a chance to play with his brother, Casey, a freshman defenseman for the Mavericks. Casey Nelson has played in 14 of MSU’s 18 games, including the first three when Josh was healthy.
“I’ve got 25 other brothers here, too,” Josh Nelson said. “But to play another half-season (with Casey) in front of family and friends is important.”
Nelson isn't the only player who could return to the lineup this weekend.
Freshman forward Michael Huntebrinker has been cleared to play after suffering a broken wrist early in the season. He has played in just two games. Also, sophomore defenseman Blake Thompson is eligible after transferring from Minnesota a year ago.
"We've finally got some numbers," Hastings said.