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The Straight Edge: Nate Hagemo’s long road back to hockey

Nate Hagemo played with Team USA at the world championships (Getty Images)

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Nate Hagemo played with Team USA at the world championships (Getty Images)

No points and a minus-2 rating usually isn’t something to write home about, but for Elmira Jackals defenseman Nate Hagemo, there’s another stat that’s much sweeter: four games played.

Hagemo, a second round pick (58th overall) of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005, has been to hell and back – and he’s only been back for a short time. The highly touted blueliner skipped his final year of high school in order to suit up for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, but shoulder problems derailed his career before he was even old enough to buy a beer.

After sustaining a “stinger” in his freshman year, Hagemo was hit in the same place at the 2005 World Junior Championship while playing with Team USA and the injury became too much to bear. He played just three games as a sophomore and despite a comeback attempt in 2006, would never play college hockey again.

“It was the most difficult thing I’ve experienced,” said Hagemo, currently in the ECHL. “Especially then. My mind was set on me being a hockey player; that’s what I was.”

Without game action, or even practice to look forward to, Hagemo’s life began to unravel.

“You feel so isolated,” he said. “When you’re hurt, you’re not part of the team – you’re not in the locker room, so you’re not hanging out with the guys; you feel disconnected.”

The next few years for Hagemo were largely dark. Naturally, the blueliner doesn’t like to go into details about his troubles, but as has been reported in several Minnesota news outlets in the past, he battled substance abuse problems, which led to several serious run-ins with the law.

“That stuff all progressed along with everything else,” he said. “There was a down-spiraling. I kind of lost my way.”

After Hagemo was arrested in a car in downtown Minneapolis on suspicion of drug possession earlier this year, the young man finally had his awakening.

“There was a definite turning point,” Hagemo said, “when I realized my life had to change before anything else could happen.”

With that in mind, Hagemo got serious about earning it all back. The shoulder injury that forced him to retire was, in fact, healed – time had worked its magic. But the youngster still had huge obstacles to overcome and demons to be buried.

His agent, former NHLer Neil Sheehy, wanted to make sure Hagemo was truly ready for a return to the game he loved so dearly. A deal was struck: Hagemo would train six days a week for three months before Sheehy would even begin talks with the Carolina Hurricanes regarding a possible comeback. Hagemo credits his agent with helping him get his life back.

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“He’s my agent, but he’s also a mentor,” Hagemo said.

Hagemo attended the Canes’ prospect camp over the summer and from there it was onto tryouts. Having not played anything close to competitive hockey in years, the blueliner started at the bottom, working out with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, a Carolina affiliate. Despite a good showing, Hagemo was told the ice time he coveted simply wouldn’t be there and if he chose to pursue other opportunities, it was fine with all involved.

That’s how we get to the present. The Jackals are an non-NHL affiliated team in a small town; perfect for the comeback Hagemo is mounting both professionally and personally.

“My first game was kind of a shock to me; my brain wasn’t working fast enough,” Hagemo said. “It’s not as easy as I thought it would be, but my confidence has gone up with every game and I can see myself improving every day.”

Off the ice, everything is improving as well.

“I feel really confident about what I’m doing, how I’m living,” he said. “I feel 100 percent confident that part of my life is behind me.”

The goal, of course, is to slowly work up the ladder. Hagemo is hoping to have a solid season in Elmira and maybe get some American League games in as a call-up. As the years go on, who knows what will happen.

“I have a very definitive short-term and long-term plan,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play in the NHL.”

It may take longer to get there, but it’s safe to say no one would cherish the chance more.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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