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Severe knee injuries didn’t shake Jake McGrew’s spirit during his time with Spokane Chiefs

Fans celebrate with Spokane Chiefs forward Jake McGrew  after his goal during the second period of a WHL game, Friday, March 8, 2019, in the Spokane Arena. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Jake McGrew hoped to skate out with his Spokane Chiefs teammates one last time this year.

Playing a shift again was simply not going to happen, even if his surgically repaired knee was technically well enough to play. The San Jose Sharks weren’t going to approve that.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the shuttering of the Western Hockey League season in late March, McGrew’s plan to skate out with his teammates the night they were to honor the team’s 20-year-olds had to go, too.

“I was kinda hoping selfishly that it didn’t end the season, because that 20-year-old night was gonna be my last hurrah,” McGrew said of the team’s annual March celebration, which didn’t happen because of the season’s cancellation. “That was a hard pill to swallow.”

McGrew has taken his share of those in his four-year WHL career with the Chiefs. Two major knee surgeries – as well as a minor third one – limited him to 132 games.

There was a surgery on September 30, 2016, on his right knee that replaced his anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments while reattaching his medial collateral ligament.

There was a follow-up surgery recommended by the NHL’s Sharks – who liked him so much they drafted him in 2017 despite McGrew not yet playing a regular-season WHL game – the following spring. That surgery aimed to internally brace his MCL.

“They said to do this, (and that) it’s gonna be a fast recovery if you do it now. It’ll be better for you in the long run,” McGrew said doctors told him regarding the MCL surgery. “Obviously, my knee had different plans.”

Both those surgeries looked to be – for a time, were – successful. McGrew played the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons for the Chiefs, scoring 50 goals and assisting on 42 others during that span.

“Going into my 20-year-old year, it felt like I was back to my old self again, before I had the injury,” McGrew said. “And that’s why I didn’t think it was as serious it was when it happened again.

“I’m the best version of myself on the ice,” he said he was thinking, “so there’s no way this is serious.”

The reinjury happened on Oct. 6, the sixth game of this season. McGrew already had five goals and three assists on the year. But that night at the Spokane Arena, he got into a fight, and Everett’s Gianni Fairbrother knocked him out.

As he fell, unconscious, his knee folded. Inside the knee, the donor ACL and PCL that had replaced his original ones snapped like guitar strings, and McGrew’s season was over.

But that the ligaments were so thin – like twine, McGrew said – was unusual.

“They’re supposed to look thick, like, big and round,” McGrew said of the images of his knee he saw later. “It was just a matter of time.”

For some reason, McGrew said, the initial repair three years before didn’t last, and the ligaments gradually deteriorated. He was playing on a knee that was one awkward hit from falling apart again.

Falling the way he did may have been better in the long run, McGrew said, because he could have done far worse damage to his knee.

On Nov. 28, the doctor who added the MCL brace in the second surgery then performed the third surgery on McGrew’s knee, repairing again the ACL and PCL, while replacing the brace that had been on his MCL and then adding a brace to his LCL.

Rather than go back to Orange, California, where he’s originally from, McGrew opted to stay in Spokane for his rehab. He wanted the routine and to be around the players he knew so well.

“It fuels my fire coming to the rink every day,” McGrew said. “If I was at home, I think I would go crazy. You’re on an island, and I didn’t like putting myself on an island.”

The coaching staff – most of whom were new to the Chiefs this season – took notice.

“Just how he went about it and how he handled it, with his maturity, his focus, his determination, I think he set a standard for his teammates watching him,” assistant coach Adam Maglio said. “He was the first one in the rink in the morning, getting his rehab in.”

Soon after, head coach Manny Viveiros invited McGrew to spend as much time in the coaching office as he wanted, and McGrew took him up on it. He sat in on meetings, helped with game planning and became a players’ voice in the coaching office.

“He just gave us insight into the kids,” said assistant coach Dustin Donaghy, who played for the Chiefs from 2007-10. “He’s always around them, so he gives us a good feel of the room. When you have a good feel of what’s going on in the locker room, sometimes you might not need to go into the locker room.”

During home games, McGrew stood in the team box high in the arena with assistant coach Adam Deadmarsh, and McGrew would also offer insights from there.

“I would be around the coaches as much as I could and learn that side of it,” McGrew said. “If you’re a coach before you play, you’re gonna be a better player.”

Campbell Arnold, the Chiefs’ 17-year-old goalie who suffered his own season-ending knee injury this year, got to know McGrew better than he expected to this season. Arnold had surgery on Jan. 23.

“We formed a bond over something you don’t want to form a bond over,” Arnold said.

McGrew prepared Arnold for surgery, helped him keep a positive attitude, and reminded him, through his actions, Arnold said, just how much work it takes to get back on the ice.

“He’s a workhorse. He’ll do anything to get back, to get better,” Arnold said. “Every day that I went in, he would’ve been there two hours before me, and he’d (already) be sweating buckets.”

Two months after the surgery, in late January, McGrew was back to skating on his own two to three times a week, he said. All the while he had his eye on April 28, the date doctors originally told him he could play again.

But the hurdles proved too numerous: Even if the Chiefs had advanced to the conference finals, they would be rostering three overage players, the maximum allowed. Even then, the Sharks wanted him to focus on being ready for the fall.

“The doctor was saying I could play in six months, but the hockey staff,” McGrew said, “they saw it as a great summer of training.”

Still, the sliver of possibility drove McGrew through his rehab and got him to the point he is: ready to go, whenever the hockey world starts back up again.

It was nearly three years ago that the Sharks traded up in the sixth round to draft McGrew. On draft day, McGrew was just going through his normal routine: He went to the gym, worked out, got off the ice and found that his phone “was blowing up” with notifications.

The Los Angeles Kings and the Sharks were the teams he had the most contact with leading up to the draft. His agent, Claude Lemieux, played his final 18 NHL games with the Sharks in 2008-09, and Doug Wilson was then – and still is – the Sharks’ general manager.

That relationship, McGrew said, helped him stay on the Sharks’ radar even as he rehabbed during the season leading up to the 2017 draft.

Plus, as a kid McGrew played plenty of hockey at Solar4America Ice at San Jose, where the Sharks hold their training camp.

“When I’m in that rink for training camp, I grew up playing in that rink. The year before I first came to Spokane, I was playing in nationals at that rink,” McGrew said. “Every time I go there, I think, ‘Wow, I was just here.’ ”

Like the rest of the hockey world, McGrew isn’t skating. Aside from driving to and from California to see family last week, McGrew has been in Spokane since the end of the WHL season.

He is thankful for the way the Chiefs organization has supported him and for the confidence they’ve had in him, despite missing nearly two full seasons in his four with the franchise.

“After the first surgery, they stuck with me and supported me through the whole thing, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that,” he said.

Coaches are thankful he stuck with the team, too.

“He’s just an unbelievable kid, an unbelievable hockey player,” Maglio said. “As an older player, you always want your legacy to be carried out by leaving it in a better spot. I certainly think Jake did just that for us.”