Last updated: February 19. 2013 3:37PM - 258 Views

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It started out as an ordinary day for Riley Holzapfel.

He joined his St. John's IceCaps teammates for a daily practice at the end of last November. A defenseman launched a slapshot from the point during a drill, and Holzapfel saw the puck heading his way for a split second before everything went dark.

The puck struck Holzapfel square in his cheek, just under his visor.

I didn't have much time to react. It stunned me and knocked me unconscious, he said.

Holzapfel's cheekbone was broken in 13 places, but his sight was spared as the puck just missed his eye.

It was a pretty scary incident, Holzapfel said. The way the guys shoot the puck nowadays, the slapshots come at you pretty hard.

What followed were countless visits with doctors and surgeons determining the best course of action to repair Holzapfel's face. When the incident first happened, Holzapfel was rushed to the hospital in St. John's, where doctors said he needed plastic surgery.

The IceCaps parent club, the Winnipeg Jets, flew Holzapfel to Winnipeg for a second opinion from their doctors.

It was basically up in the air whether I should get the plastic surgery and they left it up to me, he said. I ended up not getting it and just letting it heal.

Holzapfel missed more than a month of action and, soon after he returned, the young center was traded to the Anaheim organization, where he spent the rest of the season with the Syracuse Crunch.

Despite wearing a full protective cage for several months, Holzapfel managed to post career highs in goals (16), assists (21) and points (37) last season.

Now, just a few weeks into his first season as a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin, Holzapfel is looking forward to putting last season's injury behind him and posting career high numbers yet again.

Last season is something I want to build off of. It was a roller coaster year with the injury and the trade, but I'm looking forward to improving here, he said.

In the eyes of head coach John Hynes, Holzapfel is already doing just that. In his first seven games as a Penguin, Holzapfel has registered two goals and four points while earning Hynes' respect.

He has a good shot, good offensive instincts, tracks the puck hard and finishes his checks, Hynes said. But the most impressive part is the way he works. He's very consistent and brings the same thing every day. That's the sign of a good pro.

At just 24 years old, Holzapfel has gained a lot of experience at what it takes to be a pro hockey player. He embarked on his career at the age of 16, when he left his home in Regiina, Saskatchewan, after he was drafted by the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League. He made the junior team that year and became one of the few 16-year-olds in the league.

Entering the hockey world as a teenager was tough, Holzapfel said, as he adjusted to life away from home.

Moving schools, getting a driver's license -- you had to do all that stuff away from home without the guidance of your parents. It's a lot to handle as a young kid, he said.

But Holzapfel was fortunate in that Moose Jaw was a little less than an hour away from his hometown, and his parents attended every home game to see their son play.

Holzapfel also had the benefit of relying on another family member who had already traveled the same path, his older brother Cody, who left the Holzapfel home at age 17 to play in the WHL.

I grew up in the hockey world and I wanted to follow my brother and play in the WHL. He did it before I did and he helped me out a lot, Holzapfel said. Unfortunately he doesn't play anymore, but he still follows me as close as anyone.

Holzapfel spent the next four seasons with Moose Jaw until he was 19. He progressed each year and in his third season led the team with 39 goals and 82 points. The difference that season, Holzapfel said, was at the age of 18 he was now looked upon as a role model and leader on the team.

I never had an easy road, so that was big, he said.

When Moose Jaw was eliminated from the playoffs in Holzapfel's fourth season, it signaled the end of his junior hockey career. As a second-round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2006 draft, the 19-year-old Holzapfel joined the AHL-affiliate Chicago Wolves basically as a practice player for the playoff run that resulted in a Calder Cup championship.

That was a great experience that helped me learn the pro system and gave me a taste, Holzapfel said. Coming back the next season, when I was 20, I knew what to expect and I continued to follow the older players on the team.

Leaving home at a young age, overcoming a serious injury and turning a midseason trade into a positive have all helped to shape Holzapfel into a pro very quickly. The next thing on his list is an NHL shot, as soon as the lockout ends.

After the trade last year, I had a good chance with Syracuse and finished the year there really strong, Holzapfel said. It gave me confidence coming into this season to keep working hard for that next opportunity.

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