Paul Wagner took control of the puck at the blue line and dumped it deep into the offensive zone against the Champion City Jets at the Foxborough Sports Center.
The pass by the 19-year-old defenseman from Walpole, however, was picked off, resulting in a turnover in the New England Pro-Am hockey’s John Cunniff Chowder Cup last week.
His coach on the South Shore Kings, Scott Harlow, had wanted Wagner to shoot the puck.
“Somebody tell Wags he’s playing for the big boys’ club,” Harlow said as he watched the play unfold from the home bench.
But the 5-foot-9 Wagner, whose older brother, Chris, skates for the American Hockey League’s Norfolk Admirals, an affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks, is well aware of where he is.
Wagner, a Xaverian Brothers graduate, recently joined the Kings Premiere squad (United States Premiere Hockey League) and decided to hold off on school to pursue hockey full time with the Kings, the same path Chris took before playing Division I college hockey at Colgate. He was then selected in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL entry draft.
Wagner, who plans to play college hockey in the 2014-15 season, is focused on proving that he belongs in the newly formed USPHL, a merger between the Eastern Elite Junior League and the Empire Junior Hockey League.
‘I wore a brace for three months. It was consistent, so I had to wear it all day, all night and I lost all the muscle in my back. It was hard to come back.’
He has come a long away. Five years ago, it was impossible for Wagner to function without a back brace, let alone take the ice in any form.
In November of his freshman year at Xaverian, Wagner was cross-checked from behind and crashed headfirst into the boards. He did not realize the extent of his injury until two weeks later, when he was checked again, also into the boards, leaving him with a cracked vertebra.
“I wore a brace for three months,” Wagner said. “It was consistent, so I had to wear it all day, all night, and I lost all the muscle in my back. It was hard to come back.”
During his recovery, he saw a parallel between himself and his favorite NHL player growing up, Philadelphia Flyers center Eric Lindros, whose injury-riddled career included eight concussions that limited his play. There were thoughts of hanging up the skates, but inspiration to persevere came from his brother and the professional hockey dream that he was fulfilling.
He saw his brother’s first professional goal, a shorthanded game-winner for the Admirals against the host Connecticut Whale on Oct. 20, 2012, on an online stream. And when the family has taken in a game live, whether it be in Providence (Bruins) or Connecticut (Whale), they have heard a few boos for cheering against the Admirals’ opponent.
Chris Wagner said that open support is a mark of his tight-knit family. He also said he and Paul have always been close, going back to when they played street hockey in their cul-de-sac and knee hockey in the basement.
“When we were little, I made him play check hockey downstairs,” Chris said. “I can remember hitting him, and him crying and my mom yelling at me. He would take a beating but he was always good about it.”
And that’s partly why Chris never doubted that his brother would bounce back from his injury. It’s the type of resiliency that he himself shows and hopes his brother will pick up through watching him.
“He’s a man of few words,” Paul said. “I’ll watch him play and I know he’s telling me to keep going and keep pushing. He just works his butt off all the time and he’s been an idol for me.”
Through physical therapy that included stretching, endurance training, and supervised lifts that wouldn’t strain his back, Wagner was able to return nine months later for his sophomore campaign at Xaverian.
He joined the Kings’ Empire team as a junior, posting 10 points in 22 games, then 17 points in his first full 41-game season, and registered 28 points a year ago as a team captain.
Harlow said that four years ago, he never would have thought that Wagner would be able to play for him, but he has earned his spot through hard work.
“I like everything about the kid,” Harlow said. “The last four years that I’ve been here, he could be one of the most improved hockey players that I’ve ever seen. He’s the kind of kid that you can’t count out; the work ethic is unbelievable.”
Teammate Dan Clifford, a Bradenton, Fla., native, said he has never heard Wagner complain about his injury.
“He’s never taken the easy out,” Clifford said. “He’s always down for the challenge. A guy like him, he just looks past it; he ignores the noise. He focuses on [himself] and what he can do to reach his goals.”
Corey Flynn, a teammate the past three seasons, admires Wagner’s ability to stay positive through adversity.
Wagner said he embraces the role of being the underdog.
He likes the archetype of a player like Bruins rookie defenseman Torey Krug, who went undrafted but was signed to an entry-level contract after playing junior, then college hockey at Michigan State, rather than a highly touted prospect who finds a professional home quickly.
Harlow said it is hard to predict Wagner’s future, but believes that “if he improves half as much as he has” from his injury to the present day, then Division I college hockey is in sight.
And for Wagner, who is considering studying business, the mindset is “the show or bust.”
Taking the long way to the pros is a journey that his brother — drafted in his second year of eligibility after being skipped once — said can work out better than getting drafted, because you can choose the team you play for.
Still, Paul’s overarching mission is to fulfill “every brother’s goal” and be better than his older sibling at hockey.
“If he’s ever better than me, I’m probably going to be a little upset,” Chris said. “I hope he can be at any point, but that’s the attitude you have to have. It’s the competitive edge; it’ll take you as far as you want it to take you.”