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Bills battles back to lead women’s hockey into stretch run

When she was 4 years old, Kelsey Bills started playing hockey.

“I think every kid in Canada, for the most part, you go and skate as soon as you can walk almost,” Bills said. “It’s kind of one of those things that everybody did growing up.”

Now, 17 years later, hockey is still a pretty big part of her life.

The senior co-captain on Minnesota’s top-ranked women’s hockey team is majoring in kinesiology and pursuing a coaching minor as well.

But before all that is completed, Bills wants to make the most of the time she has left to play hockey at Minnesota.

Earlier this year it did not look like she would have much time at all.

On Oct. 26, the Carstairs, Alberta, native got her skate caught in the Kohl Center ice playing at Wisconsin. She was bumped from behind, fracturing her left tibia and fibula.

It looked like the Gophers would be without the services of their most vocal leader for quite some time.

But after X-rays at a Madison, Wis., hospital, and surgery back in Minneapolis, doctors determined Bills suffered no ligament damage, cutting her recovery time in half.

“The team was great helping me through it, which was awesome,” Bills said. “(I received) great support from the coaches and support staff as well.”

Bills had her solid cast off after two weeks, which helped speed her recovery.

She was unable to walk for four weeks and began rehabilitation three weeks after the injury, which included different resistance, balance and range of motion exercises.

But despite being out of action, Bills still contributed to the team any way she could.

“I talked to Kelsey about how we could keep her involved with the team, especially since she was one of our captains,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “We thought that was really important that she still have a presence and find ways to make her visible and interact with her teammates and she did a great job of doing that.”

Bills sat with recruits during games answering questions about the program, and also provided between-period analysis for her teammates.

“I was able to step back and focus on a few more things,” Bills said. “It felt more, to a sense, coaching and what I can expect if I continue onto coaching as I plan. It let me know that I’ll be able to handle that OK.”

Bills has always had that attitude of concern for others. Her teammates tease her about acting like a mother for the squad.

The other captain on this year’s team is senior La Toya Clarke, who roomed with Bills during their freshman year. Clarke noticed the maternal characteristic right away.

“She’s got everybody on track and she knows what she wants,” Clarke said. “It’s kind of like she sets the path and everyone is following her. It’s good to have someone around like that just to help you take care of things that need to get done.”

The team can expect to have Bills around a lot more now. She returned to practice after the holiday break and returned to action against Minnesota-Duluth to open the second semester of play Jan. 9-10.

“She really showed a lot of character and heart playing that whole series against Duluth knowing that (her leg) was still sore and it’s still not 100 percent,” Halldorson said. “For the rest of the season she’ll be icing it and rehabbing it and trying to loosen it up.”

The Gophers have already felt the impact of having their other captain on the ice again.

“Getting Kelsey back was a big boost for us,” Halldorson said. “She’s somebody who says what she thinks, tries to be proactive and initiate things when she feels it’s necessary.”

Clarke noticed the positive influence her fellow captain has on the squad as well.

“Billsy brings a lot to the team,” Clarke said. “On the ice she brings her energy and her constant encouragement, so it’s great to have that back now.”

The team has always seen the potential for leadership in Bills, and she was named an alternate captain last season.

“I learned a lot last year,” Bills said. “Last year was a big learning year about what kind of leader is most effective and how to get a message across.”

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