Louie Kliniski is the ultimate Comeback Kid.
The Willow River High School junior returned to the ice Friday night for the first time in 2-1/2 years when the Moose Lake Area boys hockey team defeated Ely 5-3 at Riverside Arena.
Kliniski started the game with the Rebels’ two seniors and skated a two-minute, non-contact shift as part of an agreement with the Ely team to fulfill the 16-year-old’s dream. Kliniski earned his first career varsity assist on that opening shift and then had a couple of scoring chances at an empty net in the final moments.
Not bad for a kid who at 14 was clinging to life after sustaining numerous injuries when his dirt bike was hit by an SUV on Aug. 7, 2017, just blocks from his home.
Emergency medical technicians living nearby were some of the first to respond to the scene and they informed 911 dispatchers that a LifeFlight helicopter was needed. Luckily, the aerial transport was in Cloquet at the time and picked him up at Willow River High School and flew to Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth.
Among Kliniski’s injuries: a fractured neck and back, bleeding and swelling on the brain that led to his being in a coma, surgery to remove blood in his stomach, an aortic aneurysm requiring a mesh implant, two broken femurs, a shattered pelvis, a broken right ankle and a tibia-fibula break in his left leg.
“They told me that he had a 5 percent chance of living,” said Kristi Cisar, Louie’s mother. “His heart stopped the next day and they had to revive him. He spent three weeks in intensive care before transferring to Polinsky rehab center.”
The initial prognosis was grim.
“A neurologist told us that there was very little brain activity,” Cisar recalled. “But then they found out that he was under so much medication that there probably shouldn’t be much brain activity. When he woke up, he was paralyzed on the left side, left leg, left arm. He couldn’t talk, couldn’t eat and had a feeding tube.
“But that little (expletive) just came around. I owe it all to his will and determination, him being so physically active and being so hard-headed. If he hadn’t been in such good physical shape, the doctors said he wouldn’t have made it. It was a miracle.”
Coach devises a plan
The idea of finding a way for Louie to return with his teammates — on Parents Night, no less — germinated with Moose Loose Area coach Lee Costley.
Kliniski was a pee-wee during Costley’s first season as the Rebels' varsity coach.
“He was like the ultimate rink rat,” Costley said. “His motor was always going and he had a rather high hockey IQ for his age. He was full of energy, one of those kids you say, ‘I can hardly wait to get him to high school.’ ”
After watching Kliniski learn to walk again, then skate with the team during practice and serve as a team manager, Costley began devising ways for him to return.
“In the back of my mind, I was thinking of a way to get him a shot to actually play in a high school game,” said Costley, a teacher at East Central High School. “He’s just a great kid.”
Costley informed Kliniski when doctors had agreed he could play.
“When we got the (doctor’s) note clearing him, I think his smile went beyond ear-to-ear,” Costley said.
Costley called Ely coach Ben Johnson, a good friend, and asked him if he would be receptive to allowing Kliniski to skate for a shift or two without any checking involved. Johnson readily agreed.
“It’s a pretty special deal,” Costley said.
For Louie, just feeling like part of the team again was the most important thing.
“I just wanted to get back out and do what I want and to be with my friends,” he said.
Kliniski doesn’t remember the accident or any of his inpatient therapy sessions.
He continued occupational, speech and physical therapy on an outpatient basis in Moose Lake through the summer of 2018 and is still battling cognitive issues and short-term memory loss. He struggles to transfer his thoughts to words and is nowhere near as rambunctious and rebellious as he was in his early teenage years, his mother says, but his personality has re-emerged as has his passion for hockey.
“He’s not the same Louie, but he definitely has some of his personality back,” teammate Jordan Fjosne said. “I’m glad he became himself again.”
Prior to playing again, Kliniski, who works part-time at the Holiday gas station in Moose Lake, didn’t get overly melodramatic.
“It’ll be fun, maybe emotional,” he said.
Teammates awed by return
Fjosne was one of the two seniors honored at Friday’s game.
Beforehand, the center said he was more excited to have his good friend back than being honored himself and spoke in heartfelt terms of what it meant to him.
“It’s incredible what he’s done; he’s one of the strongest people I know,” Fjosne said. “The first day he got to go back out on the ice, I got out of school early and got to skate with him. It was cool to watch him progress from when I saw him in the hospital to him going through rehab and then to be with him when he took his first strides on the ice.
“I couldn’t have been more excited for him because I know that hockey is what he loves most.”
Hockey was the tie that bound the two together from an early age. The pair played hockey since they were preschoolers.
“I would always go over to his house and skate on the pond all night and then go to sleep and wake up in the morning and do it all over again,” Fjosne said. “That was basically our childhood.”
Fjosne was in Duluth with family when he heard about Louie’s accident. He saw the LifeFlight helicopter carrying his motionless buddy land at the hospital.
But nothing could prepare Fjosne for when he finally was able to visit Louie.
“Two weeks later, I finally got to see him when he was in the hospital,” Fjosne said. “I looked at him and didn’t know what to do or what to say. It was heartbreaking. He was one of my best friends and I hated to see him like that. He was not awake and just laid there with a bunch of tubes hooked up to him, and half his head was shaved. Both of his feet were in casts and the room was dead silent. It was horrible.”
Within five months, Louie resumed skating. Now, he’s logged actual varsity ice-time.
“He’s had a rough couple years, but he’s been at practice ever since he could skate again,” Fjosne said. “He’s put in more than enough time after his accident that I think it will be really rewarding for him.”
Costley couldn’t be more proud.
“It’s just great having Louie around,” the coach said. “From what he went through to where he is now is a fantastic thing.”