When Sam Denny learned he had made Connellsville’s varsity hockey team as a freshman, he was thrilled.

“It was pretty unbelievable,” says Sam, 15, who lives south of Pittsburgh in Fayette County. “When the captain told me that I made it, I was kind of in shock. I didn’t believe it at first, but it was really exciting.”

However, an inadvertent play in Sam’s first varsity game left him with a severed hamstring. It put his entire season in jeopardy.

After having surgery to fix his hamstring, Sam completed 12 weeks of physical therapy at UPMC Rehabilitation Institute: Uniontown. Working with physical therapist Corey Dascenzo, DPT, Sam’s PT also included blood flow restriction rehabilitation.

About 18 weeks after his initial injury, Sam returned to the varsity lineup.

“On a scale of one to 10, (the rehabilitation team was) definitely a 10,” Sam says. “Especially Corey — he was a real positive guy. He’ll keep your head up, even if you start to feel down.”

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A Severe Injury

Sam has played hockey for eight years. In addition to playing center for his school team, he plays travel hockey.

He remembers feeling like a “nervous wreck” before his first varsity game in early October 2023.

“Going into the locker room, there were a lot of guys that were bigger than me because they’re older,” he says. “So, it was a little intimidating.”

The nerves started to go away after the game began and Sam took a couple of shifts.

During the second period, Sam took a pass from his teammate in the offensive zone. Wanting to get a shot off quickly, he twisted his hips and his leg hit the ice.

An opposing player came from behind, trying to take the puck away from Sam, and inadvertently stepped on the back of his leg. The player’s skate glided over the back of Sam’s leg, leaving a small cut.

“I didn’t notice it right away,” Sam says. “I felt a little pop in the back of my leg, but I thought that was all normal. I didn’t feel any pain initially.

“But I got back up and I tried to take another stride to get back in the play, and I couldn’t put any pressure on my leg. It kind of felt like something tore.”

Sam returned to the bench, where an emergency medical technician looked at his leg. Outside of a small cut and some blood, nothing appeared wrong. So, Sam had his leg wrapped and returned to the ice — but once again, he couldn’t put any pressure on his leg.

“I saw him stop,” says Vicki Denny, Sam’s mother. “He skated right back over to the bench and sat down.”

The next day, Sam still couldn’t walk without pain. So, his family took him to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. There, an MRI showed he had a severed hamstring. His doctor told him the injury could mean his season was over.

“I was in disbelief,” Sam says. “It was pretty disappointing because I was all hyped up about this year knowing I made the varsity team as a freshman. I was going to try to make an impact as much as possible on the team, to get recognition and contribute to see if we could win a championship.

“I didn’t want to believe [my season was over], but I had to face what had happened.”

Motivation to Return

Sam and his family met with UPMC orthopaedic surgeon Craig Mauro, MD. He gave them two treatment options: a surgical hamstring repair or a nonsurgical approach.

The family opted for surgery, believing it gave Sam a better chance for a full recovery. So, in mid-October, Dr. Mauro repaired Sam’s hamstring surgically.

About a month after surgery, in late November, Sam started going to his physical therapy appointments. Soon afterward, he started thinking he could get back on the ice before the end of the season.

“As I gradually went into therapy and things got a little better, I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be back,'” he says.

A Strong Partnership

Sam had worked with Corey before. As an eighth grader, he had experienced lower back pain, and Corey had helped him get through it.

“I was 100% on board and comfortable with him being my therapist,” Sam says. “I knew he could get me back in shape.”

Sam’s therapy incorporated the blood flow restriction (BFR) method of rehabilitation. During BFR, a patient performs exercises while wearing a specialized tourniquet system that looks like a blood pressure cuff.

The tourniquet reduces blood flow to the muscles. This allows patients to work out without straining them too much.

“I kind of had an understanding of what I was going to have to do, but it was definitely challenging,” Sam says. “It was probably the hardest part of my therapy: doing the bike and different exercises with weights, trying to strengthen my leg back up before I went into plyometrics.”

Sam met with Corey twice a week. Corey put Sam through a varied exercise regimen, including the exercise bike, sprints, jumps, agility ladder exercises, and resistance band work. Eventually, he made his way to the weight machines.

Sam says Corey helped to motivate him and keep him on track. He let Sam push himself, but never far enough to risk a setback with his injury.

“Corey built a really good patient/therapist relationship with Sam,” Vicki says. “You could see everyone in that office was incredibly comfortable. Corey has a really good rapport with his patients. He could make a teenager feel comfortable and also relate to them, so that helped Sam feel like he could be himself in there.”

By January, Sam was doing more strenuous exercises. He was feeling more confident he could return to the ice before the end of the season.

“Dr. Mauro and Corey really had a great plan for him,” Vicki says. “And Sam was extremely disciplined. He did exactly what they told him to do to get back on the ice.”

Returning to Play

Dr. Mauro cleared Sam to skate with no contact in the second week of January 2024. But he still had to clear some final hurdles in his recovery to play full contact.

Still, Sam says it was a “relief” just to get on the ice again.

On Feb. 9, Dr. Mauro cleared Sam for full-contact play. The next day, he played in a game for his travel hockey team. And less than a week later, he returned to the ice for Connellsville varsity.

“I was a mix of excited and nervous,” he says. “In my head, I was like, ‘I’ve got this. I’m going on the ice and I’m going to do what I do.’ But there was a part of me that was like, ‘What if I take an odd hit, and I twist my leg, and I’m back in therapy for another month or two?'”

Sam says he took things slow at first. But as he got used to the speed and physicality, he felt more comfortable. He even scored his first varsity goal in his second game after returning.

“I will never forget his face at Children’s when they told him his season was over,” Vicki says. “It was so heartbreaking. For him to be able to go through all of his therapy, get back on the ice, and see how excited he was to get back out there, it was a great moment for everybody. But I have to admit, I was very nervous.”

To give Sam’s leg more protection, his parents bought him protective pants to wear under his uniform.

“I definitely feel a little more enclosed and kept safe,” he says.

Now that he’s back on the ice, Sam has big plans for his hockey future. He hopes to begin playing junior hockey within the next couple of years and go as far as he can with the sport.

“I’m going to see where my path takes me and work as hard as possible to get where I want to be,” Sam says. “If it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t — whatever is in the cards.”

Sam and Vicki are thankful for the care from Dr. Mauro, Corey, and the team at UPMC Rehabilitation Institute.

“He’ll go back and see the folks in that office anytime if he would ever need it again because he trusts them that much, and so do I,” Vicki says. “They did a great job with him.”

About UPMC Rehabilitation Institute

The UPMC Rehabilitation Institute offers inpatient, outpatient, and transitional rehabilitation, as well as outpatient physician services so that care is available to meet the needs of our patients at each phase of the recovery process. Renowned physiatrists from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, as well as highly trained physical, occupational, and speech therapists, provide individualized care in 12 inpatient units within acute care hospitals and over 80 outpatient locations close to home and work.