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West Salem/Bangor's Richard Brown (19) clears the puck in the third period of the Panthers 4-0 sectional final victory over Onalaska. West Salem/Bangor (20-7) faces No. 2 seed Eau Claire Memorial (23-2-2) in Thursday's quarterfinal action.

He learned early in his hockey journey that wearing the wrong colored practice jersey, even as a 6-year-old, is taboo and could lead to a roughing penalty.

From his own team, that is.

He also learned that splitting his athletic love between two sports — soccer and hockey — was permissible, mainly because one was held in the fall, the other in the winter.

He also found out that when one was taken away — hockey — via an injury, life wasn’t the same. It was downright miserable at times.

So if you see Richard Brown of the West Salem/Bangor boys hockey team smiling more than most Thursday at the Alliant Energy Center when the Panthers (20-7) face second-seeded Eau Claire Memorial (23-2-2) in a state quarterfinal, there are a number of reasons.

The biggest is that the 18-year-old senior is downright giddy to be healthy and playing hockey for one of the eight teams at the WIAA state tournament.

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West Salem/Bangor's Richard Brown (right) celebrates his second-period goal during the Panthers' 4-0 sectional final victory over Onalaska on Saturday. The senior forward played a key role in West Salem/Bangor's drive to the WIAA state tournament for the second straight year. 

“Right now, it is everything I hoped it would be,” said Brown, a 5-foot-10, 155-pound forward. “My first goal was just to get back on the ice and eventually play and be with the boys again.

“Another goal was to be at state, so next, obviously, is to win.”

Brown capped his comeback with a goal in Saturday’s 4-0 sectional final win over Onalaska, but his coach and his teammates felt his impact the entire season.

“He’s definitely a very impactful player. You can definitely tell when he is out on the ice because he wins every single battle in the corner,” said teammate Ryan Beirne, a senior defenseman and team captain. “To be honest, I don’t think I have ever seen him lose a battle. He is pretty awesome.”

It was that level of determination that pushed Brown during recovery from a serious knee injury in late July of 2016. An injury that included a complete ACL tear and a partial meniscus tear.

Not that he knew the severity for several weeks.

“It was a couple of weeks before school started (prior to his junior year). I was running into a corner and cut back, and my knee kind of came out from under me,” Brown said.

“I didn’t know what to think because I had never been injured before on my knee, so I didn’t feel anything there, I guess.”

His left knee was sore, so he sat out the rest of that practice and backed off his highly-intense soccer routine for a few days. He didn’t seek a medical opinion, however, until two weeks later when the condition of his knee didn’t improve.

Then came the unexpected — and bad — news.

“I walked on it for a couple of weeks and thought it was a minor injury. Then I went in after a couple of weeks and the doctor said when he pushed and pulled, he didn’t feel any pull or resistance,” Brown said. “I went in for an MRI and they said I had no ACL; it was completely gone and there was a partial tear to my meniscus.”

The fact the walked around for two weeks with a blown-out ACL says a lot about Brown’s pain tolerance, his passion for sports, and his positive attitude. The injury wasn’t going to heal itself, so surgery and eight months of rehabilitation followed.

Brown, a standout soccer player for West Salem, missed all of his junior season, but was hopeful he could get back in time for the end run of the Panthers’ hockey season.

His fiery passion never diminished, but just the opposite.

“They told him eight months at the earliest (he could come back), but he was skating with us in mid-January (of 2017). He got permission to skate because he worked so hard to get back on the ice,” West Salem/Bangor coach Eric Borre said.

“By the time playoffs came around, he probably could have been at a (roster) spot as health-wise he was OK, but we were not going to let him go.

“We kept him off the tournament roster, so he had to stand at the end of the bench (away from the team) and watch.”

Fast forward to the spring and summer and Brown was itching to get back into competitive soccer and yes, hockey. There was a catch, however.

“I didn’t know (if he would play again) because there were a couple of issues with my parents, if they wanted me to play or didn’t want me to play,” Brown said. “They were debating on not letting me play any sports at all because they didn’t want me to re-injure it.

“They said I have a bigger future in the work force than finishing a high school career in sports.”

Brown, who intends to pursue college and study nursing, engineering or something in electrical field, kept “nagging them and nagging them” until they surrendered.

“I love sports; sports is my life, technically, right now anyway,” Brown said.

So Brown played for the West Salem soccer team in the fall, with his hockey coach — Borre — watching.

“I would take in some of the soccer games, and I think, if anything, he came back with more hunger, more drive,” Borre said. “As a freshman and a sophomore, he was the kind of guy they would look at, even the older guys, would look at as a getting-us-going guy. A guy who rarely gets outworked in any type of situation.

“I am like, ‘he will lose a little bit of that step, a little bit of the puck skill type of stuff.’ You don’t play hockey for a year without losing something. But honestly, it was like, ‘Well, we got Richie back.’ No missed step of any kind.”

Brown’s statistical contribution bears that out, as he is fourth on the team with nine goals, 14 assists for 23 points. His overall impact in terms of attitude, leadership and in the locker room is equally, or even more important, Borre said.

“He is a total hard-worker, full of energy; a very, very smart player,” Borre said of Brown. “He is a reliable penalty killer and we can put him out there in any situation and we know what we are going to get out of him.

“I would said with most of our guys, if not all of them but especially Richie, he is a total put-your-head-down, get it done and lead by example.”

So back to that smile Brown will be wearing Thursday as he glides across the ice. He’s been wearing a smile ever since he laced up skates — albeit far different ones — for the first time. Well, once he put on an orange and black practice jersey, too.

“I was maybe 6 or so when I first started (hockey). The first practice I wore all Onalaska gear because my aunt got it from a garage sale in Onalaska,” said Brown, whose family relocated from Houston, Texas, to Wset Salem when he was 5.

“So I was wearing all Onalaska stuff at a West Salem rink, which not allowed at the next practice.

“I was told I could not come to the next practice unless I had West Salem stuff. I didn’t know any different because it was my first year of hockey.”

Some hockey friends gladly helped him out during those early years, and he has been helping West Salem hockey ever since.

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Sports Editor

Jeff Brown is the Sports Editor for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at (608) 791-8403.