CEDAR RAPIDS - The knee is improving, his game is coming back. The work ethic and leadership skills, they never left Nate Widman.
That's why Cedar Rapids RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson named the 20-year-old defenseman team captain last week.
The players usually vote on that, but not this time. When previous captain Dylan Gareau was sent to a junior team in Canada, Carlson decided there would be no vote this time around.
"I did get input from three or four guys I thought were important guys on our team (as far as) leadership," said Carlson, whose Riders host Sioux City in a rare Wednesday night game at the Ice Arena. "But I would have chosen him anyway. It's because he personifies everything that we're about. He works hard on the ice, plays hard on the ice. He's really good in the weight room, he's dedicated. He's accountable to himself, he's not afraid to hold (other) guys accountable."
"He thinks I can get the job done, and I'm glad he trusts me," Widman said.
The Naperville, Ill., resident is the oldest RoughRider and the one who has had to overcome the most physical adversity. He tore the ACL and LCL in his right knee during a game for Brown University in November 2012 and had surgery.
As you'd expect, there have been some difficulties overcoming that major setback. His knee still wasn't feeling the best this past summer, so he called Carlson to see if he might be able to continue rehabbing while playing in Cedar Rapids again.
Widman played the 2010-11 United States Hockey League season with the Omaha Lancers and was acquired in a trade by the Riders early in the 2011-12 season.
"It was the amount of games I was able to play here, as opposed to college," Widman said. "Here, you play twice as many games, have way more practice time. I have a lot more time to get my knee better. So that was a huge reason for me coming back."
He said a large increase in his tuition payments at Brown was another. As part of the Ivy League, the school does not give out athletic scholarships, with aid provided according to financial need.
"My brother graduated (from college) last year, so my costs went way up," he said.
Widman has two goals and an assist in 25 games, but his on-ice worth always has been more about defense. He provides a physical, stay-at-home presence.
One with significant experience.
"I think the last couple of games, I've started to hit my stride," Widman said. "Because not only do you have to deal with the physical injury, where your knee doesn't feel 100 percent, but you also have to work on how you play the game and stuff. When you're out for a year, you kind of lose that edge, some of that battle that you have. I've kind of had to get used to working on that again."
"I think there's always an adjustment from having a surgery like that," Carlson said. "But I think he has adjusted great. He's playing with a real edge to his game right now. He's doing a great job killing penalties and defending."
And it's expected he'll do a great job leading a team that is looking to return to its early season form. Cedar Rapids (15-12-1, 31 points) is in sixth place in the USHL's Eastern Conference but just eight points out of first.
Widman's voice was a tad hoarse after practice Tuesday afternoon, a casualty of yelling too much, he said. Or "encouraging," as he put it.
"He's got a great leadership group with him in (assistant captains) Dylan Steman, Clark Kuster and Corey Petrash," Carlson said. "I'm excited with that group of four. I think it's a tremendous group of four."
"I think this team is definitely starting to work a lot harder," Widman said. "I've got a really good feeling about this year."
-- Carlson said Frederik Tiffels is expected to join the RoughRiders sometime Wednesday. The forward was acquired over the holiday break in a trade from the Fargo Force but has been unavailable because he was representing his native Germany in the World Junior Championships in Sweden.
This is the third USHL team this season for Tiffels, 18, who began with the Muskegon Lumberjacks before being traded to Fargo. He is a Western Michigan University commit.
-- Carlson remains in search mode for a player to fill an empty roster spot. He has made a plethora of moves since Christmas, acquiring Tiffels, forwards Mitch Maloney and Brennan Sanford and defenseman Logan Von Ruden, while sending out defenseman Paul O'Connor and forwards Gareau, Alex Funk and Casey Jerry.
The RoughRiders still have the USHL rights to Jerry and O'Connor, who are playing in the lower-level North American Hockey League, and Carlson stressed the pair remain important parts of the club's future. Von Ruden has not played for Cedar Rapids, yet, because of a shoulder injury.
"We'll see what happens," Carlson said. "We like the players that we have here. Whoever we bring in, (they're going to) have to work every single day, have a passion for the game, a love for the game. Show some excitement for what we're doing here and appreciate being here in Cedar Rapids and The Stable and all those kinds of things. If we find that person today, we'll add them. If it takes us a week, it takes us a week."
-- The RoughRiders announced Tuesday they have partnered with the Salvation Army for a promotion called the "Warm Hearts for Warm Hands Mitten Toss."
Fans attending Friday night's home game against Chicago are encouraged to bring new pairs of mittens and gloves to throw on the ice following the Riders' first goal. The Salvation Army will collect the mittens and gloves and distribute them to local residents in need.
Fans will receive two free chuck-a-pucks in exchange for their donation.