Every weekday from May 23-June 3, we will be looking back at the top-10 moments from the 2015-16 WCHA season. Up next on our countdown is…
Moment #1: Justin Woods Returns to the Ice
We in this sport are all bound together by our love of hockey. But, at the end of the day, it is just a game – a beautiful, wonderful game, but a game nonetheless. Now imagine, if you can, that one moment you are a player entering your prime and, the next, you are left doubting not just if you will ever skate again, but wondering if your leg – or your life – are in danger. Impossible for most of us, but that is the reality that Justin Woods faced in May 2014 – merely a month after completing his freshman season at the University of Alaska – when he was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
After missing the entire 2014-15 season while receiving successful treatment from the Seattle Children's Hospital and living at the Ronald McDonald House, Justin was declared cancer-free on Feb. 3, 2015 – the top moment of that (or any other) year. After training everyday throughout the spring and summer, Woods skated on opening night for the Nanooks, part of a remarkable and inspiring comeback for the 24-year-old.
When Woods first laced up the skates after a year's absence, he struggled to make it around the ice. Undeterred, the Fairbanks native returned to the rink day after day, determined to join his teammates and play again in front of his hometown community.
His unmatched work ethic and dedication bore fruit Sept. 26, 2015, when Woods donned the Nanooks' sweater for the annual Blue/Gold exhibition game. Prior to logging two shots on goal in his return, Woods was greeted by a heartfelt ovation – a moment that, as he told the Alaska News Miner, "means more than I could even put into words." Woods continued: "It was amazing. I felt so blessed to be out here. It was awesome. Just so much support from the fans, so much love. I couldn't have done it without them."
Eight months after defeating cancer, Woods made his regular season debut Oct. 10, 2015 against St. Cloud State. He played in 34 of Alaska's 36 games, tallying nine points (5g-4a) as a regular in the team's defensive rotation, along with the Nanooks' power-play and penalty-kill units. He capped his comeback in spectacular fashion, scoring the tie-breaking, game-winning goal in the third period of Alaska's winner-take-all regular season finale, sending the host Nanooks past rival Alaska Anchorage and into the 2016 WCHA Playoffs.
Beyond goals, assists, blocked shots or any simple statistical measure, Woods' return has been a celebration of hockey and of life. A true hometown hero, Justin has lifted many in the Fairbanks community and been an inspiration for us all.
For more on Woods' journey, please check out the following story from WCHA partner, the American Sports Network: "Alaska's Woods thriving again after surviving bone cancer"
Top-10 Moments from the 2015-16 WCHA Season
10: Century Club
9: WCHA Alumni Find Professional Success
8: 20 Minutes for the Ages
7: Desert Hockey Classic Champions
6: Defiel Stands Tall
5: WCHA is Live on ASN
4: MacNaughton Cup Comes Home, and Stays Put
3: From Fourth Seed to Broadmoor Trophy Champion
2: Bulldogs Advance to Elite Eight