Despite what you might guess, it wasn’t a punch that forced Kyle Hagel off the ice for a large chunk of the 2016-17 campaign. It was an errant puck.

At a practice in early February, the veteran forward was struck in the face with a shot, putting him on a long road to recovery.

“It was challenging,” said Hagel of dealing with the injury. “It was a significant injury and I was just starting to be ready to come back and then it got infected. So I had to spend an extra two nights in the hospital and reset everything again. So that slowed down the process a little bit. It took a couple of months and I still can’t quite chew properly yet but I’m sure that’ll come around eventually. It’s just a part of hockey.”

While an injury of that magnitude can be a difficult hurdle to overcome, if anyone was up to the task it would be Hagel. He continued to be a strong presence around the locker room, doing whatever he could to aid in the team’s red-hot push to the playoffs down the stretch.

“You have to work as hard as you possibly can at practice and after practice to let the boys know that you’re behind them,” said Hagel. “Let them know that you’re going to work and you want to go on a deep run.”

There was an additional challenge for Hagel, as more and more roster additions throughout the season made for a longer shot that he would draw into the lineup when he was healthy. But that didn’t put any damper on his climb back.

“It’s hard but you just have to bear down and do it,” said Hagel. “I feel like every hockey player has had to battle his way back into the lineup at some point. You take a look at a guy like Vincent Lecavalier last year, when he was in Philly he was healthy scratched but was working as hard as he could to get back in. Someone noticed it and LA took a chance on him and they went on a playoff run. It’s just kind of knowing that your hard work will eventually pay off. That’s what I tried to stick with down the stretch of the season.”

Hagel, one of the most revered fighters in the AHL, didn’t have much chance to rack up the fighting majors, registering his lowest penalty minute total (48) since playing just seven games in 2011-12. But he did see the impact that the AHL’s new crackdown on fighting had around him.

“I think the rule definitely had its intended effect, but I don’t agree with it,” said Hagel, referring to the league’s rule issuing suspensions for each subsequent fight past nine. “I think that fighting was on the down slope anyway, just with the way the game was trending. I just think that putting that artificial ceiling on it maybe changed the way that some of the gritty players played.

“I know that if I was healthy and playing I would have been in trouble by January. And then having to pick and choose when to get involved is possibly going to make the game less safe. Because if I’m wanting to get in there but thinking ‘Oh man I’m going to get suspended,’ guys on the other team know that they can take advantage of some of our younger or skill players.”

Hagel’s noted hard-nosed style of play begs the question: does this facial injury give him any pause about continuing as a fighter?

“No I don’t think so,” he said. “This is a big injury, but I’ve had other real significant injuries before that would have given me more of a reason, in someone else’s eyes, to slow down. I’ve had four shoulder surgeries and I’ve been able to come back from them and play the same way. I intend on coming back as hard as ever next year. The fact that I’ve got a couple metal plates in there isn’t going to change anything.”

While his heavyweight bouts steal the headlines, Hagel has become a strong fourth-line piece for the Checkers over the last three seasons in all facets of the game. The 2015-16 campaign saw him match his career high with five goals and record his highest point total (10) since 2010-11. While this season’s absence from the lineup took a hit on his numbers, his points-per-game average ended up passing the previous year, aiding in his case that he is more than a one-dimensional player.

“I think that in the games that I played, I played well,” said Hagel. “I totally believe that I can still help a team on both sides of the puck. I’m definitely going to work on continuing to improve. When you stop improving is when you start dying. I’m going to work over the summer and be even better next year.”

As has been the case during his entire tenure here, Hagel made perhaps his biggest impact off the ice, again capturing the Checkers’ Man of the Year award for his outstanding work in the community, something that he still holds near and dear to his heart.

“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” said Hagel. “You’ve got tons of spare time. Why wouldn’t you want to? Ultimately, life is so short and a playing career is even shorter. So when you’ve got a chance you have to take advantage of it, especially when it can help out some kids and communities that really need it.”

This now marks the longest stint with one team that Hagel has had in his career, as he had previously only played in the same city two years in a row once. Given the bond he has made with the fans, the team and the community, Hagel’s feelings on returning are no surprise.

“My wife and I love Charlotte,” said Hagel. “We had our daughter here, so this place is always going to be special to us. It’s been awesome. I’ve love playing here at Bojangles’ and it’s been an awesome group of guys to play with. I’d absolutely return.”