For Merritt’s Russell Sanderson, it’s like a dream come true.

The personable, young 20-year-old resident of the Nicola Valley has earned a scholarship to attend school and play hockey at the University of Central Oklahoma starting in September of this year.

Quite an accomplishment given that Sanderson has spent almost all of this past season — his final one in junior hockey — on the sidelines recovering from extensive surgery to his hip.

The original injury was a serious one, especially given that Sanderson is a goalie and hip flexibility and mobility are vital to the position.

“I tore my labrum, as well as did some cartilage damage,” Sanderson said, “as well as damaged the bony area of my hip joint. They had to actually shave my hip bones down, put in some artificial cartilage, and re-attach the labrum.”

Sanderson’s surgery took place in July of last year, and he has been rehabilitating ever since. It’s only been the last month or so that he’s been feeling his old self again.

“The rehabbing was a pretty extensive process,” Sanderson said. “I was on crutches for three months. Things are progressing well now. I’m working on getting my muscle strength back and my full range of motion. I’m feeling better on the ice every day.”

Sanderson said a lot of the recovery process is mental.

“Initially, I was pretty down in the dumps about the surgery. It wasn’t the way I wanted to finish off my final year of junior eligibility.”

Things took a marked turn for the better in January of this year when Sanderson received a phone call from Lee Stone, his former Junior B coach in Campbell River.

“He told me that Central Oklahoma had been asking about me. Their head coach, Craig McAlister, had watched me play last year with the [Campbell River] Storm and liked what he had seen.

“One thing led to another and pretty soon they offered me a scholarship,” Sanderson said. “It was pretty surreal to go from one minute not knowing what I’m going to do to hopefully having the next four years of my life planned for me.”

Sanderson’s long road to a hockey scholarship has been an interesting and at times difficult one. Born in Abbotsford, he got his start there on skates playing Initiation hockey. He was a goalie right from the beginning.

“I’ve always loved the position,” he said. “I like the pressure and the responsibility.”

His family moved to Squamish when Sanderson was in Grade 2, and that’s where he played house and rep hockey at the novice, atom and peewee levels.

In 2007, the Sandersons moved again, to Merritt, just in time for Russell to begin playing bantam rep. His younger brother, Zack, was a forward for the peewee rep squad.

Sanderson played three memorable seasons of Merritt minor hockey, capped off by his team’s fifth-place finish at the provincial Tier 3 midget championships in Victoria-Esquimalt in the spring of 2010.midget_web

Looking to move up in his hockey career, Sanderson committed to play for the Thompson Blazers major midget team for the 2010-11 season. The Merritt Secondary School student commuted back and forth to the Blazers’ home rink in Chase with teammate River Lafferty, also from the Nicola Valley.

“It was a tough year,” Sanderson said. “Travelling as many as five times a week up and down the Coquihalla for practices and games.”

In his final year of midget eligibility, Sanderson made the jump to the Chase Heat of the Kootenay Junior International Hockey (KIJHL). He billeted in Chase to cut down on the commuting.

Sanderson conceded that both the Chase teams he played for were not very strong ­— losing far more than they won.

“Both years, I faced anywhere from 55 to 60 shots a game. I enjoyed it though. I think that the number of shots really helped in my development as a goalie.”

In September of 2012, Sanderson attended the training camp of his hometown Merritt Centennials and surprised even himself when he won the backup goalie position behind returning starter Tyler Steel.

In 11 starts for the Centennials during the BCHL’s 2012-13 campaign, Sanderson recorded a solid .916 SV% and 2.28 GAA.

Sanderson’s sophomore season with the Cents was a memorable one — for all the wrong reasons. Set to take the reins or at least share the work load with rookie Devin Kero, Sanderson suffered a series of injuries and ailments that kept him out of the lineup for long periods of time.

“I broke my arm early in the fall, managed to get back for one week, then got the mumps,” Sanderson said. “Then my hip and groin issues started up.”

Leading up to the BCHL trade deadline on January 10, 2014, Sanderson had managed to play only eight games in a Centennials’ uniform. In order to take some pressure off the Merritt team and himself, he requested a trade.

Sanderson wound up being acquired by the Campbell River Storm of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, the same team that his  brother, Zack, was playing for in his rookie season of Junior B hockey.

“I really liked it there. Everything was run so well, just like a Junior A program,” he said.

Sanderson played five regular-season games with the Storm, followed by seven playoff games. It was his eye-popping post-season performances that started turning a few heads. In the seven games, Sanderson recorded two shutouts, a save percentage of .945 and a sizzling GAA of just 1.63.

It was that tremendously positive experience in Campbell River one year ago that has led Sanderson to return to the same Vancouver Island community this spring to train with the Storm, assist coach Stone with his team’s playoff run, and prepare for the college game south of the border beginning in September.

“I’m helping out with coaching right now, and I’ll be doing some scouting,” Sanderson said. “There’s ice here for all but one month of the summer, so I’ll be able to get lots of practice time. The club even has its own gym where I can work out.”

Sanderson anticipates that he’ll leave for UCO in mid to late August. He’ll be joining an excellent hockey program that is enjoying a lot of success at the Division 1 level of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.

The second-seeded Bronchos are currently competing in the ACHA national championships in Strongsville, Ohio.

Central Oklahoma defeated 15th-ranked Niagara University 4-1 on Friday in the round of 16, and followed that up with a 5-3 quarterfinal victory over 10th-ranked Iowa State Sunday afternoon.

Monday night, the Bronchos were scheduled to play third-ranked Minot State in one semifinal, while top-ranked Arizona State was slated to take on fifth-ranked Stony Brook in the other semifinal.

The UCO Bronchos have had an excellent 2014-15 season leading up to the national championships. Their regular season record was 28-5-0-1. At home, they were an impressive 18-1-0-1.

In February, UCO won the 38th Crabpot tournament, defeating the host Navy Academy 6-1 in the final.

The Bronchos’ roster this season lists no fewer than 15 Canadian players with junior experience, including 10 from British Columbia. There is also one player from Switzerland and two from Sweden.

Sanderson knows a couple of the players on this season’s team.

Curtis Johnson was the captain in Chase when I played there,” he said, “and Tyler Leblanc is from Squamish. He’s a couple of years older than me, but I used to watch him play.

Sanderson is currently checking out courses of study at UCO, which is located in the community of Edmon and has a student population of 17,000.

In 2009, UCO was ranked in the top 10-percent of America’s Best Colleges by Forbes magazine. It has highly-rated physics and computer science departments.

“I’m thinking of studying to be a French teacher,” said Sanderson, who attended the immersion programs in Squamish and at Merritt Secondary School.

“Russell has the attributes that I look for in a goalie: character, good work ethic, thrives under pressure and can handle adversity,” head coach McAllister of the Bronchos said. “He has shown that he is willing to battle anything that gets in his way to be successful.”

Storm coach Stone said, “I have know Russell for several years, dating back to when he first stepped into junior hockey. UCO could not have recruited a more high-character player for their program. To see Russell battle through hip surgery at the age of 20, to not only walk and skate leisurely again, but compete at a collegiate level shows that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve your dreams.”

As for Sanderson, he is grateful for the chance to continue his hockey career at UCO.

“It is an honour and a privilege to commit to play for Coach McAllister and such a great hockey program, as well as have the opportunity to pursue my post-secondary education. I couldn’t be happier.”