Tears filled Tami Lucius' eyes.

She was in the stands of USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., last February to watch her son Chaz play his first game of the season with the U.S. National Under-18 team.

He had been sidelined with an injury, going from a wheelchair to crutches during a months-long recovery that forced him to relearn how to walk.

Over time, this comeback led Lucius back on the ice and to the sport he cherished.

And when he scored in his return to action — the first of two goals on two shots — Tami welled up.

"He never let the injury shake him," Tami said, "and he knew he was going to come back even stronger and better than before."

Lucius is the top-ranked Minnesotan in this year's NHL draft and a projected first-round pick despite getting hurt and playing only a fraction of the season.

But instead of this setback being a roadblock for the Gophers commit, the adversity was the gateway to the next chapter of Lucius' already unique journey through hockey.

Lucius committed to the Gophers four years ago at age 14, along with his then-13-year-old brother, Cruz. They are believed to be the youngest commits in program history.

Both brothers have remained on the upswing, going from Gentry Academy to the U.S. National Team Development Program, and Chaz enters Friday's draft ranked 12th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

"I'm really excited for what the future holds," Lucius said.

Always a scorer

Before he was pushing pucks around, Lucius was dribbling a ball.

He grew up in Grant, near White Bear Lake, and took up soccer and basketball after Tami played on the hoops team at Minnesota State Mankato.

But once he saw his friends involved in hockey, Lucius figured he might as well try it, too.

"I've never looked back and loved the sport ever since," he said.

Lucius was 8 years old when he started hockey, and it didn't take long for Tami to notice he had a knack for it.

The first time he played on a full sheet of ice, he scored — just like he did in soccer.

"He just has a nose for the net," Tami said.

Lucius caught the attention of Billy Hengen while Hengen was coaching against Lucius' team. Lucius was dominating the game despite facing most of the better 9-year-olds in the area.

Late in the action, Hengen remembers Lucius burying the game-winning goal and then dropping down to one knee to punch the ice — a move Hengen interpreted as pure passion.

"I was like, 'Who is this kid?' " Hengen recalled.

Shooting star

Hengen went on to coach Lucius throughout a youth career where Lucius continued to emerge as a scorer.

He kept racking up more goals than games played, including a whopping 39 in 13 in one season.

"It was every day in practice," Hengen said. "It was every day in games and if it was a bad team, it was a lot of goals. If it was a good team, it was a lot of goals."

When Lucius debuted with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, more of the same happened.

In 46 games with the Under-17 team, he had 31 goals and finished with 50 points in 46 games.

Hengen called Lucius a "McDonald's cheeseburger" for his consistency.

"It's the same product every single day," Hengen said.

What stood out was Lucius' shot.

Not only is it described as heavy and accurate, but the puck leaves his stick quickly — skills that Lucius honed.

But what complements his release is his ability to create time and space. That's what Lucius credits to instincts.

"The way that he thinks the game offensively, he goes to the right areas," said Dan Muse, the U.S. U-18 coach. "[He] has the timing to go to those areas and keep himself free. That really impressed me the more I watched him."

Timeout from hockey

Eventually, Lucius' momentum stalled.

After suffering a bone lesion from taking a puck off the left knee two years ago, Lucius underwent surgery last summer to clear out the dead bone and replace it with bone marrow from his back.

He was in a wheelchair for six weeks and then moved on to crutches while his leg was still tucked in a brace. For the first three months post-surgery, Lucius spent two hours a day Monday through Friday in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber — treatment that accelerates healing.

"If you're claustrophobic," Lucius said, "it might not be the best for you."

In November, he began to learn how to walk again. By December, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound center was skating.

"That really came back easy more than the walking part," Lucius said.

While Lucius was sad at first when he realized what he was facing, he didn't feel sorry for himself. And he didn't want anyone else's pity, almost getting mad when people were apologetic about his circumstances.

"It happened to me for a reason," said Lucius, whose knee is now pain-free. "I'm just going to become better from it."

He felt more confident in his resiliency and what he could accomplish.

"He always stayed positive," said Lucius' brother Cruz. "He never was down."

And when Chaz Lucius scored in his first game back, the first of 13 goals in 13 games with the U-18 squad, he felt relief.

He was still himself.

"The reason he's going to get drafted in the first round is he could be the best goal scorer at his age level in the draft," said Hengen, who noticed Lucius' shot actually get harder after the injury. "That's the thing that teams are coveting the most. They could have a big body in the middle of the rink that can score goals at a high clip, and everyone needs goal scorers."

Future opportunities

Plenty of hockey is in store for Lucius.

The 18-year-old starts his Gophers career later this year and is even scheduled to get on the ice in the coming days at the 2021 World Junior Showcase, a preview of the talent that could represent the United States at the next World Junior Championship.

That event is back at USA Hockey Arena, so Lucius is planning to watch the first round of the NHL draft on Friday with his dad Chuck at their house in Michigan.

"I'm really looking forward to the day," Lucius said. "It's been a long time coming but obviously a little nervous as well."

Since he was 10 years old, Lucius has been dreaming of making the NHL.

What kept him motivated is proving to himself what he's capable of achieving.

And now, he's not the only one who knows his potential.

"I can't wait to see what happens," Lucius said.