BENSENVILLE, Ill. (AP) – Lizzie Keady knew all about the regular hazards of hockey, from errant sticks to speeding pucks. Since she was a 9-year-old beating the boys, she had never been seriously hurt while playing her dangerous sport with uncommon grace.

And then Keady skated into the door at her team bench during a college playoff game last March, leaving her with broken ribs, a lacerated spleen, bruised kidneys and a collapsed lung.

She didn’t see that one coming – but anyone who knew Keady could have predicted the way she responded.

The promising Princeton sophomore improbably kept playing in that game against Yale, right up until her trip to the emergency room. The resulting hospital stay knocked her out of the United States’ lineup for the world championships after she had surprised many observers by earning a roster spot.

But after a rehabilitation stint quicker than one of her end-to-end rushes, Keady was back on the ice last summer, fighting to reclaim a place on the team that plans to challenge Canada for the gold medal in Turin.

“The timing was the toughest part, because I had set a goal that I might not be able to reach because of everything,” Keady said following a U.S. practice at a rink in suburban Chicago before an exhibition game against Canada. “It’s really nice when hard work meets opportunity.”

The bright-eyed 20-year-old from Braintree, Mass., is among the next generation of American forwards fighting to make an impression on coach Ben Smith. Those youngsters have gained valuable international experience in recent months since Smith made the controversial decision to cut veteran forwards Cammi Granato and Shelley Looney.

The U.S. team is traveling through North America and Europe before the Olympics, with Keady and fellow young guns Kelly Stephens and Sarah Parsons getting better with every stop. Keady has a strong chance to make the roster for Smith, who has played Keady on a line with Stephens and veteran Jenny Potter in recent games.

“She’s been through a lot to get here, and it’s great to see that dedication,” Smith said.

Keady seems generally unimpressed by her ascendance and remarkably swift recovery, but others aren’t so nonchalant.

“The injury was a real big disappointment, but I was amazed at how hard she worked and how quickly she got back into shape,” said her mother, Mary, who knows something about trauma from her career as an emergency room nurse.

“When she went back in the game after getting hurt, we thought it wasn’t that bad. With what we know now, that was pretty amazing. I’m just thrilled for her. She’s worked so hard for everything.”

After playing on the under-22 team, Keady excelled at a national camp in Boston in December 2004, where Smith called her one of the Americans’ top six forwards. He chose her for the Four Nations Cup, where she had two goals and an assist in a promising warmup for the world championships.

Keady also was having a strong season at Princeton later in the winter – but everything changed with that freak collision near the bench.

Another player bumped into Keady from behind before she hit the door. She was down for a moment, but insisted on staying in the game. Before long, she was in too much pain to concentrate long enough to win faceoffs.

“So I started playing wing, and it felt like I was having a heart attack,” Keady said. “You never want to think it’s that bad when it’s you (injured), and it was a big playoff game.”

She didn’t play in overtime, and went straight to the emergency room after the game. She was in the hospital for five days with a chest tube for her collapsed lung, and doctors monitored her recovery for two months – though Keady refused to wait the 10 weeks they requested before returning to cardiovascular workouts and weightlifting.

Her parents were heartbroken when she missed the world championships – but Keady quietly set her sights on the next U.S. camp to pick the team for the pre-Olympic tour.

“I was talking to her on the phone and I said, The good thing, Lizzie, is that this isn’t like a knee or a shoulder (injury),”‘ Smith said. “When you’re better, you’re better. She lost a lot of weight, and she lost some muscle, but she came back in with that same dedication again.”

Keady is a psychology major at Princeton, but she’s taking time off to follow her Olympic dream. The U.S. announces its final roster cuts on Dec. 27, and Keady will be among a handful of players crossing their fingers: She hopes she’s forced to miss a full year of college.

I think it’s awesome,” she said. “I get a whole year to basically eat, sleep and play hockey. It’s legitimately a dream come true. This is the coolest thing.”

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