An Arduous Journey Back to Recovery
I was in pain. A lot of pain. More than I think I'd ever felt before.
Every minute leading up to the game was tough to take. Tough to accept.
I'd played through most of the season with an injured knee, and then I'd suffered a second issue as the playoffs got closer. Now, before every playoff game, it was a mental wrestling match to prepare myself for the next game.
Every nuance prior to puck drop was a reminder that my routine was different. Different because it had to be different. And what would happen when it came time to play? All I knew for sure was that it would be… different.
Warm-ups and pregame speeches went by and the final moments before faceoff ticked away, and then the puck dropped. And then all of a sudden, it wasn't different. It was very much the same. I don't know if it's adrenaline or a focus shift, but all the fear and pain became second. A distant second.
I think that's what's special about the playoffs. You hear the teams that win it had all these injuries and were hurting and they somehow found a way to win it. We were already missing Kevin Fiala and Ryan Johansen when we went on our run last season, and we still found a way to reach the place we needed to be. That's what made it so special.
And then it was all over.
Even seven months later, our whole run to the Stanley Cup Final is such a blur. There was so much going on, every game was so important. Still, I'll catch a highlight or a goal and go back to the Chicago series and remember overtime in Game 3. I watch us play Anaheim this season, and I think back to the Conference Final and how loud the arena was once we got the empty-net goals in Game 6. You don't even realize the magnitude of what you're doing in the moment. It's just too big. It's probably still too big.
As soon as our season ended last year, our goal for this year immediately became to get back to where we were, and this time, win the last two games. But compared to my teammates, my road back was going to be different.
After fighting through an injured knee for months, I had to have surgery. One kind of pain that had become my constant companion would come to an end, but another would begin. The timeline to play again was going to be six months or more. At first, it didn't seem so bad. Most of us were taking a few weeks off during the summer, so it took some time to sink in that I wasn't able to skate, let alone play hockey.
When training camp started in September, I was still having trouble walking around. It was the first week of the season that it hit me like a ton of bricks, though. My passion, my livelihood, what I feel I'm supposed to do every single day was now impossible. Everyone else was on the ice, while I was off to the side, relegated to watching.
That's the part that hurts the most. Let me be honest with you: This surgery, this recovery, the waiting, the rehab - it all sucks.
More than anything, the new routine of recovery is mentally exhausting. It's not like I was out a week or even two weeks. It's day after day, week after week, month after month of not being with the team and taking baby steps toward what was once routine and second-nature. Physically, it was frustrating, but mentally, it was even more challenging. But if I can offer some advice to anyone going through a similar process: stick with it.
There's light at the end of the tunnel. It's a really, really, really long tunnel, sure. And it's not fun going through what I did, but as it drags out, every day is just a little closer to the end of that tunnel. Just remember that you can't take what you care about the most for granted. You have to fight for your passion.
So I fought through it, and finally months after the surgery, when I first tentatively put my skate blade on the ice again it was nearly as silent around me as the end of the Cup Final. There was no fanfare; it was silent in the rink. But my mind was shouting: I was on the ice again, living my dream again, finally feeling right and at ease again. It was the same. I wasn't different anymore. OK, I was still different, but I was closer than I had been in seemingly forever. I silently resolved that this would be the first of many steps and many increasingly powerful skating strides. I'd skate alone if I had to, every day if I had to, but I would be back - and back soon - because I had to be.
November days went by of skating under the watchful eye of our strength and conditioning coach David Good. Our newest coach, Dan Muse, despite specializing with forwards, started pushing me through drills around the defensive zone. Instead of talking strategy or something like that, it was almost like he was my power skating coach - helping me to regain strength and confidence in my stride as I went. It was a strange way to start a relationship between a player and coach, but it was really helpful.
The last day of November was my first practice with the team. I was still wearing a non-contact jersey, but it finally felt like I'd entered the final stage of my road back.
As the holidays approached, it was time to talk to the doctors about a target date for my return. They said it would help to pick a date to focus on and to start visualizing myself going through my normal routine, logging my first shift, blocking my first shot and finally closing a lengthy chapter on this journey.
The six-month recovery timeline had me back around the first of the year, and I'd maintained that pace. I settled on Jan. 2 against the Vegas Golden Knights pretty quickly. While millions of other people were forming their own New Year's resolutions, this would be mine. As nerve-wracking as it still was, it was settled in my mind. I would be playing hockey again in our first game of 2018.
On the morning of Jan. 2, I tried to keep everything as close to the pattern I've followed for years. The most recent time I'd been able to go through my game-day routine felt like a lifetime ago: before Game 6 of the Final.
I was as anxious before this regular-season game as I had been before our last playoff game. But just as with the pain and anxiety of that day, my worries all went away with the puck drop.
The first period, I just didn't want to make a mistake that cost our team. The biggest thing I was trying to do was be intentional on defense. I wasn't worried about joining the rush or leading the charge offensively, I felt the fastest way to grow accustomed to the speed of the game again was taking care of our own end.
I ended up playing more than 18 minutes in that first game, which was a massive step forward that effectively completed my comeback. It'll stick with me because I finally felt able to be myself again.
In a way, each game is still an adjustment, just getting back to normal. Little things in the system change when you're away for six months, so you're playing catch-up and you're still working to read plays at the lightning speed with which they happen in the NHL. But the important thing is you're able to get your passion back. You block your first shot and you feel that sting again and you make your first good pass and it's a good feeling.
I'm back where I belong. My life's passion was taken from me, but I had the ability to fight to get it back. And I did.
That's what will make this journey a lesson I can draw from for the rest of my career. Even when presented with a challenge that seems like it will be too difficult to push through, I know I can handle it. I kept the promise I made to myself when I took the ice for the first time back. I kept my New Year's Resolution. I kept going toward the light at the end of the tunnel. I kept at it.
Whatever is ahead this spring, Smashville, I'm ready for it.