A scene from the extended rehabilitation, and revival, of Ryan Kesler: After practice several weeks ago, the other players departed, Kesler set up on one end of the ice with Vancouver Canucks assistant coach Glen Gulutzan.
The coach stood at the top of the left faceoff circle and fed pucks to Kesler, who was down low near the right side of the net, tipping the pucks up and in. Gulutzan passed a dozen pucks and the men switched sides and Gulutzan sent another dozen to Kesler, this time tipping the puck up and in on his backhand.
Kesler, 29, is three years removed from the 2010-11 season in which he won the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the NHL’s best defensive forward, and when he scored 41 goals to help drive the Canucks to the Stanley Cup final.
From there, it was an odyssey of injuries and surgeries: left hip, left shoulder, left wrist, foot fracture. Last season, he played only one-third of the lockout-shortened campaign. His scoring prowess, and general presence on the ice, was muted.
Kesler is back. He’s scored 15 goals in 33 games this season (prior to Friday’s game) – tied for ninth in the NHL and on pace for 37 – and, more broadly, his play has carried the Canucks this month, wresting them from a long losing skid and propelling the team to series of five consecutive wins.
Much of the credit to the rehabilitated and revived Kesler goes to Vancouver physiotherapist Rick Celebrini, whose methods are built around core strength, focused as much on injury prevention as injury recovery.
“He really chipped away at my imbalances,” Kesler said in an interview this week, ahead of home games Friday against the Edmonton Oilers and Saturday against the Boston Bruins.
“I feel good now. On and off the ice. It’s nice to get out for practice and not have to limp through it, to work on things” – tipped pucks down low – “and get better.”
Celebrini is much in demand. He was chief therapist at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and runs sports medicine for the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS. He is also a partner at the new Fortius Sport & Health centre.
Celebrini is the protégée of physiotherapist Alex McKechnie, the director of sport science with the Toronto Raptors who made his name helping Shaquille O’Neal rehabilitate chronic abdominal strains. McKechnie developed methods that allowed O’Neal to stay healthy and lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a string of three straight titles.
The work with Kesler focused on his off-season training, to move his muscles together in a way that would reduce the likelihood of injury.
“The way in he which he was doing squats, or his position during a stride, or his balance point,” Celebrini said of the various aspects the two worked on.
The other major change is the arrival in Vancouver of head coach John Tortorella, who Kesler knows from Team USA at the 2010 Olympics. Tortorella has pushed Kesler to put the emphasis of his play “below the hash marks,” meaning down in front of the net.
In the Selke-winning season, Kesler recalled scoring a lot of his goals on the rush, his wrist shot a potent weapon. Goals this season have come more like one against the Colorado Avalanche last Sunday. The Canucks were up 1-0, early in the third, and Kesler moved out from behind the net, taking a pass from Mike Santorelli, and tucked it in for what stood as the game-winning goal.
“I feel like I’m a more complete player now,” Kesler said. “I’m getting those gritty goals. I just feel like I’m coming into my own again.”
His recovery hasn’t surprised his long-time agent, Kurt Overhardt of KO Sports Inc.
“All you’ve got to do is spend five minutes with Ryan Kesler talking hockey and see the intensity in his eyes,” said Overhardt.
Kesler is once more a lock for the U.S. roster for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games – after the team fell short with a silver against Canada in Vancouver.
But to Frank Provenzano, former assistant general manager in Dallas and Washington, Kesler hasn’t quite recouped all the ground he lost. “Top two-way centre,” in the words of Provenzano, one notch below “elite two-way centre.”
Still, it’s been a long way back – with a hip injury that affects speed, power, and confidence.
“You’re talking about fractions of a second – especially if you’re talking about scoring goals,” Provenzano said.
The odyssey for Kesler, painful and long as it was, taught him about the mechanics of his body he didn’t know before.
“I know my body really well,” he said. “Before those surgeries, I don’t think I could say that. I was never forced to think about it. I would just go out and play. I still just go out and play, but my preparation is a lot different.”