Joffrey Lupul’s teammates jokingly call it “his La-Z-Boy.”
But what it really is is a constant reminder of what makes the Toronto Maple Leafs winger different, as he’s the only player in the team’s dressing room with the big, blue foam pad to sit on in his stall after every practice and game.
It’s there because of a nearly career-ending back injury that still is always lingering, never enough to keep him from playing, but always enough that Lupul feels lucky to be on the ice.
That he is able to play at all, after missing 87 games the past two seasons, is now his motivation to be a key player for the Leafs this season.
“I feel very healthy, in good shape and extremely confident,” Lupul said, rhyming off the list of factors in his corner.
The particulars of Lupul’s recent injury history, however, outline just how much of an ordeal he’s been through the past two years.
What began with back spasms and a mysterious numbness in his right leg in the fall of 2009 turned into a need for surgery on the nerves in his spine.
When that didn’t solve the problem, he had the surgery again, only this time he developed a blood infection in the area and began experiencing inexplicable pain.
The infection meant six weeks on antibiotics with an intravenous line, and that meant he couldn’t lift a finger, let alone work out in a gym.
When infection returned, there was another two months on an IV, a period of inactivity that eventually stretched to nearly seven months.
The usually athletic Lupul withered away, losing nearly 40 pounds.
His first game back in the NHL came Dec. 5 after 12 months out of hockey. Two months later, the Anaheim Ducks traded him to Toronto, where he now says he was “rejuvenated” after being buried on the depth chart in Southern California.
His teammates, meanwhile, have noticed a change in the man they call “Loops” in training camp, as he appears bigger, stronger and intent on adding a needed physical presence to Toronto’s projected top line with Tim Connolly and Phil Kessel.
“He’s just built,” Colby Armstrong said. “And he knows how to use his body on the ice. He’s strong on the puck, a good skater and obviously can put the puck in the net.”
While the injury prevents Lupul from doing some workouts such as heavy squats – mainly for precautionary reasons – he took up Pilates and yoga this summer at his off-season home near Anaheim.
“I don’t anticipate any more problems, but anything you can do to prolong the career is worth it,” he said.
That type of commitment to detail is new, but so, too, are a lot of things for Lupul.
Set to celebrate his 28th birthday on Friday, when the Leafs play at home to Buffalo, he said Wednesday his health scare has him appreciating the opportunity he has with the Leafs.
As for his unique seat in the dressing room, he credits that to a tip from Todd Bertuzzi – one of the NHL’s grizzled veterans with a history of his own back issues.
“I get a hard time about it every day,” Lupul said, chuckling. “It’s not because it’s softer. It just puts you up another four inches [off the bench] so you’re not sitting hunched over.”
It’s also not a sign of anything that will hold him back.
“Last year, when I came back, I was wondering ‘how am I going to feel today?’ ” Lupul said. “I wasn’t sure; it was in the back of my mind. Right now, I have my [workouts]I do in the morning, I sit on this stupid pad – and that’s it.”