Craig Lupul watched the NHL’s all-star game draft on Thursday in a little bit of awe.
He couldn’t believe that was his son, looking healthy, happy and getting booed by the Ottawa crowd as he helped Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara fill out a roster of superstars.
Not when only a year and half ago, Joffrey Lupul couldn’t walk.
Not when his career had been in jeopardy, as the result of two surgeries on his spine and two subsequent infections – both of which contributed to the then-26-year-old losing 40 pounds and missing an entire year of hockey.
Only his immediate family and close friends realize just how long the road from there to here, with Lupul an NHL all-star for the first time after a dream first half of the 2011-12 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been.
“There were months after the surgery where he was bedridden,” his father said quietly over the phone from Edmonton. “The infection knocked him down. He was having so many problems with pain in his back, he would just lay in bed with his feet up. We’re talking five or six months after the surgery.
“It came down to, if the last infection didn’t get healed, he would have needed a third surgery. Which would have put him out at least another year, if not forever. We went through as a family a six-month period where his playing hockey again was not even a consideration. We were concerned about his health and his life.”
Craig Lupul paused on the phone, as he thought about how to put into words what this weekend meant after what his son has been through.
“When I see him go from 170 pounds to 210, and come this far, and get picked for an all-star game, I can only describe it as surreal,” he said. “I can’t really even believe it.”
Few at the NHL all-star gala this weekend bring a back story as unique and heartwarming as Joffrey Lupul’s.
Beyond the serious injury and miraculous recovery and beyond the fact he is tied for fifth in NHL scoring, he had an atypical upbringing.
His parents, Craig and Carmen, were only 19 and university students when he was born just outside Edmonton in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.
The young family lived on student loans and Craig’s side job painting houses for an uncle, earning enough to get by and, in the end, for him to go through law school with a toddler waiting at home.
Their son, meanwhile, was named after an author Craig had been reading in an English 210 class: Middle Ages poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
His professor, an Englishman, had insisted the pronunciation of the name was much more Joffrey than Jeffrey, something that stuck with the to-be teenage father.
Despite those literary ties, this Joffrey was always a hockey player. Craig Lupul remembers their first winter with a backyard rink (age 3), sawing off the top of adult-sized sticks and the arrival of skates from the grandparents many years in the fall.
“He wasn’t wearing the latest and greatest by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
He also remembers watching his son persevere, as Joffrey Lupul wasn’t drafted into the WHL as a bantam – he only stood 5 foot 4 at 14 – and wasn’t even always the best player on his minor hockey teams.
But he grew, and he became a star with the Medicine Hat Tigers, eventually scoring 106 points in his draft year and going seventh overall in 2002 to the Anaheim Ducks.
From there, as an NHLer, it’s been a somewhat bumpy road. Only 28, Lupul has already been traded four times, with his move to Toronto last February coming while he was still on the mend.
No one in the family expected him to suddenly have this kind of success, with a career year all but assured, given he already has 52 points – one shy of his previous high – with 33 games to play.
They just hoped, more than anything, he would be able to play again.
“I know they’re really proud I’m here,” Lupul said of his family, including his mother, grandmother and two brothers who are in Ottawa for the weekend. “I, obviously, couldn’t be here without them.”
“I told him, you’ve got to be so proud of yourself. How hard you worked to recover,” Craig Lupul said. “Now, to get this recognition, it’s really been incredible. I would have never, ever in a million years thought he would have this kind of a turnaround. It’s hard to describe.
“We are just so happy he’s playing. When he came back, I just said no more father-son coaching. Every time I turn on the TV and he’s playing, I’ll be happy. I don’t care about goals and assists any more.”
With a report from David Shoalts in Ottawa