After an off-season that contained wave after wave of bad news for the NHL, events Monday finally brought in a trickle of good news.
Three key players, all out eight or more months because of concussions, are now seemingly on the road to recovery with the season set to open a week from Thursday.
In Pittsburgh, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby went full speed in another hit-free practice, proclaiming he’s nearing the point of being able to take contact again.
In St. Louis, promising 23-year-old winger David Perron, out of the game since an illegal hit by Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks last November, held a press conference to announce he was ready to rejoin the team, with his first light workouts set to come in the near future.
And in Toronto, Leafs newcomer Matt Lombardi was cleared for contact and banging bodies for the first time in nearly a calendar year.
All three may miss their team’s opening night, but this was a good-news day nonetheless.
“You’re hearing positive things come out of Pittsburgh with Crosby, Perron in St. Louis is back after 10 months,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said, noting all the slow but steady recoveries being made. “If you’re patient with these players, they’ll [often]make a recovery. You just don’t know how long it’s going to be.”
If anyone can serve as a role model for how unpredictable postconcussion symptoms can be, it’s Lombardi, who up until he was traded to Toronto last July couldn’t do much of anything in the way of physical activity.
But in the past few weeks alone, he’s made remarkable progress, getting to the point that he may now play in one of the Leafs’ final exhibition games this week – if only in a fourth-line role to start.
“I’ve definitely been thinking about this for a long time here,” Lombardi said after stepping off the ice Monday. “I’m getting excited. It’s in the back of my mind; I think about it when I go home. Obviously my first game’s going to be a big test. We’ll see how it goes.”
Lombardi, 29, added that his recovery has come even as the team has advised him to take things slowly, trying to guard against any type of relapse to the awful state he was in last fall while still with the Nashville Predators.
The worst of it came soon after a seemingly innocuous collision into the boards with Chicago Blackhawks centre David Bolland in the second game of the season last October.
He finished his shift, but not the game, and was put on injured reserve a few days later.
“When I first got hurt, I was honestly worried about missing one or two games,” Lombardi said. “I was choked about that. The next thing you know, it’s already a month gone by and I’m not better. Then sure enough, Christmas comes and I’m still not better. The days just started building up.
“When recovery’s so slow, it’s just so hard to predict. I wasn’t making progress in the gym; I was maybe making some progress with everyday life.”
Struggling daily with headaches and neck pain, Lombardi wasn’t able to play with his two kids – a two-year-old and newborn – leaving most of the childcare duties to his wife, Joannie, as doubts over whether his career was over began to creep in.
“Honestly, I couldn’t even be with my kids as much as I should have or wanted to be,” he said. “My wife put up with a lot with me for the last 11 months. She was unbelievable to be honest with you. You have your ups and downs.
“The one blessing I guess is I was able to be around my family as much as I was. Typically, you’re not there as much [during the season]and you kind of see them grow up a little bit. That was the positive I can take out of it.”
In all, Lombardi didn’t skate for more than 10 months, only getting back on the ice in mid-August. His conditioning still isn’t where he wants it, although that didn’t stop him from skating through all of an up-tempo, 2 1/2 hour practice Monday.
The headaches are gone, however, making Lombardi one of the feel-good stories of the NHL season, even before it begins.
He has also become somewhat of an advocate for the league’s new crackdown on head shots and blind-side hits, as he applauded the 10-game suspension given to Philadelphia Flyers tough guy Jody Shelley last week for his hit on Leafs teammate Darryl Boyce.
Lombardi said he understands intimately what kind of damage those blows can do and hopes the path he, Crosby and Perron have travelled the past year can be avoided more than it has in the past.
“I got elbowed, blind-sided in the 2004 playoffs,” Lombardi said. “Knocked out of the playoffs. So I’ve always thought like that, even before this injury. I haven’t changed perspectives because I’ve had [this one]for a while on those hits. I’ve been through it and I know what it’s about. You want that out of the game.”
Concussions take their toll
Days out of NHL for Matt Lombardi, Toronto Maple Leafs, since Oct. 13, 2010
For David Perron, St. Louis Blues, since Nov. 4, 2010
For Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, since Jan. 5, 2011