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Manny Malhotra #27 of the Vancouver Canucks warms up prior to playing against the Boston Bruins. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) (Harry How/2011 Getty Images)
Manny Malhotra #27 of the Vancouver Canucks warms up prior to playing against the Boston Bruins. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) (Harry How/2011 Getty Images)

Roy MacGregor

Malhotra makes presence felt in long-awaited return Add to ...

They began chanting his name even before the teams came out for the opening faceoff.

Unusual, in that he had been a non-factor in Game 1, a non-factor against San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final, a non-factor against Nashville Predators in Round 2, a non-factor against the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1 - and had not, in fact, played a single game for the Vancouver Canucks since March 16, nearly three months earlier.

But just listen to them yell:




In all the ink spilled and tape recorders filled since this Stanley Cup final began, no name had taken up so much space as that of Manny Malhotra, a 31-year-old third-line centre for the Vancouver Canucks whose 11 goals in the regular season were hardly going to guarantee his team the Stanley Cup it has been chasing for 40 years.

Back in March, however, Malhotra had suffered an eye injury when he was struck by a deflected puck during a game against the Colorado Avalanche, an injury so severe that it was initially believed his eye - and, less important, his hockey career - might be lost.

Malhotra underwent emergency surgery to save the eye, and the surgery proved successful. In a strange twist, most news of his progress came from the Tweets of his brother-in-law, Canadian basketball superstar Steve Nash. (Malhotra is married to Nash's sister, Joan.)

Following surgery, there were multiple small procedures that continue, with Malhotra recently returning to the ice to skate and then, last week, being cleared by doctors to first practise and, over the past few days, to play should the Canucks think his services necessary.

It seemed an impossibility. Not only was the memory of the sickening accident vivid in fans' memory, but each day the cameras would capture him at the rink saying that he was still "day to day," the words far less attention-grabbing than the left side of his face, which at times looked like melted wax, the injured eye drooping, only partially open and red.

"He can see," a member of the Canucks staff insisted. Fuzzy, blurry, but each day, apparently, improving slightly.

When Malhotra was drafted by the New York Rangers seventh overall back in 1998, they projected he would turn into another Adam Graves. It never happened.

Over the years, however, as he drifted from team to team, he became an excellent face-off centre and a fine checker. Equally important, the native of Brampton, Ont., is one of those players beloved by his teammates, his coaches and the media. Friendly and highly articulate - both parents hold doctorates, his proudest award was being named Scholastic Player of the Year while in junior - he has become a mentor to the younger players on the team, his leadership treasured as much as that of team captain Henrik Sedin and goaltender Roberto Luongo.

"Stuff that you guys don't see in the locker room and behind the scenes," Luongo said.

"In the locker room," added Daniel Sedin, "you can't replace him."

For these reasons, the team insisted he be kept around during the playoff run, always in the dressing room, part of every team meeting they had. But by being there, he was noticed more, and every day the questions were the same: when will he be coming back?

"I don't want this to this to be a sideshow," he had said Friday. "This is not me wanting to have a sentimental shift out there."

Saturday morning, however, when it became apparent he might well be playing, he was humbled by the mere thought. "For me," he said, "it would be a very touching moment."

It certainly was. They cheered when he came out on the ice, the last player out. They cheered during the anthem. They cheered when he took his first shift 1 minute 48 seconds into the opening period and they cheered when he immediately won his first faceoff.




He heard all the cheers. When he skated out for the first time, it was, he said, "kind of sensory overload" - the crowd, the towels, the noise.

"Probably the most nervous I've been in my entire career," he said.

Hockey lore is filled with inspirational stories, many more dramatic than this one: Mario Lemieux and Saku Koivu coming back from cancer; Gordie Howe scoring a playoff goal at 52; Bobby Orr starring in the '76 Canada Cup; Bobby Baun playing on a broken leg and scoring in overtime during the 1964 Stanley Cup final .

This, however, is a nice story of a nice man who may, before his career is truly over, contribute enormously to the argument that all hockey players, no matter what the level, no matter what the fame, need to wear eye protection.

Malhotra played little in Game 2, as should have been the case, but early in the second period it was No. 27, Manny Malhotra, who came back in time to clear Boston's Mark Recchi from in front of the net just as Recchi swung at a loose puck that, had he not been checked, might well have ended up in the Vancouver net for a 2-1 Boston lead, a lead that would have gone to 3-1 and might have blocked Vancouver's third-period comeback to tie the match and send it into overtime, where Vancouver's Alex Burrows won the game only 11 seconds later.

They chanted again in the third period:



He had taken only 13 shifts for 7:26 of ice time.

And he may well have prevented a third Boston goal.

As the sign in the crowd said: "Welcome back, Manny."

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