The annual list of injuries revealed at season’s end is a rite of passage in the NHL, the sport’s own confessional to the punishing rigors of a physical sport. The Bruins were no exception, their litany of groin strains and shoulder sprains, broken jaws to broken bones a fitting companion to the heartbreak of defeat in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup.
Head coach Bruce Cassidy was more informative in the days following that 4-1 loss at TD Garden than he was during the thick of his team’s long playoff run, but for every admission he made about Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara or Chris Wagner and the surgeries they did or did not face this summer, he neglected to include one major candidate for the operating table.
Cassidy underwent full knee replacement surgery June 26, and said in a phone conversation this week he’s well on the road to recovery, attacking his rehab with the same energy and focus he employs on the bench. With every expectation he’ll be back on skates by training camp, Cassidy returns with renewed appreciation for the toll of a game in which coaching has provided his greatest success, but where playing was what challenged his every joint.
It was actually in a game of ball hockey (think ice hockey without the ice; a ball instead of a puck) when a then 19-year-old Cassidy initially tore the ACL in his left knee, but the series of events that followed, including a dubious decision by team doctors to rehab rather than do immediate surgery, all but assured he’d be here someday.
Someday arrived in the midst of the Bruins’ second-round playoff series against Columbus.
“All of a sudden it just sort of gave out, maybe I lost my footing or whatever,” Cassidy said. “I don’t know if it was in the gym, maybe, but it got puffy all of a sudden. They kept draining it through the Carolina series and some of the St. Louis series. I got X-rays and they said ‘you have to get it done.’
“Then you’re squeezed for time. They told me 12 weeks rehab was standard, but they’ve knocked that down already to eight weeks. I wanted to make sure I was ready for camp and that’s how it played out. You lose your summer, but I’m hoping to get some back in late August.”
Cassidy was due to have staples removed on Thursday, a precursor to getting rid of the crutches that have been his companion since post-op. But he has been up and moving all the while, having this conversation as a rinkside spectator for his two young children as they honed their skating skills. A lot of the credit goes to the help of visiting medical professionals, but just as much goes to a man who is eager to finally clear a hurdle that has popped up continuously since that first injury, when the desire by his then-team doctors to get him on the ice outweighed the more prudent route of surgery, which would have likely erased a full season. Cassidy, a first-round NHL draft pick, had a good shot of making the roster of the Chicago Blackhawks, but instead, saw his progress slowed by a knee that needed constant attention.
“I’ve had five or six knee surgeries, I know what it’s like. Once you get off [the pain meds], we start doing therapy right away, and it’s going good,” he said. “You’ve got to get your extension and flexion back as good as possible, and mine are back to almost normal. I had to have the total knee replacement — they’d gone in three times to shave cartilage stuff down, but this time there was none left.”
Not after what Cassidy put it through. Playing, swelling, resting, rehabbing — a path through a minor league/European career that never reached the heights he once imagined, but seemed to imbue him with just the right kind of experience for coaching. Along the way, he had an ACL repair on his other knee (with no long-term consequence) and, more recently, had his right hip replaced, likely a result of compensating for the left knee. Finally fixing his knee should bring welcome relief.
“I’m hoping now that those days you wake just to go to the bathroom and think, ‘Geez, it must be raining’ are gone,” he said. “I’m eager to get in there [with the Bruins trainers] and work with them. Towards the end of the season there I couldn’t even ride a bike, which is what I typically do. Us coaches, we’re getting older, well, except Pando [assistant Jay Pandolfo], he’s young, he’s an animal, but we try to get in there, before practice, get a workout.
“I couldn’t at the end. I couldn’t bend it. I like to ride, I’m a bike rider. Summer comes, the nice weather, I have a hybrid bike, I’ll go out on the path where I live for an outdoor ride, which is way better than inside. So I can’t even do that right now. Hopefully this turns the corner.”
Before long, Cassidy and his Bruins will round their way into a new season, when the memory of a Game 7 loss surely will fuel the fight to get there again. As he guides them forward, the coach will need no extra reminders of the toughness required along the way, no new lessons in understanding of what his players go through every day. He’s been there.
“If there’s a lingering injury, I understand the mental side of it,” he said. “I don’t think anybody pops out of an injury 100 percent. You don’t have full faith in that part of your body and you have to battle through it a little longer. And after that I also understand where you’ve got to pull them through it. You have to trust the people that fix you. It’s a delicate balance.”