TORONTO- When you look around the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room, there are currently more players than you can count on one hand that could share a story from their time playing at the Ricoh Coliseum.
And, Joffrey Lupul can be added to that list.
On November 27th, 2010 the Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. native made his return to hockey, after a 12-month absence from a nearly career-ending back injury, as he suited up with the Syracuse Crunch against the Leafs AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies.
“That was probably the most nervous game I had played in a long time,” said Lupul. “I hadn’t played hockey in a year so to get back and be playing was awesome.”
The last time Lupul had played previously was on Dec. 8th, 2009 with the Crunch’s parent-club Anaheim Ducks and a full season away from the game left him unsure of how he would respond from such adversity.
“It was one of those things where I went through a period (of time), I wasn’t sure if I was going to be playing,” he said. “And even coming back then, I wasn’t sure. But I was excited to get out and see how I felt and I remember having a lot of fun and one or two shifts in it was just hockey as usual.”
The 6-foot-1 forward missed 87 NHL games because of his back and at times was unsure if he was ever going to skate again.
Originally, Lupul went in for an operation on his back to relieve spasms and tingling in his right leg, but surgery didn’t go as planned and he required a second operation. But, the second time under the knife left him with an infection in his bloodstream that was far more concerning than the original injury.
“I ended up having back surgery once and it was unsuccessful and then a second operation. And then after that I got a weird infection they couldn’t really diagnose. It was three or four months when I wasn’t really moving,” said Lupul.
Lupul spent his recovery on Intravenous antibiotics to kill the infection, however by the time he was fully healed he had lost a significant amount of weight and been off the ice for nearly eight months from the time of his first surgery.
“It was a bad infection,” said an honest Lupul. “Going from being an athlete to not being able to walk around the house was frustrating.”
A year removed from hockey, it didn’t take the former first-round draft pick very long to find his comfort on the ice and by Dec. 5th, 2010, 361 days since his last NHL contest, he returned to action for the Ducks.
“By the time I played the third game with Syracuse the GM from Anaheim (Bob Murray) said, ‘you’re going back.”
Two months later, Lupul was acquired by the Leafs in a deal that, at the time, looked to be a salary dump by Anaheim.
Expectations of the former first-round pick were low when he arrived in Toronto as the prize in the deal was prospect Jake Gardiner.
The 29-year-old, however, showed he had his best hockey to still play and in his first full season with the Leafs he put up a career-high 67 points in 66 games. He was also nominated for the Bill Masteron Trophy for overcoming his back issues and returning to the NHL.
On Sunday, Lupul signed a five-year extension with the Leafs, showing that the organization believes he will be an impact-player for years to come and, more importantly, that his back problems are no longer a concern.
“I really re-dedicated myself, worked harder than I ever had before,” said Lupul about what it took to get back to the NHL. “That was one thing I said when I came back was I didn’t want (my back) to be the part that defines my career.”