31 Thoughts: What really happened with Connor McDavid’s knee rehab


• McDavid doc to reveal extent of injury, rehab
• Will Maple Leafs move a blueliner?
• Backes not retiring

Unless he’s celebrating a huge goal, Connor McDavid doesn’t show emotion. True to form, when he suffered a serious knee injury on the final night of the 2018–19 season, he didn’t reveal his anguish until he was away from prying eyes.

“I thought my leg was in two pieces,” he says in the trailer for Whatever It Takes, a documentary about his recovery that will air Friday (after the skills competition) and Saturday (before the All-Star Game) on SportsMid. “I held it together until we got through the tunnel. I was a mess.”

Throughout the summer, there were rumours the injury was much worse than we understood. When reports got out that McDavid was searching for a second opinion, further spigots of information were squeezed dry. (He would receive three different opinions, with Oilers owner Daryl Katz making sure easy travel would never be an issue.)

Now McDavid will reveal the full story of his injury and recovery.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want it to be a hero piece,’” agent Jeff Jackson said on Tuesday. “But if it shows other athletes that you don’t have to miss a full season, that you can attempt something that isn’t normal… he was good with that.”

The damage is described in the voiceover by Dr. Anthony Mascia, Radiologist and Director of MRI at Humber River Hospital: “The (Posterior Cruciate Ligament) is cut right in half. The back of the knee joint, there’s a lining; it’s completely torn…. Not only a bone bruise, but a crack in the front of his tibia.”

Jackson said McDavid was told that surgery meant he’d miss a season. Also, “there was the risk of the screws and the grafts changing the way he performed.”

So the decision was made to see if an aggressive rehab routine could make a difference. Since McDavid knew he’d miss one year after an operation, what was the harm in trying something different for a few months in the hope for a better outcome?

“Under the expert guidance of Dr. Mark Lindsay, we built our own protocol and tinkered with it along the way,” Jackson said. “Mark actually referred to it as a rehab ‘process’ because it was ever-changing as Connor progressed.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

The trailer reveals some of the key figures in this groundbreaking endeavour. Gary Roberts is shown, as is Lindsay, a highly sought-after chiropractor and soft-tissue specialist, and longtime gymnastics coach Lawson Hamer. Tracy Wilson, who won Canada’s first-ever Olympic medal in ice dancing (a bronze with Rob McCall in 1988), is not shown, but was part of the team.

“To go a non-surgical route with that severe of an injury, I’ve never done that before,” Lindsay says. Lindsay all but lived with McDavid during this process.

“I looked at my calendar, and said, ‘Training camp?’ He said, ‘Yup,’” Hamer adds. “OK, we’ve got work to do.”

McDavid went for imaging every two or three weeks. He chose Humber River Hospital for those appointments because that facility has one of the newer machines and Dr. Mascia is highly regarded — with Bianca Andreescu and Andy Murray among those seeking his expertise.

It was a summer-long, arduous process, including many eight-to-10 hour days. I haven’t seen the full piece yet, but included in it is a skate he takes with his father, Brian. That was, apparently, a huge confidence boost for Connor.

How did the process stay so quiet? As mentioned, when there was a late-April leak about second opinions, everyone around him worked harder to cut the flow of information. A lot of hockey media was working on their tan lines. In his few public appearances, McDavid didn’t offer much.

And he made it to training camp on time.

Adrian Vilaca, head strength and conditioning coach for Roberts’ high-performance team, went to Edmonton for that month. Nobody knew if he’d be back for Game 1 or Game 10 of the regular season, but McDavid beat all expectations, returning at the end of exhibition play.

“No one has done what Connor has done,” Roberts said.

The closest comparison would probably be Steve Yzerman, who won a gold medal and a Stanley Cup on one leg in 2002. Everyone from Sean Avery to Pavel Datsyuk raved about what the Red Wings’ captain accomplished at that time, and Hockey Night in Canada later did a documentary on his injury, the surgery and the recovery.

McDavid hasn’t missed a game, leads the NHL in scoring and is second in overall minutes among forwards (behind Leon Draisaitl) and even-strength minutes among forwards (behind Patrick Kane). Hugely impressive performance, and proof — once again — that true toughness is measured by how much you can grind.

Looking forward to watching this.

31 THOUGHTS

1. As the all-star break begins and teams go through their scouting meetings, a few teams with interesting possibilities are waiting on upcoming performance to decide their path. Included in that group are Chicago, Minnesota, Montreal and the Rangers (back-to-back with Detroit when they return). Those teams will test the value of their players, but hold off on final decisions until closer to the deadline — unless they become convinced they’re out. Pittsburgh continues its pursuit of Jason Zucker, but the Wild aren’t yet ready to concede anything. Nothing is happening with the Blackhawks as long as they’re still in the race, but if they fall out, would Joel Quenneville ask to pitch ageless physical specimen Duncan Keith on the virtues of southeast Florida?

2. Chris Johnston usually writes his Beyond Headlines column on Sundays, but had the sniffles last weekend and couldn’t do it. He spent a long time talking to Robin Lehner after the morning skate in Toronto on Saturday, and the information was very good. I didn’t want it to go unreported, so Chris summarized it for me. Lehner will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and while he understands how his off-ice issues led him to this point, he believes it’s time for him “to be paid fairly, like any player would want to be.”

Chris asked specifically if a long-term deal is the biggest priority; Lehner responded he couldn’t say for sure, noting that stability would be good for his family, but that there are other factors to consider. Reading between the lines, we took that to mean he doesn’t necessarily want to take a lower AAV to get term.

3. Lehner was excellent for the Islanders last year and has been great for the Blackhawks this year. He pointed to his 2016-17 season (seventh in save percentage) as evidence that — until being derailed by addiction, anxiety and bipolar disorder — there is consistent above-average performance there. He rejects the notion signing goalies to longer-term contracts is any more risky than it is for skaters, saying, “Many of those deals don’t work out either.” This led into another conversation about how we are still looking for proper methods of evaluating goalies. He said performance is more tied to overall team play than most people acknowledge — that John Gibson didn’t all of a sudden get bad this season. Lehner did say, however, that NHL goalies should stop every clear-eye shot they face. “We get paid enough to do that.”

4. There’s been a lot of talk about Kasperi Kapanen, but the sense around the NHL is the only way Toronto moves him now is in a big deal. Something that makes them significantly better.

5. I also think the Maple Leafs have been asked about their UFA-to-be defenders — Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci and Jake Muzzin. I don’t see Toronto falling out of the race, so the only way anything happens here is if they are convinced one of the younger defencemen needs a permanent big-minutes spot. (The three all play 20 minutes per night.) No confirmation from either side, but it sounds like there is engagement in contract conversations with Muzzin. There’s no debate about his value and unique skillset on this roster. Term is as big as the salary, as Muzzin will be 31 next month.

6. As Mark Spector reported last week, Edmonton is trying to close an extension with Zack Kassian. There’s common ground, but nothing is done until it is done. The Oilers will also investigate the possibility of extending Josh Archibald, Joakim Nygard and Riley Sheahan. These aren’t huge deals, but they’ve played roles in stabilizing their bottom six, which was caved-in last season. There are a few teams who like Archibald. I didn’t realize his father, Jim, played with Dave Tippett at NCAA North Dakota and was involved in a HUGE brawl with Wisconsin in January 1982.

7. MSG’s Steve Cangialosi reported last Saturday that Travis Zajac told him, “I’ve thought about the situation a lot. (New Jersey) is where I want to be.”

Reached out to Kurt Overhardt, who represents Zajac. He said, “We were presented with something, but Travis was not willing to waive at this time. We’ll see about the future after the season.”

He’s got one more year at $5.75 million, and a no-trade clause. Overhardt would not discuss the scenario, but I’d bet all of our mortgages it was the Islanders.

8. After waiving David Backes, the Bruins gave him the extended break to take some time before the next step. Neither the organization nor his agent, Wade Arnott, would comment further, but there’s one rumour that can be put to rest — I’m told Backes will not be retiring. (He’s got one more year at $4 million in cash.) There are a few different ways this can go. Just wanted to wish the best to Backes, who has handled many difficult questions over the last year with a lot of patience.

9. If there’s one team that really needs the break, it’s Winnipeg. It’s way too soon to write off the Jets, who head into Wednesday’s game in Columbus just three points out and will have a game in hand on Vegas. But it’s been a choppy ride. I thought Paul Maurice created the right attitude in camp: “We’ve been dealt a difficult hand, but we’re not going to mope about it. This is who we are and we’re going to make the best of it.”

Led by Connor Hellebuyck, who was playing at an MVP level, the Jets overachieved in the first half of the season. They competed hard, determined to prove everyone wrong while Hellebuyck held the fort. The difficulty is that’s a hard grind for 82 games.

Since January 1, Winnipeg is being outscored 30-13 at five-on-five, where (according to Natural Stat Trick) they are scoring on just 15 per cent of their high-danger shots per game. In their last three, they’ve given up eight first-period goals. With Dustin Byfuglien’s $7.6-million cap hit in limbo, they can’t do much. This is who they are, and the break can’t hurt. If I were Hellebuyck, I’d tell Jordan Binnington at all-star, “Sorry, I’ve got a hangnail. Besides, this crowd is here to see you.”

10. One NHL amateur scout sent some interesting information about the CHL top prospects’ game, held last week in Hamilton. At the 2017 event, the average forward was six-foot-one-and-a-half, 192 pounds. Now the average forward is five-foot-11, 182 pounds. For defencemen, we’ve gone from six-foot-two-and-a-half, 198 pounds, to six-feet-and-a-half-inch, 184 pounds. Meanwhile, the goalies are basically the same: six-foot-three, 197 pounds. Think about it: the goalies are three inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than everyone else. That’s good for the smaller, skilled player — but it’s also good for the skilled power player.

Chris Pronger joined Hockey Central on Tuesday with Jeff Marek, Justin Bourne and Anthony Stewart. Bourne asked him about changes in the game since Pronger stopped playing in 2012.

“When I was young, it was like World War III out there,” the Hall of Famer replied. “It’s not like that anymore. Yeah, there’s hard hits, but you rarely see guys taking runs at each other or a lot of animosity between two teams. When you look at the league now, the players who have a little jam to their game get a lot of space.”

It used to be that you chased size because everyone had it. Now you chase “skilled size” because almost no one has it. It’s made that type of player even more valuable.

11. I understood why Corey Perry didn’t get suspended for his sneaky shot to Alex Stalock’s head:

It didn’t rise to what the NHL considers banishment level. But watching Stalock’s (deservedly) angry reaction, and knowing it was one game after Perry returned from a five-game ban — I thought it was embarrassing. I watched it and wished there was “a probation period,” where a player returning from suspension had a lower threshold for punishment.

12. The NHL tried to make the Justin Bieber/Jordan Binnington showdown part of All-Star Weekend. Just didn’t work at this time. Apparently, it is going to happen, though.

13. The league sent a memo to its officials about the “Michigan”/“Svechnikov” lacrosse-style goal reminding officials that any goal scorer must have his stick below shoulder level when possessing the puck and below the crossbar when putting it home. Otherwise, the stick is in an illegal position.

14. Like Peter DeBoer before him, Gerard Gallant will be unemployed only as long as he wishes to be.

15. Vegas is 1-1-1 under DeBoer. You always look to see how quickly a new coach can change anything, but there is one area where we’ve seen an immediate difference. That is shift length, which DeBoer said he’d tackle right away. You can’t call him a liar. (A big thank you to Ken Boehlke of SinBin.vegas for his help with the following data.) As of Tuesday, the average shift length of all players in the NHL was 45.5 seconds — 47.1 for defencemen and 44.6 for forwards. Under Gallant, Golden Knights forwards tied with Washington’s for longest shifts in the league (49.1 seconds). Under DeBoer, San Jose’s 43.8 was 22nd. Since he took over in Nevada, the Knights are down 4.1 seconds per forward and 1.8 seconds per blueliner.

16. I didn’t grasp the significance at the time, but the seeds for that coaching change were sown when the Golden Knights pulled an abrupt shift from a man-to-man defensive coverage to zone. That was a sharp turn, and it happened right before a 4–3 overtime win in Nashville on Nov. 27. There was clearly concern with where team defence was headed, and DeBoer will continue to address it. I’m not sure if San Jose and Vegas are capable of doing more business, but, for reference sake, DeBoer is a big Brenden Dillon fan.

17. Shoutout to Trent Leith (@trentl14 on Twitter), who sent a direct message noting that Jake DeBrusk scored the tying goal against Vegas on Tuesday night using one of those new Bauer sticks. Called the Nexus ADV, it features a thin hole that runs the length of the blade. Brayden Schenn was the first to use it in an NHL game about two weeks ago. I’m not sure if DeBrusk broke the maiden on goals, but it was his second time using it, with the first coming Jan. 11 against the Islanders. (He scored twice the game before versus Winnipeg on Jan. 9, but, according to father Louie, they weren’t with this stick. Jake changed after a two-goal game? Kids today.)

DeBrusk attended a summer event in Boston with Pierre-Luc Dubois, Noah Hanifin, Alexis Lafreniere, Andrei Svechnikov, and Jack Hughes and Quinn Hughes where he fiddled around with a prototype. He was looking forward to trying it for real.

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18. Ian Clark was hired to be Columbus’s goaltending coach in June 2011. (Scott Howson was still GM then.) The Blue Jackets’ goalies in 2010-11 were Steve Mason (54 games); Mathieu Garon (36) and David LeNeveu (one). LeNeveu was one of six who played that year for AHL Springfield (along with Paul Dainton, Daren Machesney, Daniel Taylor, Gustaf Wesslau and Allen York). Those goalies played a total of 14 NHL games after that season (York 11, Taylor three).

The Blue Jackets knew they had to change the way they viewed and developed the position. In 2011, they drafted Anton Forsberg; in 2012, they traded for Sergei Bobrovsky, then drafted Oscar Dansk and Joonas Korpisalo the next day. Sometimes, a new regime will throw out the baby with the bathwater, but when Jarmo Kekalainen replaced Howson in 2013, he recognized the importance of this process. The Blue Jackets drafted Elvis Merzlikins in 2014, signed Latvian Matiss Kivlenieks as a free agent from USHL Sioux City in 2017, and, one month later, selected six-foot-six Daniil Tarasov, who is still in Finland. (They’re pretty excited about him.)

Via text message, Kekalainen credited “teamwork” for their success in finding goalies like Korpisalo and Merzlikins, who have led the Blue Jackets’ surprising surge into the Eastern Conference playoff race. That’s true, because the scouting staff was given attributes to look for in netminders, and stuck to those criteria. Clark, who left for Vancouver in 2018, declined to comment, but I’d heard two of the key items were pure athletic ability and how they reacted when proper technique wasn’t enough to make a save. Did they find a way to make the save?

19. I asked current Columbus goaltending coach Manny Legace for a story about Merzlikins, on an 8-2 run after losing his first 10 decisions.

“In the winter, I’m at the rink. In the summer, I’m at the golf course,” Legace answered. “So we spent some time golfing to get to know each other.”

Who took whose money?

“Well, he hadn’t played before, so it wouldn’t have been fair. But after we got back to Columbus, I was at the rink one day. I got a text, and it was a photo from his girlfriend. It was raining outside, and she was sitting in their car while he was hitting balls at the range. He hated not being good at it.”

20. Merzlikins arrived in Columbus last spring to get to know the city/organization in general and Legace in particular. In November 2018, the Athletic’s Tom Reed did an excellent feature about the goaltender. His father disappeared when Elvis was very young, and it took a few years before his mother (who he credits with being a superb parent) revealed his father had died. In that, we have something in common. My mother died when I was 11, and I recognize how that changes you. You live to your fullest, knowing existence is fleeting.

“We heard things about him, that he had a tough childhood and trust issues,” Legace said. “But we didn’t pre-judge him. There’s an edge to him, no doubt. But we love that. The way he treated people, with respect. He studied video, was a total professional. He’s just an unreal human.”

His NHL debut was a 7–2 loss to Pittsburgh. How was he when he came off the ice? Legace starts laughing. “He said, ‘In my dreams, this is not what I expected.’”

21. He was sent to AHL Cleveland a couple of times, and the key was that the Blue Jackets made it clear these were not lengthy demotions. With Korpisalo rising to all-star levels, Merzlikins was stapled to the bench. They wanted him to play. While he didn’t get an NHL win until New Year’s Eve, Columbus saw progress.

“I saw him lose a few times, but you could tell he was good,” a scout said.

Were they ever worried about his confidence?

“Have you ever met Elvis?” Legace replied.

(No.)

“He developed faster than I thought. Credit to him. He only had one or two bad games. We just couldn’t score.”

Led by the now-injured Korpisalo, Merzlikins and Kivlenieks (who won his debut on Sunday), Columbus is right in the race in a year we’d given them as much of a chance as the Tennessee Titans.

22. One more good Legace quote. On Nov. 23, Columbus lost 4–3 to Winnipeg when Merzlikins gave away the winner to Andrew Copp with 1:54 to go.

“I looked at him, and he said, ‘Ah, I (bleep) up.’”

23. At the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the NHL debuted Version 1.0 of their “Digitally Enhanced Dasherboards” — rinkboards where the ads change for the TV audience. “They are jokingly called ‘Erase and Replace,’” NHL Chief Revenue Officer Keith Wachtel said last week.

The newer model (version 2.0, I guess) will be featured this week at All-Star.

There will be nine different broadcasts (SportsMid, NBC, TVA in Quebec, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and the world feed); this technology allows each to tailor the advertising to their audience.

“We’re the only North American sport with a significant dual business,” Wachtel said. “The NBA and MLB have teams in Canada, but it is on a smaller scale. Budweiser can model advertising to its American audience, its Canadian audience, its French audience. In the U.S., we can advertise Dunkin’ (Donuts) and in Canada, Tim Horton’s. In the U.S., there’s Discover; in Canada, Scotiabank. It’s a huge opportunity for us.”

24. The hope is, eventually this will lead to increased revenues, since, for example, if the Canucks are in Anaheim, Vancouver will be able to “place” its own sponsors on the rinkboards, even away from home. How long until we see it for all games?

“We’re looking at 2021–22 or 2022–23,” Wachtel answered. “We have to get this right.”

Some arenas need to replace their boards, since they will need special infrared-reflective film built into each advert. Human eyes can’t see this light, whereas the technology on the camera lens can pick it up. The technology then uses that to replace the content seen in-arena.

25. I love Montreal; I miss post-game at Stogies. But no one loves Montreal more than hometown boy Corey Crawford. Chicago’s 4-1 win last Wednesday night improved his record to 6-0-2 in that city. Crawford’s goals against (1.12) and save percentage (.971) are the best of any goalie whose played at least seven games there.

26. After the Flames and their fathers toured Wrigley Field a couple of weeks back, there was a rumour that, at the batting cage, one particular player grabbed a baseball, stepped on the pitching rubber, and was borderline unhittable.

“I was pretty good, but I had to give it up at age 12,” Michael Stone said with a smile. “My mother wanted some time at the summer cabin.”

As the group approached the cage, nobody was sure if they should go in, but Stone subscribes to one of my favourite mottos: It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

“No one seemed to mind,” he said.

Is it true that the other Flames couldn’t make contact?

“[They couldn’t] until I agreed to take something off of my fastball,” he answered, clearly enjoying this line of questioning. “Sam Bennett complained that I embarrassed him in front of the group.”

How high could you hit on the speed gun?

“I’d need to warm up, but I could hit a good number.”

Ninety?

“No, that’s probably too high.”

Eighty?

Stone thought about it. “Yes, I think I could get there.”

Hockey Day in Canada in Yellowknife, NT

Celebrating Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada’s 20th anniversary, SportsMid and Scotiabank unite to bring a 4-day hockey festival to Yellowknife, NT and a 12-hour NHL broadcast to Canadian fans coast-to-coast-to-coast.

27. CHL playoffs could change the story, but the World Juniors and the prospects game pushed away any doubts that Alexis Lafreniere wasn’t the favourite to go No. 1 for the 2020 draft.

28. We started this blog with Connor McDavid, so we’ll near its end with the “McDavid Effect.” Four years ago, Meghan Hall was a sports fan, but not a hockey fan.

“Growing up in Texas, but not in Dallas, hockey was not on my radar,” she said by phone on Monday. “I liked baseball, and, obviously, there’s a lot of exposure to football.”

She was surfing the interwebs one day and came across something different.

“It was a compilation of Connor McDavid’s best goals from his rookie season. I didn’t know that’s what hockey was.”

She was hooked, and it began the next phase of her relationship with the sport.

29. Hall, who has her Masters in nutritional epidemiology, works at Brown University and enjoys fiddling with data. A year ago, her deep dives into how aggressive teams were with pulling their goaltenders started making their way into my twitter timeline (her handle is @MeghanMHall). It’s very thorough. Without Patrick Roy as an outlier, we haven’t seen a lot of difference.

“The average pull time is going up only a few seconds per year,” she says. “But teams who pull their goalie down by one are scoring about 20 per cent of the time. It was at around 15 the past couple of years.”

Any reason for that?

“Well, scoring is up in general, but I’m curious to see if it holds.”

Then she switched her attention to the penalty kill, noticing that the shot share (simple English: percentage of shots taken) was rising for the teams that were shorthanded.

“The number was going up by 20 per cent, and I wanted to do some research (into that).”

I assumed it was because more teams are using four forwards and only one defenceman with the man advantage, and she agreed to some extent — that’s happening around 75 per cent of the time.

“But the biggest factor is that teams are putting more offensive skill on the penalty kill.”

All of the changes in the game have led to a “bigger pool” of skilled forwards, and coaches seem less afraid of putting them out there. Mitch Marner, for example, leads Toronto in shorthanded minutes. When I asked if Hall was looking for work with a team, she demurred, saying she likes working in higher education. Whatever the case, her work is thought-provoking.

30. I’m not a “coder,” but I want to learn. If you are so inclined, Hall has a tutorial to a system known as “R” that you need to understand.

@MeghanMHall’s “Introduction to R with Hockey Data” on @HockeyGraphs

: https://t.co/jld5d0VosT

— Measurables (@MeasurablesPod) January 15, 2020

31. Our terrific podcast producer, Amil Delic, was mixing the sound for last week’s edition and accidentally made an error. Several of our listeners sent him direct messages on Twitter with the specific time of the problem. He was able to locate it and do the repair. Just wanted to say that Amil, Jeff Marek and I appreciate your diligence. If no one cares, that’s a problem.

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