GLENDALE, Ariz. — Steve Sullivan might never match Ray Whitney’s production for the Phoenix Coyotes, but anything close would be remarkable given how close the 38-year-old winger’s career came to ending five years ago.
Sullivan couldn’t walk upright for the entire 2007-08 NHL season. Chronic back issues had him listing to the left like a wounded battleship.
He already had missed the latter third of Nashville’s 2006-07 season, but two subsequent surgeries, two lengthy rehab stints with Shaquille O’Neal’s physical therapist and multiple medical consultations couldn’t alleviate a diagnosed disc issue. Neither could the nearly 30 pounds he gained from inactivity, big meals and lots of red wine.
“The food was great,” Sullivan said with a laugh. “But I couldn’t do anything without it (the back) seizing up again. It was a long road with a lot of dark days.”
To pass the time, Sullivan did TV segments for the team while the sad thought of retirement began to grow more frequent. Between periods of one game, he ran into Predators team psychologist Gary Solomon.
“He said, ‘You look comfortable up there in the booth,’ ” Sullivan said. “He was like, ‘Is that who you are now? Are you a TV guy? What’s your identity?’
“I said, ‘Well, I’m a hockey player,’ and he said, ‘Well, it looks more like you’re a TV guy to me.’ “
The revelation struck a nerve deep inside Sullivan — one that ran all the way back to the 1994 NHL Draft, when the New Jersey Devils waited until the ninth round to select the 5-foot-9, 165-pound forward with the 233rd overall pick.
“If broadcasting and TV are in my hockey afterlife, I’m open to that, but it’s not where I’m at right now,” Sullivan remembered thinking at the time. “I’ve got to be a hockey player. I’ve always been a hockey player. I can’t let this stop me.”
With a full year to heal, Sullivan began a new form of training that focused on strengthening his core. By training camp of the 2008-09 season, he was feeling hopeful and free of the spasms that had cropped up throughout his career. In November 2008, he was feeling good enough to resume skating. And on Jan. 10, 2009, he returned to the ice for the Predators for a game against the Blackhawks and resumed a career that now spans 16 NHL seasons and 758 career points, including the postseason.
For the second time in his career, Sullivan had beaten the odds.
“This league is filled with guys who were told they were too small or too slow to make it — or too old to stick around,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said during training camp. “Sulli’s a great example of a guy who never listened.”
Sullivan agrees that rules changes for the 2005-06 season have helped lengthen his NHL career by opening up the game for skaters while eliminating some of the wear and tear on his body. He also acknowledges that hard work and determination played a major role in landing him that first NHL opportunity.
“But that’s a given,” he said. “There are a lot of good hockey players with those same qualities. You also need the right breaks.”
For that, Sullivan credits men such as former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds general manager Sherry Bassin and his American Hockey League coach in Albany, Robbie Ftorek, who had a three-year stint as a player for the Phoenix Roadrunners in the old World Hockey Association.
“He took me under his wing and taught me the game,” Sullivan said of Ftorek. “I could score goals, but I didn’t know how to be a pro. Robbie was a huge component in me being called up and getting my chance.”
Skill and speed have been Sullivan’s calling cards since he arrived in the NHL in 1996. Those assets certainly caught the attention of Tippett and general manager Don Maloney when they were looking to replace Whitney, who had departed as a free agent. So did Sullivan’s 216 career power-play points.
But as Maloney noted during camp, the Coyotes were equally interested in players who fit their all-for-one culture. Sullivan fit like a glove.
“You can’t find a person who can say a bad thing about him,” Tippett said.
There’s a reason.
“He demands a lot out of himself,” said defenseman Derek Morris, who played with Sullivan on Team Canada during the 2001 World Championships in Germany. “He doesn’t throw blame on somebody else when things aren’t going well. He just digs a little deeper, and that’s kind of the way things run around here.”
Sullivan knows outsiders view him as Whitney’s replacement. Heck, even his coach does, to a degree.
“There are a lot of similarities, from stature to shoots right to skill guy to good power-play guy,” Tippett said, chuckling.
Sullivan admits that perception added pressure to perform right out of the gate.
“I want to be a difference-maker every single night,” said Sullivan, who is tied for second on the team with five points, thanks in large part to a hat trick against last week against the Blue Jackets. “That being said, Ray and I are not the same player. He’s an elite player and has been for years. I’m hoping that I can put some numbers up there, but I don’t know if I can put up the same numbers as him.”
Give all he’s endured — the once-chronic back issues and three sports hernia surgeries — anything from here on out feels like gravy for Sullivan.
“I’ve been in this league almost half my life,” he said. “I still pinch myself to think I get to do this for a living — something I love. I definitely feel blessed.”