For the first time in quite a while, Colorado Avalanche forward Peter Mueller’s focus is on hockey instead of his head.
So antsy for the start of training camp Saturday, Mueller was one of the first to arrive at the rink, eager to resume his career after missing an entire season with a concussion.
After a team scrimmage in which he dished out and took some good hits, Mueller proclaimed himself fully fit.
”Things are good,” Mueller said. ”Didn’t really feel anything.”
Over the offseason, Mueller worked on strengthening the muscles in his neck to avoid another round of concussions. He sustained a head injury when he took a blow along the boards against San Jose on April 4, 2010, and hasn’t been completely right since.
This season, Mueller will wear a specially designed helmet that has extra padding and a tinted visor to shield his eyes from the glare of arena lights. He also will don thicker shoulder pads.
”I’m ready to get this thing going,” Mueller said. ”I’m feeling great.”
The 23-year-old was part of a rash of concussions last season that sidelined some of the top players in the game, including Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby.
That led the league to amend and strengthen its stance on hits to the head. Players now will face a minor penalty for any hit that involves primary contact to the head, along with shots that target an opponent’s head and make it the principal point of contact.
It’s long overdue, in Mueller’s opinion.
”There are a lot of guys that are going through a tough time right now, and I think something should be done about it,” Mueller said. ”It’s tough when a guy loses that much time and other people don’t get a suspension or anything. I understand that I’m not in charge with (discipline). I just hope the NHL figures something out.
”But for now the biggest thing for me is not to worry about that and to get back on the ice.”
He’s just hoping he can be the type of player he was before the concussion.
”I want to be,” Mueller said. ”I think I can get back to that level.”
Colorado acquired Mueller in a deal that sent Wojtek Wolski to the Phoenix Coyotes in March 2010.
Instantly, Mueller showed his offensive flair, scoring 20 points in 15 games.
Then came the hit that caused the concussion. He was tracking down a puck in the corner when he was smashed by former Sharks captain Rob Blake into the boards, Mueller’s head hitting first. Mueller would miss the rest of that season and the playoffs.
He attempted to come back last fall, but re-injured his head in a preseason game and never returned to the ice for the Avalanche in 2010-11.
Not that he didn’t try. But something as simple as stepping into the sunlight gave him intense headaches. The tattoo-laden Mueller also couldn’t get new ink because the buzzing sent his head pounding.
”It was a chapter of my life that I hope will never come again,” Mueller said.
In Mueller’s absence, the Avalanche struggled and won their fewest games (30) since relocating to Denver from Quebec in 1995. Now, he’s itching to help the Avs restore the luster to a franchise that’s won two Stanley Cup trophies.
”I kind of feel like a rookie right now,” said Mueller, who’s from Bloomington, Minn. ”I haven’t been in a game in a long time, and there’s something I need to prove. I definitely need to prove myself.”
On Saturday, Mueller was paired with Matt Duchene, the team’s leading scorer last season, and Milan Hejduk, who’s entering his 13th season.
Almost immediately, that line clicked.
”He looks good,” Duchene said of Mueller. ”It’s great to get a guy like that back.”
Mueller was hit early in practice Saturday and said his head didn’t bother him.
Definitely a relief.
”This was a little nerve-racking at first,” said Mueller, a first-round pick by Phoenix in 2006. ”It’s always in the back of your head: What’s going to happen when you get that first hit? But it happened. It went good.