Manny Malhotra made it through about 10 minutes talking about his career-threatening eye injury before his emotions started to get the best of him.
Asked what he learned in the 10 weeks since a deflected puck exploded into his left eye and almost cost him his vision and his hockey career, the Vancouver Canucks center paused several times, his voice breaking as he talked about the support he received.
”It really put things into perspective,” Malhotra said Saturday, after being cleared to play in the Stanley Cup final against the Boston Bruins. ”We’re hockey players. But at the end of the day the level of respect we have for one another as friends, husbands, brothers, fathers, that really came to the forefront.”
Malhotra choked up talking about support he received from management, coaches and players all over the league. He singled out ex-Canucks defenseman Mattias Ohlund, now in Tampa Bay, and former New York Rangers and Columbus teammate Bryan Berard, who both overcame similar injuries.
But it was talking about the Canucks organization that got to Malhotra the most.
”We talk about our team concept all the time, we have a real family environment around here,” he said. ”We’re here to play hockey, but more importantly the level of care we have for each other in the room, and the importance we put on our personal health and the health and well being of our families really came first and foremost.”
Which is why Malhotra won’t play Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final against Boston Wednesday unless he is convinced he can help the franchise win its first Stanley Cup.
”I can assure you I wasn’t flipping a coin in the change room deciding whether I was going to play or not,” Malhotra said. ”I’ve been monitored almost daily for the past two months now and the doctors were pleased with the progression and the way things were looking.
”They felt and saw there was an opportunity, if I felt confident enough, physically ready enough with the contact and with the awareness out there, playing could be a possibility.”
Malhotra still hasn’t confirmed that will happen when the final kicks off Wednesday.
He said the possibility of returning this season, which was declared over for him just five days after the puck struck his left eye, only became a reality in the last couple of days. He hadn’t even been allowed to exercise until May 12, when he first joined teammates on the ice wearing a tracksuit and full-face cage on his helmet. He was only cleared for contact Friday.
”I realize there is a difference between taking two months off and coming back mid-January, and taking two months off and coming back the beginning of June,” he said. ”The pace and tempo of play is a lot higher, and you have the two best teams in the National Hockey League going at it. It’s been a dream of mine to play for the Stanley Cup, but at the same time I’m not going to put myself out there to be treated like a little brother.
”I know there’s not going to be any gimmes out there.”
Malhotra said his conditioning is quickly improving.
”You never really know until you step into a game,” he said. ”But as I skate and do a little extra after practice and today with the scrimmage and being more involved, the legs are coming back, the lungs are coming back.”
As for his vision, Malhotra wasn’t getting into specifics about how well he sees out of an eye still blood shot, droopy, swollen and discolored.
”I’ve never been 20-20 so I can say honestly that I’m not 20-20 in that eye, but I’ve been medically cleared,” Malhotra said, adding he will wear the full-face protection this season and experiment with using a half shield in the future. ”The spatial awareness is there.”
That may be enough for the Canucks, even if Malhotra is unlikely to return to the third-line shutdown role they paid him $7.5 million on a three-year free agent contract to perform.
Trade deadline acquisition Maxim Lapierre has filled in that spot admirably in the playoffs, but the Canucks have been playing their fourth line sporadically, and Malhotra could be eased back while also taking key faceoffs – he was second in the NHL at 61.7 percent before the injury – and perhaps killing penalties on a unit that was No.1 with him.
Malhotra was already playing a key part of both in the playoffs, sitting in on penalty kill meetings and working on faceoffs the last two weeks. He said staying around the team ”was huge for my confidence and my sanity.”
His return in the Cup final would be a boost for his teammates, too.
”It’s phenomenal that he’s at this point,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. ”We’ll see what happens here as we move forward.”