Anaheim’s Hiller struggles with mystifying vertigo

Jonas Hiller would rather have a broken arm.

Give him a sprained ankle, or even a nasty case of the flu.

Just about any ailment would be better than vertigo, which has

kept the Anaheim Ducks’ Swiss goalie off the ice for all but four

periods since he played in his first All-Star game six weeks

ago.

”At least with a broken leg, they can tell you how long it’s

going to be until you can play again,” Hiller said.

Nobody can explain why Hiller’s incredible reflexes and puck

vision suddenly were enveloped by a fog of dizziness and fatigue in

early February. Nobody is sure why Hiller feels perfectly normal

away from the rink, and nobody can tell him when – or whether – it

will go away.

”I’m still having the same issues, especially on the ice,”

Hiller said. ”I start feeling out of myself, kind of feeling all

over the place. I guess it’s just going to take time. All I can do

is be patient. It’s definitely not easy, especially the mental

side. It’s really tough.”

Hiller missed his 10th consecutive game Wednesday night for the

Ducks, who are scrapping to get into the West’s crowded playoff

picture with 15 games left in the regular season. He has sat out 13

games and played just once since getting pulled from his first

start after the break, when he began falling into a lightheaded

stupor whenever he tried to stop pucks.

”It feels like I’m always falling behind the play,” said

Hiller, 26-16-3 with five shutouts this season. ”It’s like I can’t

keep up with the puck any more. I might be physically there, but I

always feel like my head’s not there yet. I almost feel like I’m

running behind the whole play for half a second or something. I’m

always trying to catch up, which throws me off even more.”

Anaheim has suited up five goalies in his absence. Newcomer Dan

Ellis has been effective over the past two weeks, and the Ducks

entered Thursday’s games just two points out of eighth place in the

Western Conference.

”It’s a tough situation for (Hiller), but he’s doing everything

our doctors tell him to,” Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said.

”There’s no timetable, no clock ticking down. When he’s better,

he’s better.”

Vertigo is a particularly cruel affliction for Hiller, whose

entire career is built on reflexes and smarts.

He went undrafted and unnoticed as a teenager, but got attention

while playing with Joe Thornton and Rick Nash in Switzerland during

the NHL lockout. Hiller unseated longtime Ducks starter

Jean-Sebastien Giguere two years ago and earned a four-year, $18

million contract last season.

The malady hit Hiller at the peak of his career. He had won nine

games in a four-week stretch heading into the All-Star game, where

he was the only Western Conference goalie invited. The first Swiss

All-Star goalie was among the league leaders in most goaltending

statistics at the time, and he still ranks third in save

percentage.

Although two shots hit Hiller squarely in his mask during the

All-Star weekend in Raleigh, N.C., the doctors don’t know if that

jarring had anything to do with his vertigo. He was pulled from the

first period of his first game back against San Jose, and he sat

out the next three games before shutting out Edmonton on Feb. 13

after a visit to a chiropractor in Vancouver.

The symptoms returned, and Hiller hasn’t played since. He spends

his days undergoing tests and skating in practice, but the vertigo

always surfaces when he gets in game conditions – or even when he

just works out aggressively in the Ducks’ gym.

”I know most of the doctors in Orange County right now,” he

said. ”There’s so many things involved. Even vertigo, there’s a

wide possibility of what it could be.”

The Ducks can’t wait for Hiller, so they’ve attempted to stay in

the race without their single most important player.

After backup Curtis McElhinney struggled mightily in an everyday

role, allowing 19 goals in a four-game stretch, Anaheim took on

salary while shipping him to Tampa Bay in a trade for Ellis, the

former Nashville starter. The Ducks also signed veteran Ray Emery,

but he hasn’t cracked the lineup with Ellis taking over.

”Dan has given us a chance to win games, and that’s all we ask

our goalies to do,” Carlyle said after Ellis improved to 4-1-1

with Anaheim on Wednesday night in a victory over the New York

Rangers. ”He stepped in and made some critical saves at important

times.”

Hiller said his doctors have encouraged him to ”keep provoking

the symptoms” with tough workouts and puck-stopping drills. They

want him to keep putting his body into difficult circumstances,

hopefully forcing his mind out of a virtual rut.

So far, it isn’t working – but Hiller remains faintly hopeful

he’ll get himself together in time to help the Ducks.

”Every time I push it a little, it’s almost like a step back,”

Hiller said. ”Some days I feel pretty good, and it feels like the

next day is going to be fine. Then the next day feels like two

steps back. It’s just discouraging, that’s all.”