ST. LOUIS — Andy McDonald walked from the St. Louis Blues locker room with a black duffle bag draped over his right shoulder, and then stopped near a wall with the sounds of an unforgiving game echoing behind him.
Pucks hit the sticks of New York Islanders players during a Thursday morning practice at the Scottrade Center. Whistles and occasional yells filled the rink as McDonald prepared to play after his return from another concussion.
As some teammates lingered behind him, the Blues winger addressed how he was eager to continue his recovery after missing 51 games. On Oct. 13, Dallas center Vernon Fiddler hit him in the head in the second period of an eventual Stars victory, leaving McDonald with his second concussion in 10 months. Four days after being activated from injured reserve, McDonald let out a slight laugh Thursday before considering his appreciation for a sport that includes both risk and reward.
“You just try to enjoy every game and take it all in,” McDonald said. “There was a time when I thought I might not make it back with how poorly I felt. You just try and enjoy each moment and each game and realize how lucky you are to be playing in the NHL.”
McDonald, 34, has sustained multiple concussions throughout a 10-season NHL career, and his latest return represents a chance to stay active despite knowing another severe hit could end his time on the ice. He views his current comeback as the most difficult because of the long recovery. Still, he considers himself healthy and eager to contribute to the Blues’ attempt to earn their first postseason berth since 2009.
Time away this season gave McDonald a reminder of how fragile an NHL career can be. Before his latest head injury, he estimated he had sustained four or five concussions during time spent with the Blues and Anaheim Ducks.
As he prepared to leave the Scottrade Center on Thursday, less than eight hours before he scored his first goal of the season in a 5-1 Blues victory, McDonald stood outside the locker room and thought about the balance between his health and a love for a game that includes unknown consequences. Nearby, Islanders players skated on the ice. Pucks ricocheted off the walls.
For better or worse, the physical game had become part of his identity.
“I’ve always had a passion for the game,” McDonald said. “I’ve always enjoyed playing it. That’s the difficult part of it, because pushing aside this history of concussions, I think I am relatively healthy. . . . That’s kind of the hard part — putting those two things separately and realizing if you’re having problems from the concussion standpoint, then it’s time to step back and say, ‘What’s going to be happening later on in life?’ “
The questions are common. McDonald had doubts about his future in hockey when the early phase of his most recent recovery was slow. He wondered if an NHL career that began with the Ducks signing him to a free-agent deal in April 2000 would end.
Despite not knowing what concussions mean for his future — he missed 24 games last season because of one sustained in Edmonton in December 2010 — he doesn’t consider the reason for the injuries to be a mystery. His 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame makes him vulnerable to severe head hits, he said. A taller player might be struck in the shoulder, but McDonald will receive the same blow to his brain.
“I don’t think it’s any big surprise,” McDonald said. “I’m a smaller player.”
Still, knowledge that a concussion could happen doesn’t make his situation easier. As much as a player might try to block the thought that the next hit could be his last, he said, the possibility of a career-ending head injury is always present.
Despite the dangers, McDonald and others who have sustained concussions say a timid approach during competition does more harm than good. To them, overthinking on the ice can harm.
“I think the first few hits — the hard ones you get — you’re still worried about them,” said Blues winger David Perron, who returned Dec. 3 from a 97-game absence because of a concussion. “I think it’s probably the toughest thing. The thing that makes it good is you’re so excited to be back and be playing. You’re flying around out there. You make up for a lot of mistakes you’re going to make. You’re probably hesitating a little more than you should. But when you miss that many games, it’s expected.”
McDonald gained deeper knowledge of his brain while he missed the Blues’ resurgence under coach Ken Hitchcock. He visited multiple doctors and experienced various treatments. He learned about the relationship between the organ and the body and what it means if he wants to remain healthy.
Still, McDonald’s first moment back on the ice after his latest concussion included nerves. He tried to keep his emotions under control during the Blues’ 3-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday. He felt adrenaline early, but he was thankful for the support he received from friends and family after a return that included three shots on goal and one assist.
In three games since returning, he has one goal, one assist and seven shots on goal.
“At this point, I am healthier than I have been in the past when I returned,” McDonald said. “I’m really upbeat where I am at right now.”
McDonald’s return is viewed as a positive for a team that has visions of a deep postseason run despite reaching the playoffs only once in the past seven years. He’s praised for his speed, and teammates such as defenseman Alex Pietrangelo value the energy he brings to the locker room.
Still, McDonald knows there is a fine line between a long hockey career and one that ends too soon because of injury. After his most recent concussion, he asked himself questions such as, “Am I putting myself at risk for long-term health problems?” He reflected on his future, but he trusted himself to recover.
“When someone can miss as long as he did and come back and look like he has been playing the whole season — when you’re such an elite player like he is, you’re going to be able to make that jump,” Pietrangelo said. “It looks like he hasn’t missed a beat.”
The Blues consider themselves better for McDonald’s addition. He will enhance their chances of keeping pace with the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks for the Western Conference lead.
St. Louis has reason to believe McDonald will help its postseason outlook, because he has shown he can produce when healthy. His best season with the Blues was in the 2009-10 campaign, when he had 24 goals and 33 assists in 79 games. Last season, he had 20 goals and 30 assists in 58 games.
“For me, Andy McDonald adds an element that we haven’t had here all year,” Hitchcock said.
McDonald is eager to provide versatility as long as he remains healthy. An unforgiving game has given him new appreciation for his place in it after his latest return from a concussion.
He hopes the experience continues for many more years.