The low point wasn't the pain in Anaheim forward Joffrey Lupul's back as much as it was the anguish on the face of his father, Craig.
Craig Lupul was one of the family members and friends who gathered in Joffrey's house in Newport Beach, Calif., last June as Joffrey tried to recover from two back surgeries. Six weeks of antibiotics was thought to have cured a subsequent infection, but another one was attacking him hard and his family could only watch as Joffrey struggled to get well.
Lupul could manage the physical discomfort. But reading the worry on Craig's face was a sobering tip-off to a real career threat at hand.
"I literally couldn't leave the house. I was in a lot of pain. It wasn't the pain I was concerned about. It was six months after the surgery," Lupul said. "Those thoughts (that he might be done playing) stick into your head. You want to block them out."
Five months removed from that career-threatening ordeal, Lupul temporarily finds himself with a new type of family, one with no reason to give off any vibe other than smiles and appreciation. Lupul is on a short conditioning assignment with the Syracuse Crunch, the Ducks' AHL affiliate, and on the first off-night of his stay he yanked a handful of players out of their hotel rooms and treated them to a meal other than room service.
Lupul had the money to pay for the meal, and maybe even buy the whole restaurant. Aside from that not so small difference from his table mates, it was just seven hungry guys all trying to get to the pinnacle of their profession.
"I'm playing here for the same reason everyone else is," said Lupul, 27. "I'm here to get to the NHL. It's not like I don't think I need to be here. I need to be here."
Lupul is a true finisher who doesn't like to let these golden opportunities go to waste. In his first game with Syracuse, on Nov. 27, he hit a couple of posts against Toronto. The next night, he scored the game-winning goal against Hamilton to help the Crunch end a seven-game winless streak.
Lupul is expected to stay at least through the Crunch's contest at Rochester on Dec. 3, although if the Ducks think he needs more time they can ask the NHL for permission to extend his stint two more games.
"He's an NHLer. You can tell. He's just a guy who does everything with a purpose," said Crunch coach Mark Holick. "He's very approachable. He hasn't come down here pretending to work hard. He's come down here and worked hard."
A small, circular scar dots the middle of Lupul's lower back. It's a harmless-looking mark about the size of a quarter, but the torment it represents was enough to slam a career that had been gathering momentum into a brick wall.
Playing for the Flyers in 2007-08 and 2008-09, Lupul had seasons of 20 and 25 goals, respectively. He was a chip the Flyers sent to the Ducks in the Chris Pronger trade, and before 2009-10 Anaheim signed him to a four-year deal at $4.25 million per season. He began that season with 10 goals in 23 games before recurring back pain and numbness in his leg steered him toward December surgery to repair a herniated disc.
Complications from that required a second surgery, and then infection No. 1 entered his system.
"It was definitely frustrating. It was unbelievable," Lupul said. "I was going in there, they (doctors) were telling me different things."
Lupul was fine for several weeks before the second infection started in June. Different antibiotics eventually calmed that pain, a large relief tempered by the reality that Lupul was looking at months of rehabilitation. His weight dipped from his listed 206 pounds to 170 on his 6-foot-1 frame. His core strength -- the lifeblood of every pro hockey player -- had shriveled to that of a couch potato.
The upside -- and Lupul hunts down that angle like a loose puck in the crease -- was the one and only task he had to worry about was coming back.
"There's no use complaining about it," he said. "It's my full-time job to get my back better. I definitely worked a lot harder than I have in my life. I'm probably stronger than I've ever been. I'm proud of that. I'm confident I can come back."
It's been a process with an end goal that seems like a moving target. Lupul still has to take antibiotics, and he pushes through a 30-minute daily strength routine that's designed to keep his back prepared for an NHL pounding.
Following the surgeries and infections, Lupul didn't take the ice until October, and just started going through full practices with Anaheim a couple of weeks ago.
Lupul has an intense, almost scary set of eyes, and when he took his first shift against the Marlies, they were locked toward the future, not the past.
"I was wondering that, too, when (that game) was about to start, whether I'd be nervous," he said. "As soon as I jumped over the boards, it was like I haven't missed a beat."
Against the Bulldogs, he put a charge into the Crunch crowd with a hard forecheck in the corner on Neil Petruic. Later in the game he cross-checked Hamilton's Gabriel Dumont after the whistle and then got in Dumont's face when he took exception.
"You can see he's got a physical aspect to his game," said Syracuse teammate Josh Green. "He just has to find his way back. He'll get there."
There is an unmistakable spark in Lupul's game that has survived the layoff without being diminished, one that's often ignited by the smallest of imperfections. In the Hamilton game, he slammed his stick on his skates after a mis-timed rush. In practice two days later, he flipped a puck against the boards in frustration from a turnover during a drill.
"I'm just trying to play hockey the way I know how," he said. "On the ice, I can say I haven't noticed (any back pain). Once I'm on the ice, it's not in the back of my mind. That's one thing I was wondering. I can honestly say I haven't thought of it once."
If Lupul's comeback stays as true as many of his shots, his selective amnesia could have a long shelf life.
"I've worked extremely hard to get back. I definitely don't want a back injury as the point that defines my career," he said. "Hopefully, 10 years from now, it's just an afterthought."