In the world of professional hockey, the only time most people ever give pause to reflect on the precarious nature of an athletic career -- and of life itself -- is when tragedy or near-tragedy strikes.
On Dec. 28, Djurgardens IF right wing Nils Ekman was hospitalized in Stockholm after complaining of a migraine headache, poor balance and numbness on one side of his body when he woke up in the morning. Upon examination, doctors diagnosed the 34-year-old former NHL player had suffered a stroke after a restricted blood vessel had stopped carrying normal blood flow to his brain.
Thankfully, Ekman's long-term prognosis is promising, although he will require at least three months of rest and almost certainly will miss the remainder of the Elitserien season. Ekman was released from the hospital during the weekend to be with his family and now has been moved to an in-patient rehabilitation facility to begin the road to recovery. After a short period, he will start out-patient therapy. Ekman still is suffering from double vision and physical unsteadiness, but has regained some use of his motor functions and is communicative.
Ekman, who played 264 NHL games during parts of five seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins, returned to Sweden this season for his third stint with Djurgarden. He had spent the previous three seasons playing in Russia.
A two-time 20-goal scorer during his stint with the Sharks, the sometimes controversial Ekman dressed for only 20 games this season for DIF prior to his medical emergency, producing 4 goals and 9 points for the sixth-place club. In late November, a nasty slashing incident that saw an enraged Ekman wield his stick like a baseball bat against Brynas left wing Jakob Silferberg near the opposing bench resulted in a five-game suspension and an $11,500 fine for Ekman.
Upon his return, he played one of his strongest games of the season against Skelleftea AIK before suffering the stroke. Ekman's loss for the season is a blow to the DIF lineup, as he is one of the club's most accomplished offensive players, and his re-acquisition was one of DIF's most important off-season moves. The team has pressed on without him, but Ekman's teammates admit they were terrified when they first learned of his medical situation.
"Nisse (Ekman) is an important part of the team, but hockey isn't what matters at a time like this," said teammate Staffan Kronwall. "Our thoughts are with him and his family. When we heard what happened, it felt like we'd been kicked in the teeth. He had called out sick but none of us expected it to be that serious. We just want him to be OK."
While Gustavsson expressed optimism that the player will be able to return to a normal life, he cautioned that Ekman has a long road to recovery. There is no timetable for moving him from in-patient rehab to out-patient status, because it is impossible to predict the rate at which he'll recover.
"(Moving him from the hospital to rehab) means that the risk of lingering complications is minimal, and that he needs special training," Gustavsson told Aftonbladet. "There's still unsteadiness in his body and certain types of double-vision."
A Stockholm native, Ekman got his start in hockey playing for now-defunct Hammarby on the south side of the city. After suiting up for Hammarby's senior team in the Swedish minor leagues, he temporarily jumped to the Espoo Blues in Finland's SM-Liiga.
Drafted by the Calgary Flames in the fifth round of the 1994 Entry Draft, Ekman played in one AHL playoff game in the spring of 1998 but did not make a full-scale commitment to North American hockey until the 1999-2000 season.
Early in his North American career, Ekman bounced between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the minor leagues, taking Rookie of the Year honors in the defunct IHL in his first season. The Lightning traded Ekman to the New York Rangers, but he was unable to make the team's NHL roster. As a result, he opted to return to Europe for the 2001-02 season, signing with Djurgarden. In his first Elitserien season, he posted 16 goals and 31 points in 38 games.
He spent the next season with the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack, where he had 30 goals and 66 points in 57 games, but did not dress in a single NHL game for the Rangers.
His big break came after the Rangers traded him to the San Jose Sharks for Chad Wiseman in the summer of 2003. Ekman dressed in every game of the 2003-04 regular season and postseason for San Jose, rewarding the club with a 22-goal, 55-point regular season in which he also established a franchise record with a plus-30 rating. When a work stoppage resulted in the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season, Ekman returned to Sweden to play for DIF again. In a season in which Elitserien was bolstered by the presence of a host of NHL players in the primes of their careers, Ekman posted 45 points in 44 games, but also created controversy for his alleged dirty play, and drew 106 penalty minutes.
Upon his return to the NHL the following season, Ekman recovered from a slow start to post another 20-goal season for the Sharks. He was the third member of a line that included Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo. After the season, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a second-round draft pick.
The 2006-07 season was a major disappointment, for Ekman and the Penguins. He played inconsistently early in the season and was limited to just 34 games as a result of a dislocated elbow, and had just 6 goals and 15 points. Nevertheless, Ekman had the best night of his career while wearing a Penguins uniform. Playing against his former Lightning teammates on Nov. 8, he set a Pittsburgh franchise record by recording a natural hat trick in just 4:10. Following the season, he returned to Europe.
Ekman played three seasons in the Russian Super League and KHL for Khimik Moscow Oblast and SKA St. Petersburg. Last summer, he opted to return to the more familiar Stockholm environs, signing for a third time with Djurgardens IF.
Sadly, the 2010-11 season has not worked out for Ekman the way anyone would have wanted or anticipated. Hockey now is on the backburner as he works to recover from his stroke.