After missing an entire Western Hockey League season due to a mysterious head injury, Seattle Thunderbirds right wing Branden Troock might be one of the biggest question marks in the 2012 NHL Draft, to be held June 22-23 in Pittsburgh.
The question is how high is Troock's upside? With just one full season in the Western Hockey League on his resume, Troock has given scouts only a glimpse of what he can do.
"He hasn't reached his potential yet because of some injuries, but the upside is still there and he has a lot of talents that would let him move on and give him a chance to be a pro," Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell said.
The 18-year-old is a year behind in his development after a check nearly ended his career. Troock was knocked unconscious by an unexpected blow to the head in the U-16 Team Alberta All-Star game on Oct. 31, 2009. The incident left the forward with debilitating headaches that occurred whenever he got his heart rate up or if he read for more than 15 minutes at a time.
Doctors diagnosed the injury as a standard sports concussion; yet, after months of sitting out, Troock's headaches persisted and prevented him from playing more than nine games in his rookie season with Seattle.
"I couldn't do anything, I couldn't get out of bed … I missed a whole year," Troock told NHL.com. "I didn't get on the ice once. I couldn't get my heart rate up too high or else I would get a headache."
Troock continued to pursue various medical treatments for his headaches, with no success. Some doctors told him he ought to stop playing hockey, but Troock refused to give up on his recovery.
"It took a lot of dedication," he said. "Those times when doctors said I might have to look at a new career because maybe I wouldn't get better, I knew that I didn't want to quit. I knew that I wanted to be a hockey player and I knew I was going to get over this injury."
Troock found new hope when a neurologist and chiropractor in Vancouver linked his headaches to a pinched occipital nerve and prescribed treatment with acupuncture and cranial sacral massage. The treatment resolved Troock's headaches almost instantly.
"It was … you can't even put it into words," Troock said. "Finally being able to play the game that I love again, just everything, being in the room with the guys, going out for practices … it was just the best feeling in the world."
Troock was ready for the 2011-12 WHL season, but he had a lot of ground to make up after his missed season. He made a statement in his second game, Oct. 8 against Victoria, by scoring a pair of goals and adding an assist. At the 2012 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in February, he scored the game-winning goal with 25 seconds left in regulation.
"I just wanted to leave a good impression, show what I can do out there, and it really paid off in the end, I had a really good game," Troock said. "It was definitely the biggest highlight of my career."
The Edmonton native had 26 points in 58 games this past season, placing him in the top five on his team, and his 83 penalty minutes helped him establish a new role.
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"He is definitely a power forward," Thunderbirds coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "I think he has to still continue to grow in that area, but that is what is going to make him a very good player at this level and the next level."
Farwell said, "He is really a strong, physical guy and his skills are very, very good. He can shoot the puck like a pro right now, he is big guy that can make plays … he has the ability to play that game as a power forward."
Troock (6-foot-2, 174 pounds) showed significant promise in WHL games and with Team Canada at the World Under-18 Championship, but his coaches believe he needs more time to develop his game sense after missing so much time.
"Physically, skating, shooting the puck, doing those things, he is fine. It's just fitting that within a team game and getting the most out of his game [that] he is still developing and he's not there yet," Farwell said. "That year hurt him. Losing that full year, it's just one of the bumps."
Troock wants to play, no matter what it takes, a point he proved in October when he played through a broken rib. Doctors advised him to rest for 4-6 weeks, but also said playing with the injury would do no additional harm as long as he could endure the pain.
Two weeks later, Troock was begging to get back on the ice.
"He was really hurt, and with as much pain as he was in it could have been a 3-6 weeks kind of injury, but two weeks later he was at my door saying he could play," Konowalchuk said. "That showed me his competitive nature and showed how much he wanted to help the team down the stretch."
Troock was No. 65 in Central Scouting's final ranking, an improvement of 25 spots from his mid-term position.
"He has an elite talent with his size, strength and his shot," Konowalchuk said. "If he can progress the way he did last year, he can be a dominant player in the National Hockey League."