When Max Domi went under the knife June 3, there were no expectations that the Blue Jackets forward would be able to return for the start of the 2021-22 season.
Then again, no one expected quite how much Domi would dedicate himself to getting back, either.
All hockey players want to come back from injury as quickly as possible. But Domi took it to what appears to be an extreme, a seven-day-a-week grind that included as many different ways as possible to get his injured right shoulder back into playing shape.
"I think we've been progressing well," Domi said Thursday after taking part in a full-team, full-contact practice for the first time. "I was lucky to have a great rehab team back home, which was awesome. Every single day this summer was geared toward trying to get healthy and thinking outside the box, getting lots of extra treatment here and there and doing some outside-the-box workouts.
"It was fun. I enjoyed it. There were some days that were tougher than others for sure, but I think it pays off in the end."
And now, after just over four months of hard work, it's at least within the realm of possibility Domi will be able to be in the Blue Jackets' lineup when the team opens the season next Thursday night against Arizona in Nationwide Arena.
It's far from a sure thing -- in fact, the smart money might be on the 26-year-old center/wing returning a few games into the season -- but even the fact that it can't be ruled out is a testament to Domi's hard work.
"I won't say no and I won't say yes," head coach Brad Larsen said Thursday when asked if Domi could be a part of the opening day lineup. "I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell you that, but I know he's champing at the bit to get playing."
When asked the same question, Domi grinned and said, "I don't know, we'll see." But he did admit he set a goal to be ready for the lid-lifting game against the Coyotes as he got to work this summer on rehabbing the injury, which occurred in what he termed a seemingly normal hockey play in a midseason game but resulted the offseason need to repair a labral tear.
"I definitely had the first game circled on my calendar, but who wouldn't?" he said. "I think that's something most people would say is unrealistic, but I don't think anybody can make that call other than me. So that's the goal and we'll stick to it, and we'll see what happens."
To accelerate the process, Domi sounds as though he had a one-track mind to get himself back into shape, and he wasn't afraid to leave no stone unturned in his quest. That meant a little bit of a unique path, one that he was happy to see the Blue Jackets sign off on as he rehabbed in his native Canada.
"I did a lot of rock climbing," Domi said. "I had never done rock climbing before. I have a whole new respect for the rock climbing community. What those guys and girls can do is remarkable. It takes a lot of strength -- a lot of little muscles in your shoulders and your upper body that you would never realize exist until you try it. That was one thing that I did is working in different little planes and getting that strength back. That was great. It's super unorthodox but it paid off.
"I did a lot of stuff in the pool. I had a full-time swim coach, basically. I'm not trying to be Michael Phelps, but I did more range of motion and stuff like that. It was amazing how much I responded to that and lots of treatment and this and that."
Whatever Domi did, it worked, as he's at the very least well ahead of schedule. But with just one day of contact drills under his belt and less than a week to go until the opening faceoff, time is tight before the showdown with Arizona. And while Larsen said he appreciates how much Domi wants to be back on the ice, the head coach won't rush things and will rely on the medical staff to make the final decision.
"There are always concerns about (coming back) too soon, and I think that's what we have to be careful of," Larsen said. "The player wants to play, and I get that, but sometimes you can get in your own way as a player. We have to be smart. He did miss a lot of camp. He's been skating, but if you ask the guys, what they've gone through the last two-plus weeks here, it's been a really hard camp and we've touched on a lot of areas.
"You might be feeling good, but to get up to speed for a game, we'll see. We have just under a week here. We're going to keep progressing. Max is going the right direction, which is a real exciting thing for us."
Larsen added he's not sure if Domi will go back in at center or wing when he returns to the ice, but the hope is he'll be able to pick up this year where he left off. Domi finished with a 9-15-24 line in 54 games, the lowest output of his career as he transitioned to the CBJ squad, but finished as a more effective player in the last 17 games with four goals and 12 points in that span.
"I definitely felt like myself again," Domi said of his play down the stretch. "I just kind of took a step back and stopped thinking. I think that's a powerful thing in not just hockey and sports, but when you start overthinking and questioning certain things and try to be someone you're not, it takes you down a tough path. You have to stick to your guns and trust that you're here for a reason, and with that comes confidence."
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