COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sometimes, it’s the little things that help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. For Nathan Horton, it’s as simple as slipping on his coat.
He’s the first to point out that his return to the ice should not be considered imminent, but everyday tasks that were once met with excruciating pain are inching back to “routine” status. For a guy as competitive - and, at the same time, frustrated - by the long rehabilitation process as Horton is, those small benchmarks keep him going and reinforce his belief that he’s on schedule.
A few weeks back, Horton emerged from his occasionally-lonely existence in the training room and conditioning skates to join his Blue Jackets teammates for an optional practice at Rexall Place in Edmonton. Things started to roll from there, as Horton hoped they would, and on Friday he took part in a full-team practice without the red no-contact sweater.
It’s another step in the process, Horton said, but an undeniably positive day as his timetable starts to move from “weeks” to “days.”
“I did more drills than I usually do, so it was a lot more fun,” Horton said. “There was a little bit of bumping but not too much…just to be in the situation where you could get bumped, though, that was nice.”
Horton didn’t absorb much contact during his first “full go” team practice, taking turns on right wing of a line with Matt Calvert, Ryan Johansen and RJ Umberger for several 5-on-5 drills. But he was able to feel the pace of a high-tempo practice and get the legs going again, something he had really missed over the last few months.
And at least for one day, his teammates let him off the hook.
“I don’t think anyone would have hit me because they still see me in red when I’m on the ice,” Horton joked. “I had fun, though. It wasn’t physical but it was more than I had done. It’s still a little sore but it wasn’t sore before I went on the ice, but that will go away.
“The pain’s probably not going to go away for a long time, but as long as I get my strength and I’m comfortable with hitting people and getting hit, I’ll be fine.”
One of the major final hurdles to clear is getting his upper body strength back, Horton said. In the early stages of rehab, he didn’t have full range of motion and was in a lot of pain and unable to lift any weights for a long period of time.
He has worked at that over the last little while and feels that steady progress has been made, but he’s not ready to deem himself “close” or “on the verge” of anything. The timeline is unclear but the target remains sometime after Christmas, Horton said, before he’s able to get in the Blue Jackets’ lineup for the first time.
But for the time being, he plans on being a regular at practice and a full participant as he tries to work his way back into game shape. That alone tells him he’s getting closer and helps ignite his mile-wide smile.
“I’m slowing getting into more things like I did today. It’s a long process and it’s annoying (at times) but I’m just happy to get in there…it’s a matter of time now. It’s nice to get out there and be on a line and get some line reps, so that was good.
“I can tell just by putting my jacket on or playing a game on my phone that my shoulder is getting better and I can do more. I’m hoping after Christmas, as early as possible, that I can get back into it.”