As he lay on the ice in front of the Dallas Stars’ bench in excruciating pain, he didn’t know much. He knew that he couldn’t feel his left leg; it was numb. He knew he could hear members of the Dallas Stars yelling at the linesmen to stop play. He knew he could hear panic in their voices.
He couldn’t see his leg, but he assumed it was bad.
“I wasn’t quite sure what had happened,” Kelly said, speaking to reporters on Thursday for the first time since fracturing his left femur on Nov. 3. “I knew when I was lying on the ice that my leg was kind of numb and I couldn’t feel it. When I went down, the play continued a little bit, and I could hear the reaction of Dallas’ bench kind of calling for the refs to stop the play.
“So I can’t feel my leg, and they’re kind of in a little bit of a panic mode on their bench, so for a moment there, it was pretty scary not knowing what my leg was looking like. But after the training staff and the doctors came out, I was able to regroup, and [Zdeno Chara] was able to help me off the ice, so it was good I was able to get off without a stretcher.”
Initially, Kelly thought he had been slashed, and he thought that maybe it was his ACL or his MCL that had given way. It is not terribly common, after all, to fracture the longest, strongest bone in the human body.
“I think when you kind of look at the video, you automatically think ACL, MCL — [that] would be the first thing to kind of go, the way I went under and [the way] the leg went under myself,” he said. “But that stayed intact, the quad muscle stayed intact…I think the only other thing to kind of give was the femur bone.
“I haven’t seen the play. Maybe eventually I’ll take a look. But it was just one of those freak accidents that never happens, and just happened.”
The day after the injury, Kelly underwent surgery. It has been just over two weeks since. In those two weeks, there has, as expected, been a range of emotions.
At first, there was disappointment. Now, though, Kelly is feeling better — about the injury itself, about the 6-8 month recovery period that comes with it, about his future with this team and in the NHL.
“Obviously, when it originally happened, it was pretty difficult to take in,” Kelly said. “With anything, as time has gone past, you just kind of move forward and focus on getting better.”
Kelly has been through injuries before — short term, long term. They have come early in the season and late in the season. Nearly three years ago, in March of 2013, he broke his right tibia and missed 14 games. The following season, in December, he fractured his fibula in the same leg and missed nearly two months. At the end of that same season, right in the midst of the first round of the playoffs, a back injury would rule him out for the remainder of the postseason.
He has been down this road before. Always, it stinks, no matter who you are, how old you are or how much time is left on your contract.
“Obviously, everything runs through your mind when you get hurt, regardless of [the] stage in your career or how old you are,” Kelly said. “I’ve just tried to handle it the way I’ve approached other injuries.”
He may even be back sometime toward the end of this season. He hasn’t ruled himself out, nor has Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien.
“You always have to have a goal, and that’s one of the goals I have: You’ve just got to keep coming in every day and working hard,” he said. “Hopefully, the team plays well, we make the playoffs, and we go on a long playoff run, and you guys see me back out there.”
After that, Kelly’s future is somewhat unclear. His current contract with Boston expires at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season. There is not much certainty regarding what will come after that, but on Thursday, the 35-year-old forward made one thing clear: He will play in this league again.
When asked about the prospect of retirement, Kelly said, “That’s the furthest thing from my mind. I think age is, in my opinion, just a mindset. I felt great coming into camp this year. The great thing about hockey [is], as someone said, you always feel like you’re 24, even if you’re 19 or you’re 34.
“I want to continue to play. I love the game. I love being around the guys. The guys have been great, and when you get an injury like this, you realize what a strong community the hockey world is. Lots of people reached out to me and [there have been] a lot of well wishes.”
In the hours and days immediately following his injury, it was also great to see how much respect exists for him in his own dressing room.
“He’s just one of those guys that when he’s in the room, he always knows when it’s time to say something,” said forward Brad Marchand. “He always says the right thing, and guys respect him. I think that’s such a big thing with leadership: You have to respect your leaders, and he really is. He steps up for guys at the right time, and he’s always putting his body on the line, blocking shots. He’s willing to do anything — get into battles, fight a guy that takes a run at your teammate.
“It’s things like that that guys respect, and when you see him do all the right things and always say things at the right time, you follow that and you respect guys like that.”
Julien put it simply when he took the podium the night of Kelly’s injury: “I think people are going to realize how important he is to our hockey club.”
The Bruins have missed Kelly in the last two-plus weeks. That much has been obvious. They have missed him in the dressing room and on the ice, particularly on the penalty kill, which has fallen to the bottom of the NHL, statistically.
But now that Kelly is back on his feet — with the help of crutches — he has every intention of being a resource for his teammates in whatever way he is needed.
“I want to be part of it,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to be in the way, and I don’t want to be a nuisance, by any means, but I definitely want to be around the guys and help the guys. Whatever aspect that is — sitting around and just chatting with guys and having fun in the mornings, or watching the games and just giving a little bit of feedback — I think everyone knows in that locker room that I’m here to help in any capacity.”
As painful as it is to be forced to watch from afar, watching will serve as a motivating factor for Kelly. Obviously, he wants to be out on the ice. Obviously, he wants to help. He can’t right now, but if there is anyone who is going to make sure he is right back out there as soon as humanly possible, it is Chris Kelly.
Two days ago, he met with his surgeon. The staples in his leg were removed. He saw his X-rays, and by all indications, things are moving along swimmingly.
“Every day is better and better,” Kelly said. “It’s just about getting that range of motion [back]. I think everyone was expecting me to be in a big cast and not being able to move, but times have changed. They want you up and about, and moving around, and [trying] to get that range of motion back. [I’m] hoping to be back on the bike next week and moving forward.”
He has also gotten some feedback from former NHLers who have recovered from similar injuries — most notably, Kurtis Johnson, who played 408 games for seven NHL teams. He is fully, completely confident he will be back.
At some point, whether it is this year or next year, he will be back.
“I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me, which I don’t mind, and we’ll see what happens,” Kelly said. “I can’t predict the future; all I can do is worry about rehabbing and getting my leg to where it needs to be, and feeling good.
"I’m extremely confident that I’ll get there.”