MANNHEIM, GERMANY - It's been a long year for Devils goaltender Cory Schneider.
This time last May, he was at home recovering from surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left hip that he'd been playing through for longer than he'd like to admit and faced at least five months of recovery and rehab before he could reasonably expect to jump back in between the pipes.
This May, he's got his sights set on helping Team USA win a gold medal at the 2019 IIHF World Championship as their starting goalie.
A lot happened in between - two stints in the AHL, his first NHL win in over a calendar year and finally finding his game at the end of the season - but that's why he wanted to take the opportunity to represent USA Hockey in Slovakia. He'd been through too much this year and wasn't ready for his season to be over.
"This is one of the first times where I felt healthy going into the offseason and I felt good about my game. I hadn't played a whole lot of games this year. So, I think I was just itching to play more hockey," Schneider explained. "It's tough because I've got two little kids back home and it's a long time to be away from them and my wife, but once I started seeing some of the guys who were committing and I realized this could be a pretty good team with a chance to win a medal, it was hard to say no to. Plus, it was a chance for me to play some meaningful games, some high pressure elimination games that you can't really replicate anywhere else, except the playoffs. So for me, it was a tough decision to leave my family for a month, but it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
The Devils' coaches and management were happy he chose to accept the invitation, especially after the tough year he had.
"The fact that he's made the commitment to come here and play, it shows his hunger to be able to get his game back and try to get back to the level needed to be one of the better goalies in the NHL," said Devils head coach John Hynes, who is also one of the assistant coaches for Team USA. "He was playing really well at the end of the season and it will be good for him to be able to continue that with a few more games at the world championships. He's going to get a great opportunity here."
The last time Schneider played in the world championship was in 2007 after his junior season at Boston College. He didn't see a single second of game action, but was happy to learn and observe and gain as much insight at practice as he could. Now, at 33-years-old and with 12 years of professional experience, his expectations for this trip to the world championship is much different.
Video: RAW | Cory Schneider on World Championship
"As a group, we feel really good about our team and what we could accomplish together and I want to be a big part of our success," he explained. "But we know how hard this tournament is, that all it takes is one game where you have an off night or if things don't go well for you and you can get eliminated. Goaltending is a big part of it. If you get into overtime, single-elimination games, shootouts, things like that, your goalie has to be a really good one, have a really good tournament and be one of your best players. That's my goal. To be a key cog and hopefully help us advance far in the medal round. I just want to play my best, try to bring some stability and consistency back there and hopefully go back home with a medal."
It would be a fantastic ending to a season with more ups and downs than a rollercoaster.
"It was a challenging year, for sure. Especially the beginning, coming back from my hip surgery, you want to come back and be your best right away and it just doesn't work like that," Schneider stated. "I put a lot of time and effort into my rehab to try to get myself into the best position and, frankly, it didn't go very well."
When the doctors signed off on him being able to play and Schneider felt he was ready, he was sent to Binghamton, the Devils AHL affiliate, for a rehab assignment and played three games. His numbers weren't spectacular, but he finished 1-1-1 and felt like he was ready to go. It wasn't long after coming back to New Jersey that he realized he wasn't.
"In those first six weeks, there were just a lot of different elements of my game that just weren't clicking, and whether it's physical or mental, or both, I wasn't happy at all with with how things were going. I was trying to force it because I wanted to play, but I just didn't feel very good about how I was playing," he said. "So, I went back on the IR for a few weeks to sort out some stuff following the surgery. And, when I came back, I just had a different mindset and I had worked on my game a little bit, too."
After four weeks on injured reserve in late December and early January, Schneider was once again assigned to Binghamton for a rehab stint, but this time he stayed for two weeks and got in five starts.
"I felt a lot better about the principles of my game and what's made me a good goalie for most of my career. So, when I came back, it was great to finally feel like myself again, and feel that my movements and my reads were on point and what I expect out of myself," he explained. "It didn't undo what had happened over almost all 2018, but it was fun to play well again because it's hard. It's hard when you don't get results and it's hard when you don't feel good about yourself or your game. It makes it difficult to come to the rink. So, for me, it was about keeping a good attitude and just sticking with it."
It's that attitude and willingness to put in the work that really impressed Hynes this season.
"I give Cory a ton of credit. He really embraced the struggle this year and, even last year, when Kinkaid was the starter, and Cory was backing up, he was the ultimate team player," he said. "When people go through adversity, sometimes you can feel it and it can affect you, but his work ethic never slipped. He's the ultimate teammate. He can set aside his own issues for the good of the team and support his teammates and I think that that speaks volumes about his character.
"And then this year," Hynes continued. "He was willing to make the sacrifices with his family and go to Binghamton so he could get in some games without the pressures of winning like he would if he was trying to get his game back by playing in the NHL. I believe that his willingness to go down there and do that and put in the work is a big reason why he was able to come back to us and have a strong end of the year."
When he finally did make his way back to Newark, he still had some mental hoops to jump through as it had been over a year since his last win the NHL.
"Every game I went into, I was positive and confident," Schneider said. "I didn't think about the losing streak, but it obviously was there. I wasn't trying to hide from it, or pretend like it didn't exist. It did, but if you let that get to you, then you're never gonna pull yourself out of it. And, there were some games along the way that I played well enough to win and didn't. So again, for me, it was more about feeling good about my game and how I was playing versus only focusing on what the results were.
"I felt good about my game since coming back that second time," he continued. "I just hadn't gotten that one yet. And, you know, it was sort of a funky way to get it coming in halfway through the game being down three goals. I think I think my teammates were probably happier for me than I was for myself, you know? But, it was a good feeling, a little bit of relief. I was just happy to contribute and do something for the team for the first time in a while and then I went on a little bit of a roll after that. So it was nice."
After the season ended, Schneider took two weeks off to decompress from the season and then ramped it right back up again so he'd be prepared to play for Team USA. He was able to convince some Devils teammates like Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to come in and shoot on him a couple times a week. He worked with the strength and conditioning coaches as well as went over some things with the goalie coach, Roland Melanson, regarding some drills he could do to prepare without a shooter.
"I had a lot of believers who supported me, Coach Hynes being one of them and my teammates, my general manager, they all got behind me. So, that was really encouraging and that helped me to have a strong end to the season and because I felt so good, I wanted to continue that and come here with Team USA and build off of that into next season and not take six months off between games. I'm not here just to enjoy Europe, meet some new guys and represent my country. I want to win and then I want to take that into the rest of my training this summer and have a really good start to the season in New Jersey."
While Hynes, as an assistant coach with Team USA, will be a little more hands off with Cory at the world championship, he's still around to support him, if he needs it.
"As his coach, it's nice to see a player that is not satisfied that he played well at the end of the year," he said. "He's going to play in meaningful games, he's going to play in pressure games and all those are those things are so important to getting better and being confident enough to make those quick decisions that lead to big saves in key moments of the game. Whether we win the gold or not, Cory's going to learn through these games and he's going to be better for us in New Jersey because of this experience here."
"I'm really proud of him," Hynes continued. "Not only for everything he's battled through this season, but that he's still pushing for more out of himself and I really hope he gets rewarded for all his hard work."