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BACK ON ICE

After battling to overcome a serious injury and plenty of adversity, Ladislav Smid set for return to the game with his hometown Czech Republic club

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlamescalgary / calgaryflames.com

The uniform hasn't changed one iota. That Tiger logo so familiar to Czech Extraliga partisans still snarls out from the front of the jersey.

Home base remains the 9,000-seat Tipsport Arena in Liberec, with a population of 102,000 the sixth largest city in the Republic.

And a quick check of the Bílí Tygři Liberec team website confirms that his old number, 15, isn't in use at the moment.

Checks off all the boxes.

"It's so … cool,'' says Ladislav Smid,

"Not only to go home again, where my family and friends are, to play for the team that really raised me for the NHL. But to be able to play at all."

Anywhere. For anybody.

"Very happy. Really excited. I grew up there. Had so many good coaches. I'm so thankful they're giving me this opportunity.

"It's going to be a lot of fun but there'll be a lot of expectations, too.

"And I haven't played for a year and a half. I'm sure it's gonna take me some time. You can practice all you want but nothing substitutes for a game."

Medically cleared by his Czech team, two neck surgeries and what must've seemed a lifetime of soul-searching later, Smid is aiming to re-launch his professional career where it all began for him back in 2002, having signed a two-year contract with Liberec the other day.

Nothing is guaranteed health-wise, naturally. But from wrestling with the idea of retirement at 31 to the chance to return to the ice and give 'er another go is a gift he'll always be grateful for.

"When you hear the doctor say 'Laddy, you can go out there and play again …' it's hard to put into words. There's such a sense of a relief.

"There's always going to be a little bit of risk. But after I talked to my family, looked in the mirror and talked to myself. I always wanted to try.

"I know how my neck should feel. I'm not going to risk too much. I have a young family. But if everything's fine, I feel good and I can be a factor out there, I'd like to play a couple more years."

Acquired by Calgary on November 8, 2013 following eight seasons as an Edmonton Oiler, the re-habbing Smid spent 2016-2017 working in a variety of roles for the Flames, assisting GM Brad Treliving, with an obvious eye to the possibility of retirement and taking his hockey life in a different direction.

"I was happy and lucky that the Flames helped me out, kept me busy. That was great.

"But sometimes you're there, at home, sitting on the couch, feeling the worst, thinking how much you miss hockey. It's so sad.

"I just didn't want to retire this way. I was hoping my body would give me another chance, a chance to retire properly.

"I've played hockey since I was four years old. I put a lot of work into it. It wasn't just pure talent.

"So to retire that way, not on my own terms …"

Smid plans on flying to the Czech Republic next week for 10 days to re-acclimatize and train, then return to Calgary to continue working out before heading back to Liberec for good the second week of July.

"The team back home has been great. I told them I wanted to give it another shot. Negotiations didn't take much time. Everything was pretty smooth.

"The full year (away) helped my body to recover fully. It wasn't a case of going back in the lineup, play a few games and then having to sit out again because my neck was sore.

"This was very important.

"I got a chance to train for a full year, skating a little more. And now I feel so much better."

That first venomous hit, the pace of the game, battles in front of the net and chasing the puck back into a corner will all provide tests to determine the feasibility of his quest.

"I'm sure I'm going to be nervous before I get out there,'' Smid reckons. "But if I feel nervous, at all, after I'm out there I'll retire on the spot. There's no time to be nervous. The game is too fast. Too much can happen.

"I just want to go out there, enjoy the game again, and forget about the last couple years."

As he wrestled with his own frailties and the possibility his career might in fact be over, the example of former Flame winger Gary Roberts, who retired due to neck issues only to return and play an additional 11 NHL seasons, helped keep Smid's spirits up.

 "Obviously I'm not Gary Roberts but he's an inspiration for all the guys who've been able to come back and play from a serious injury. I saw him work so hard to come back and enjoy a long career.

"I hope I can do it, too."

So, after 583 NHL starts, his appetite to compete only heightened by enforced idleness, Ladislav Smid is heading home a chance to play hockey again.

Nothing is guaranteed. But this opportunity, make no mistakes, means the world to him.

"You take the game for granted and all of a sudden it's gone,'' he says. "You never think it could happen to you. So you get really depressed about that. Your whole life this is what you wanted, what you've worked for. And … gone.

"So I look at this as a second chance. As a last chance.

"It's still weeks away, I know, but I wish it all started tomorrow.

"I can't wait.

"It's been a while."

 

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