By his own admission, Bret Hedican’s prospects for returning to play a 16th season in the NHL seemed bleak last April.
After missing 32 games to various ailments last season, including the final 16 with a hip injury, the veteran defenseman went into the off-season not knowing if he would be able to withstand the rigors of another campaign with the Hurricanes.
Six months later, rehab on his hips and back has led to rejuvenation in his play. After an already good start to the season, Hedican had a huge night on October 24 against Buffalo
, recording three points and a staggering +5 plus/minus rating.
It was only his fourth three-point night in the NHL, and his +5 tied his personal best, which was set all the way back in 1996 when he was with the Vancouver Canucks.
Call it full circle for the man who went from nearly ending his career to producing one of its finest moments just a short time later.
“I think if you were to ask my wife right at the end of last season, she would probably have said that I wasn’t going to play hockey again,” said Hedican. “I was just mentally fried, physically I was done, my body was completely shut down, and I think I just needed to get away from the game for a while.”
Now considerably healthier, Hedican, whose +10 now leads the team, says that coming so close to the end of his career has allowed him to appreciate it more fully. Not only is physically able to contribute, but he’s having a good time doing it.
“I just come to the rink every day and have fun,” he said. “Last year made me reflect and realize how lucky we are as far as what we’re doing here. I’m very fortunate and very blessed to be able to do the things I can do out there, and really I’m just trying to take it a day at a time and enjoy every day of it, because you don’t know how long it’s going to last.”
While the team’s fast start this year naturally means that everyone is enjoying themselves a little more than they were at this time last season, everyone from coaches to trainers to Hedican himself has been quick to point out that his attitude has been much improved this time around.
“Now he comes to the rink and he’s smiling and he’s happy, he’s in a better state of mind with his mind and his body,” said Coach Peter Laviolette. “He’s played very well, very well.”
No one on the Hurricanes was happy about missing the playoffs last season, but one positive was that it gave veteran players such as Hedican the time they needed to take proper care of their injuries –time they didn’t have after the team won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Hedican had an especially rough time of it in the short summer that followed that triumph, quickly fitting in two separate surgeries that allowed him to start the season on time. He now admits that his body wasn’t quite ready to handle all that, which was certainly a factor as to why he broke down last year.
This time around, he was able to take advantage of the ‘Canes long summer, using the first half of it to consult with doctors to see how his back was faring after having surgery on it previously, and using the later part to do extensive work on his own to get himself ready to play again.
The hard work gradually paid off, as he continued to feel stronger to the point where he felt he could not only play again, but could contribute to a winning team
”There was a huge difference, both mentally and physically,” said Hurricanes Head Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach Pete Friesen of how Hedican progressed over the summer. “He was ready to hang them up. Now, he’s as strong as he ever has been, at least as long as I’ve known him.”
Now 37 years old and having already had a long and successful career complete with a championship two years ago, one might wonder why Hedican decided to work so hard to bring himself back from the brink of retirement in the first place.
The answer is simple – he thinks he can win another cup this season.
”I thought a great way to come back this year was to be with this group,” he said. “This group is really what made me come back, because I knew it’s a group that’s had success before, and getting Cullen back and getting a healthy group back was going to be a lot better. That was a lot of motivation in itself.”
With the ‘Canes looking a lot like they did two years ago at this early stage in the season, when he does retire, Hedican has a chance to do it on much better terms than if he had called it quits this past summer.
“I’m pretty sure he had three quarters of his body out the door, but he wanted to put in for sure one more year and finish up on a good note,” said Commodore. “If he keeps this up he might be around for another six years, who knows?”