On Thursday, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois announced Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan would be placed on long-term injury reserve with degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. The injury is one Callahan dealt with all season and even back before the season began but still managed to register seven goals, 10 assists and 17 points in 54 games, including a pair of playoff contests, in 2018-19.
In an exclusive interview with TampaBayLightning.com, Callahan talks about receiving the news, what this means for his playing career and what the next step is to his recovery.
Has your back been bothering you for a while or is this something that's popped up since the season ended?
Callahan: "I kind of knew. I've been dealing with some back issues for a couple years now, this year being the worst that it's ever been, obviously missing some games with it, leaving some games with it. I've kind of been battling it all year. Didn't know to what extent and after the season I went and saw a couple specialists and after talking to them, it wasn't easy to hear what they thought was going on and most likely won't be able to play. It was definitely tough to hear that."
What exactly is your injury? Is it something doctors has been able to pinpoint?
Callahan: "Yeah, it's a lower-back injury. It's a degenerative disc disease is what I have, and unfortunately there doesn't even seem to be anything they can do immediately to fix the problem. And that's never easy to hear when you're speaking to a couple doctors and all of them agree on the same thing. Just knowing what I went through this year with the pain of it, dealing with it day to day, kind of not knowing how it was going to react in games, I wouldn't be able to go through another year like that without having something done to it."
Is this career ending or is this something you can take a year or two off and come back from?
Callahan: "I don't think a year off or two years off is going to help it to be honest with you. From what the doctors have said and the way I feel, it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to come back."
How long have you back been hindering your ability to play?
Callahan: "It's been a couple years in the making, and I think this year it just got to a point where it was almost unbearable at times. We tried a couple different things during the year to help it, and it helped it a little bit to where I could get into the game and play. But even throughout the year, it was always in the back of my head every game I played that this thing could go on me and spasm on me and flare up and I could be out, which happened to me in a couple of games. And then there are some games I didn't play because of it. It ended up being a day-to-day thing to be honest with you. It depended on how I woke up in the morning and how I felt. I'm sure talking to the doctors too they agreed the contact and the physical game, the banging, the unpredictable movements of hockey aren't conducive for it. It's tough. It definitely is."
What's the next step for you now?
Callahan: "I don't know. Taking some time to process everything, enjoying my family, summertime, obviously time off. I definitely don't know what the next chapter is but it's a little bit too early to think about that right now. I'm just trying to enjoy the family and kind of process everything that's going on."
Were you fully intending to play next season whether it was with the Lightning or another team? Had you been contemplating retirement going into this offseason with all the injuries you've had to deal with the last few seasons?
Callahan: "Zero percent. If it wasn't for my back, I'd be playing next year, as you said, wherever that may be. I wanted to be with the Lightning, but we both could tell there's some cap situations going on there. But, no, I wanted to play. I feel good. My body feels really good other than my back, especially at the end of the year there the way I played when I came in. Mentally, physically, I felt great other than my back. If it wasn't for that, I definitely would have been playing next year and to be honest with you hopefully a couple years after that. I still love the game, still love playing. And the biggest thing is I want to win a championship. I think that's the hardest thing now is realizing that dream or that chance is probably gone. It's not the way you want to go out, but at the end of the day, you've got to look at your family, your life after hockey too. It seems like this has to be done. It's unfortunate for sure."
Do you need to have surgery during the summer or is it something you can rehab?
Callahan: "I'm constantly doing rehab with it just to feel good day to day. I'm lucky enough to where it's not at the point where I need surgery. There's a fusion that they can do for you, but with the ability I have right now with it and how I feel day to day, I'm not at that point yet, especially at my age too, to the point where they would have to fuse it. It's just a rehab, day-to-day. I've got my exercises I do almost every day, and thankfully I've had no issues with it since the end of the year because of that. Obviously, I'll be a little sore here, a little sore there but day-to-day, I don't notice it at all. I think it's lucky that it didn't get to the point where it got so bad I needed the surgery or it affected me every single day just being with my family and hanging out."
The doctors feel like with the rehab your back can return to as close to normal as possible?
Callahan: "Yeah, exactly. Obviously over time, things might get a little bit worse here and there. They feel like everything should be normal with doing the actual exercises, keeping my core strong, things like that. I should be fine, so it's definitely a positive."