BROSSARD, Que. - Tim Bozon was clearly the happiest skater among the 44 players at the opening of the Montreal Canadiens rookie camp on Friday.
The 20-year-old was glad just to be alive and back on the ice after a bout of meningitis in March nearly cost him his life.
"I almost died and I'm not scared to say that," said Bozon, a left winger drafted 64th by Montreal in 2012.
He said recovering from the illness and getting back in good enough shape to attend the rookie camp was his goal as he worked for six months to regain his movements and skills.
"I always believed," he said. "We worked so hard this summer to be here today. I'm proud of the people who helped me. It's for them that I'm fighting today."
On March 1, after his Western Hockey League team, the Kootenay Ice, played against the Blades in Saskatoon, Bozon got severe headaches and was taken to hospital.
He was diagnosed with life-threatening Neisseria meningitis. Doctors at Royal University Hospital put him in an induced coma to help treat the virus.
He was released on March 28 and returned home to southern France. He said he had lost 40 pounds, had trouble speaking and had to relearn to walk.
Helped by doctors, physiotherapists and his mother's cooking, the six-foot-one 183-pound skater got back to his playing weight. On June 5, he was back on his skates for the first time at a rink in Nice, France. He said his skating and hockey skills returned more quickly than he thought they would.
"It was one of the best days of my life," he said. "Who would have thought I'd be back on the ice three months after I almost died.
"I feel back to normal. I've been skating the last two weeks with NHL guys and I didn't feel too far behind them. That's good."
Bozon is expected to turn pro this season, likely with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL.
He is one of the brighter prospects in the Canadiens organization. He was born in St. Louis, where his father Philippe Bozon played for the Blues in the early 1990s.
The prospects had physical exams Friday and will begin non-ice work on Saturday, where they hope to earn invitations to the main camp, which begins Thursday.
There are not a lot of openings on the NHL club, but there is concern over a lack of depth at right wing.
Top candidates for that would be Sven Andrighetto and Patrick Holland, who played in Hamilton last season, and 22-year-old free agent Jiri Sekac.