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Canes' Cole balances power with safe, smart play

by Dan Rosen

Erik Cole scored 30 goals and registered 59 points in 60 regular-season games in 2005-06, before being injured.
Forgive Erik Cole these days if he thinks twice before barreling into the so-called unforgiving areas of the ice. Forgive him if he hesitates even in the slightest before giving up his body for the greater good.

That powerful, hard, somewhat reckless, north-south, crash-the-net-and-the-corners style that landed Cole in the NHL is also what has twice nearly cost the Carolina Hurricanes veteran left wing his career, perhaps even his livelihood.

“Obviously I’m maybe leery of some situations,” Cole told during the Hurricanes’ recent visit to New York. “I recognize them and try to find different ways to make moves out of the vulnerable positions.”

Cole’s woes began two seasons ago, when his career nearly came crashing down.

As the Hurricanes were marching toward their Stanley Cup in 2006, Cole was trying to overcome a compression fracture to one of his vertebrae, a near life-altering injury he suffered on March 4, 2006 via a hit from behind delivered by Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik.

Cole, who scored 30 goals and wracked up 59 points in 60 regular-season games in 2005-06, wound up missing a total of 45 games before returning for Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against Edmonton.

“Before the first injury, I thought he was one of the strongest power forwards in the game,” Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said.

Cole didn’t disappoint last season either, scoring 29 goals and accounting for 61 points in 71 contests. But he admits the pain was sometimes unbearable and the range of motion in his neck was seriously lacking.

“Some mornings really hurt, some weren’t so bad, but I didn’t anticipate it being as bad as it was,” Cole said. “Mentally, that was tough. It was wearing on me a bit.”

Cole, though, said he felt he was beginning to regain his pre-injury form -- the same form that turned him into a premier power forward in the NHL and landed him a spot on the United States’ Olympic squad in 2006 -- until his most recent setback.

On Nov. 12 at Florida, he went flying head-first into Panthers goalie Thomas Vokoun and lay motionless on the ice for roughly five minutes before being taken off on a stretcher and brought immediately to an area hospital.

“I heard a loud crunch and had a real bad stinger that went down my arms,” Cole recalled. “Right away, I checked to make sure I could wiggle everything, but I knew it was best to stay put and wait to be sure.”

This time, good fortune was with him.

X-rays revealed no fractures, no dents of any kind. He missed only four games before returning Nov. 23 against Tampa Bay, where he picked up a pair of assists. He even feels more range of motion in his neck now than before his crash into Vokoun.

Cole was injured a second time after running into Florida Panther's goalie Thomas Vokoun on November 12.

“As it turns out it might be a bit of a blessing because now I’m able to do more soft tissue work on my neck,” Cole said. “Last year we didn’t do any. We just let everything stiffen up. Since the incident I feel like my range of motion is better from point to point.”

If he can stay on a healthy string, Cole sees no reason he can’t get it all back, full range of confidence included. In fact, some members of the Hurricanes organization say it appears he already has, despite the recent stretcher incident in Florida.

“He still makes it down those boards and cuts to the net hard,” Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said. “He’s been assured by the doctors that with any future injury he has the same risk as any other player.”

“I room with him, so I hear a lot of his pain,” added Eric Staal. “I think he skates just as hard as he used to, but the type of game he plays is speed and driving the net, and you can put yourself in a vulnerable position that way. Obviously, he has a few times.”

Rutherford, in fact, admits to cringing each time Cole’s body hits the ice.

“Anytime you see him get hit and he goes down and doesn’t get up right away,” Rutherford said, “you get that vision, you get that picture.”

Forgive Erik Cole if he sees that same picture, too.

It’s fresh and it’s scary, but Cole is doing his best not to let it change him.

“I still have to play the same way, the way that got me here and will keep me here,” Cole said. “If not, I don’t know what I’d be bringing.”

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