VANCOUVER -- Ask Derek Dorsett about surgery to repair a neck injury that left both arms numb last season and threatened to end his career and the 30-year-old Vancouver Canucks forward first points to a small scar on his throat, explaining in a matter-of-fact tone how they pulled his vocal chords aside to pull a disk out of his neck.
Dorsett then lifts up his shirt and points to a second small scar on his right hip, which seems odd for a neck injury, but that's where surgeons removed a chunk of bone -- about the size of the end his finger, Dorsett explained -- for a graft where the disk used to be.
"They pull the disk out and put a little washer with mesh on the bottom and they gouge out bone out of my hip and sprinkle it in on that little washer with the mesh," Dorsett said Thursday after his first day back on the ice at training camp. "They just pry your vertebrae up and slide that washer in and then release it, and once it releases down they put a plate in and four little screws holding the C5 and C6 on the front side, and after, I think it's four months, it creates that fusion."
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The procedure took about two hours and is known technically as an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF). It's the same cervical spine fusion surgery NFL quarterback Peyton Manning had before missing the entire 2011 NFL season. Dorsett doesn't plan to be out nearly as long.
Cleared to play six months after the Dec. 5 surgery, Dorsett said he expects to take part in preseason games and doesn't plan to change his style either. He has no intention of shying away from the hits and fights that have resulted in 1,240 penalty minutes in 495 NHL games over nine seasons with the Canucks, New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I only know how to play one way," Dorsett said. "If I need to stick up for one of my teammates, I will stick up for one of my teammates. If I think the team needs some energy, I will fight."
Dorsett clearly didn't come out of surgery with any mental scars, but there were tough times early in the recovery.
"I don't want to say I hated the game, but there were times where I was like, 'What has this game done to me?'" he said. "That was kind of when I was in my 'poor me' stage, but I had two young kids and I'm in a neck brace for eight weeks and not being around the guys and kind of walking around not knowing how it was going to heal. I was assured it was going to be almost a 100 percent recovery, but I definitely went through some emotional stuff from a personal standpoint."
Dorsett credited his family for helping him and was surprised where some of his other support came from.
"Guys around the League I had battled against and fought, that I don't get along with on the ice, would see me in the hallway and ask how I was doing and say, 'I can't wait to see you back out there,' and that went a long way," Dorsett said. "Coaches from other teams I hadn't met before would stop and talk before or after games, so the hockey community definitely helped me through some hard times."
Dorsett had stingers, hits that led to temporary numbness in an arm, but early last season they started to linger, first for 90 minutes after a hit against the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 22, then for a day and a half after getting put in a headlock at the end of a fight against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 3. Doctors suspected a bulging disk and tried traction, but when both his arms went numb after an innocuous push from behind against the Arizona Coyotes on Nov. 17, they knew more was wrong.
"I'm not going to lie, I kind of broke down a little bit," Dorsett said. "Middle of a game, you hear possible surgery, I was a little upset."
Nine months later, Dorsett is eager to come back to a Canucks team that missed his grit. Even with a plate and four screws in his neck, his family never pressured him to stop.
"It's the only thing I know," he said. "I've played hockey since I was 3 years old, and as soon as I made the decision to get surgery, my focus was to recover and play again. There was never any doubt."