It was a frustrating end to last season for Anaheim Ducks
goaltender Jonas Hiller
Recurring vertigo symptoms sidelined him for almost the entire final two months of the regular season. Hiller was forced to watch the playoffs as his fourth-seeded club was ousted in six games by the Nashville Predators
Making things even more difficult, the doctors he saw didn't have a definitive answer as to what was causing his ailment or when it might clear up and allow him to resume his career.
Fast forward to Friday, and while Hiller still can't say exactly why the vertigo began, he does know he's been symptom-free for almost a month now and has been able to train both on and off the ice at home in Switzerland. For an Anaheim team still waiting to learn if star Teemu Selanne
will return for the 2011-12 season, it's encouraging news for one of its most important players.
"It's just great to feel better," Hiller said during a conference call. "I can't really put a date on [when the symptoms cleared], but pretty much for the last month and a half, it has been progressing almost day by day. I haven't played any games for quite a while so I can't make any promises, but I'm feeling great in practices, seeing the puck well and everything, and I'm definitely looking forward to being back as soon as possible."
Anaheim is set to open training camp on Sept. 17, and Hiller hopes he has gotten a head start on getting his conditioning back to where it needs to be by participating in a camp last month with famed goaltending coach Francois Allaire and then skating regularly with a Swiss team.
An All-Star last season and a 30-game winner the season before that, Hiller had worked his name into the League's elite at the time he was sidelined. How long does he think it will take before he flashes that level of play again?
"I hope first game of the season," he said, laughing before taking on a more cautionary tone. "If I play, I want to play at my best. I don't think it makes sense to go out there and be 80 or 90 percent. If I go on the ice, I have to be comfortable I can play at my best. I want to get back there as soon as possible. If that's the first game, I don't know, but I definitely think being back on the ice and being able to play games, it's lots of fun just to be back and definitely just being excited to be back will help me to get back to the shape I had been in."
Hiller won 26 games and posted a .924 save percentage in 2010-11, but played in just three games after Feb. 1 due to the recurring vertigo symptoms, forcing the Ducks to go with a combination of Dan Ellis
and Ray Emery
in goal down the stretch. Hiller was left to watch and wonder when he might be able to man the crease again.
"If I play, I want to play at my best. I don't think it makes sense to go out there and be 80 or 90 percent. If I go on the ice, I have to be comfortable I can play at my best. I want to get back there as soon as possible." -- Jonas Hiller
"It was really tough, especially at the beginning, because nobody could tell me what it was," he said. "I felt I had to be back, I couldn't let my teammates down, couldn't let the team down. I was frustrated because I was pushing and pushing every day, and it was kind of a disappointment that I wasn't where I wanted to be at.
"The frustrating part was nobody could tell me how long it was going to take. It depends on who it is -- everyone's different in handling this situation and these type of symptoms. I had to realize it's not a one-day, one-week type of thing. It looks like it was a half-year thing, but I'm definitely glad I'm feeling way better and excited to be back on the ice."
Hiller said that while it was a tough time for him mentally, trying to stay positive, he didn't let himself entertain thoughts that his career could be in jeopardy.
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"I wasn't really concerned about my career," he said. "It was more uncertainty that, normally if I want something really bad I can just try a little harder and somehow I get there. This situation was frustrating because I was pushing and trying and trying, and I couldn't just push and it was gone. It was a new situation for me."
It's one he and the Ducks hope he never has to deal with again, and while the medical experts can't promise that, Hiller will try to keep those worries out of his mind.
"You can't think too much about it," he said. "It's tough to just put away because I missed quite a few games because of that and it took quite a time, but at the same time I know I'm doing everything right. I'm working hard, I did a lot of stuff to get better this summer and it helped, and I've stopped thinking too much about it. I can't totally blank it out, but I'm not worried about it or anything."
The 29-year-old Hiller, signed by the Ducks as an undrafted free agent, debuted with the team during the 2007-08 season. He posted a 2.06 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in 23 games and gradually wrested the No. 1 job away from veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere
over the course of the following two seasons.
Hiller started all 13 playoff games for Anaheim in 2009, leading the eighth-seeded Ducks to a stunning first-round upset of the top-seeded San Jose Sharks
in the first round and helping them extend the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings
to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals before Detroit prevailed. Hiller finished the playoffs with a 2.23 GAA and a sparkling .943 save percentage.
Hiller set career highs the following season with 59 appearances and 30 wins, numbers he was set to eclipse last season before his ailments began.