The good news is Florida Panthers
forward David Booth
returned to the lineup this week after being sidelined three months with a severe concussion.
It was the longest Booth had ever gone without hitting the weight room or lacing on his skates. It also was the most excruciating ordeal he's ever experienced.
Booth admitted to watching "three or four" replays of the devastating collision with Philadelphia's Mike Richards
on Oct. 24 that knocked him unconscious and left him motionless for several minutes before he was taken off the ice on a stretcher.
And he knows he'll be facing Richards and the Flyers one more time this season -- on March 3. One has to wonder -- is Booth in a vengeful mind?
"You try not to hold on to those things," Booth told NHL.com. "It doesn't really do me any good if I harbor any bad feelings because all it'll do is frustrate me even more. It doesn't free me from anything, so I'm going to put that behind me. I just want to play the game -- I don't want to hold on to anything that will restrict my performance."
In the weeks leading up to his return to the ice Jan. 31, Booth earned a greater appreciation for the little things he once took for granted.
"I've never taken that much time off from working out or being off the ice, so I realized how hard it is to get into game shape and just how in shape these players are," Booth said. "The timing required, the situations you must prepare for -- how demanding it all is. It took me a good month of working out pretty hard. So much skating by myself to get back into shape; it was tough. I pushed my body to about as much as it could handle, and finally I'm getting to see some reward."
You get the feeling Booth is grateful just to be doing what he does best, assisting his teammates in a playoff push that likely will go right down to the wire once again for a franchise seeking its first postseason appearance in nine seasons.
But there is some bad news in all this.
The lengthy absence might ultimately cost the Detroit native the opportunity to represent Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Booth was coming off a 2008-09 season in which he established career highs across the board, with 31 goals, 11 power-play goals, 29 assists and 60 points. He was invited to USA Hockey's Olympic orientation camp in August and was hoping to earn a roster spot.
It's still possible, however. Team USA General Manager Brian Burke
recently told Booth to stay ready just in case an injury forces a current U.S. forward off the roster.
"It was unfortunate that I was out in an Olympic year because that was one of my biggest goals," Booth said. "It's the highest honor for a hockey player -- to play for your country. It's unfortunate, but I'm going to keep hoping. There may be an opportunity, but I don't wish anything bad to happen to any other player. I'd love to be a part of it; it'd be a dream come true. If there's an opportunity, I'd certainly make myself available for that spot."
In the meantime, perhaps he'll be able to make up for lost time with some additional games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring. That's certainly the plan.
"I've put the injury behind me and I'm going to play the way I played before and try not to think about it," he said. "I don't want to be timid out there or afraid to get hit because that's a part of the game -- I don't expect that (a concussion) to happen again. I don't think you can play expecting that to happen, so it's behind me. I'm playing every game as if nothing ever happened."
Booth returned to the ice for non-contract drills Jan. 12 -- a welcome sight for sure. In two games since returning to the lineup, he's averaged more than 13 minutes of ice time and generated nine shots, including a team-high six in a loss to Anaheim Monday.
Panthers coach Peter DeBoer
worked Booth in slowly on a line with Steve Reinprecht and Radek Dvorak
, and then moved him to his customary top-line duty with Stephen Weiss
and Michael Frolik
"I think (Weiss) is one of the most underrated players in the League," Booth said. "He's so good -- watching him from above instead of being on his line, you can really appreciate how good he is. He's made me such a better player."
In addition to scouting his teammates, Booth also had plenty of time to think about concussions and head shots throughout his 45-game recovery period. In short, he feels more needs to be done.
"I remember watching games back when I was in college, growing up," he said. "The game has changed so much -- there used to be hooking and holding and that's not part of the game now. I think the way to eliminate head shots is anything close should be an automatic penalty. It takes a while to get used to what's going on, but there's got to be a way to eliminate (head shots) because it's a very serious injury. You don't want anyone else to go through what so many players have gone through already."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.