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FEATURE: The Captain's Incredible Comeback

Through unprecedented drive and determination, Connor McDavid returned from a major injury better than ever before

by Paul Gazzola /

EDMONTON, AB - Not even Father Time knew what the future would hold during the summer of 2019 when Connor McDavid was living on one leg, maneuvering gingerly because his left knee was immobilized by a brace.

It was in the final game of the 2018-19 season when the Oilers Captain crashed into the goal-post after flashing for the net, slamming hard into the red metal pipe and tearing his left Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL).

McDavid, bracing his left leg with both hands as inconceivable thoughts panned through his mind, dealt with the excruciating pain of broken bone fibres under the guise of subdued animation: "I think it's broken," the then-22-year-old was seen mouthing on television sets nationwide.

Video: REWIND 19-20: McDavid

The two-time Art Ross Trophy earner mustered the strength to stand and glide to the bench, leaving Oil Country with the grave image of their much-admired superstar retreating to the dressing room and exiting the public eye for the foreseeable future. "I was a mess," said the Oilers Captain in the documentary 'Whatever it Takes: Connor McDavid' which chronicled his path back to full health.

Behind closed doors, McDavid was determined for a complete off-season recovery despite much uncertainty. After first, second and third opinions from the best medical professionals, the four-time NHL All-Star decided to forego surgery -- its pins, screws and artificial reconstruction -- bypassing in favour of an extensive rehabilitation program focused on natural tendon reconnection; essentially resting the fate of Father Time in the hands of Mother Nature.

"To go a non-surgical route with that severe of an injury… I had never done that before," said Dr. Mark Lindsay, a chiropractor and soft-tissue specialist who lived with McDavid to aid with the healing process.

This meant months, weeks and days of painstaking rehab. Hours in a dreaded hyperbaric chamber, flexing the left quad muscle for 10 seconds on and 10 seconds off… on and off… on and off… until the bone tendons began re-attaching. "I was not very excited about that," McDavid lamented in the documentary. "You're just in a tube." 

Edmonton's franchise star transferred from a cramped incubator to desolate aquatic centres, hopping and twirling in different degrees underwater to test the recuperating limb and rebuild its torn foundation -- to restore his predilection for dropping jaws and tingling spines as Oil Country's Captain.

September arrived and informal skates began but questions remained. It was unknown whether the Oilers commander could participate in Training Camp fully -- never mind the pre-season tune-ups or looming home opener -- and it was still a mystery whether or not the rebuilt ligament could withstand the force of hockey's fastest stride.

There was no pressure to return to action prematurely. Not from newly-appointed Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Ken Holland nor Head Coach Dave Tippett. The impulse to return, rather, derived from the healthy centre himself.

On debut night, the 2015 first-overall selection split the Vancouver Canucks defence then popped the puck top corner, like vintage McDavid, before speed-bagging the air from one knee in Edmonton's season-opening win -- re-enacting a goal celebration from four seasons ago when rookie McDavid reappeared from a clavicle injury.

Bent but not broken and motivated by nothing more than the relentless drive and determination vested in him, McDavid was back. Back with blazing speed; back to being Connor.

Back and better than ever before, as Father Time would come to learn.

"The drive, that's just who he is. Kelly uses the word 'determined' all the time but--," said Connor's father, Brian, before being interrupted by his wife.

"He's intense," Kelly said.

"And he's competitive. That's the main word."

Video: VAN@EDM: McDavid uses speed to put Oilers on top

McDavid never has, and likely never will cease to amaze.

The human highlight reel proved as much once the gate was lifted, running roughshod on the National Hockey League early and often throughout the campaign.

With President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Holland in charge, newly-named Head Coach Tippett at the helm, a list of fresh-faces in Orange & Blue threads and the PCL injury in his rear-view mirror, the bladed thoroughbred propelled his club to a strong showing in the preliminary stages of the season, dominating NHL ice sheets with running mate Leon Draisaitl by his side.

Known for their dualism, so much so they've been tabbed the 'Dynamic Duo,' McDavid and Draisaitl passed the National Hockey League scoring lead back-and-forth as they steered through the '19-20 calendar, keeping every other player a far distance away.

The Duo's penchant for puck telepathy, weaving the sublime movement and playmaking of McDavid tightly with the distributing ability and shooter's mentality of Draisaitl, even flattered legendary Oilers through the art of imitation.

"When Jari (Kurri) and I played together, we had a lot of fun," said Wayne Gretzky, hockey's greatest to have ever played. "We loved working hard and we loved playing together. I think you get that same sort of feeling when you watch those two guys play: that they truly enjoy playing with each other. From that point of view, it's very similar, the four of us.

"Leon is, sort of, the shooter with those two. In saying that, Connor has the ability to score 50 goals and I could score, too, but the reality was when playing the game, my main focus was to get Jari the puck in the right position because he very rarely missed. He was the designated shooter between the two of us and I think that's what Leon does with Connor."

What was enthralling to experience for hockey fans was fearsome to fathom for contending players and coaches, as Carolina Hurricanes Head Coach Rod Brind'Amour admitted in his pre-game availability ahead of a December matchup at Rogers Place.

"It's not fun," Brind'Amour said of managing an NHL bench as the opposition of the Oilers. "It's not fun because you can have a great game as a team, you could be doing everything right and then they take over and the game is over. That's what happens when you have dynamic players like that. You just can never take a breath. 

"Put it this way: they're never out of a game when you have that kind of talent level. It's not that fun to coach against. It's fun to watch but I'm glad we only get to see it twice a year."

Video: EDM@TOR: McDavid converts jaw-dropping goal

Even after the Duo was divided by Coach Tippett, McDavid's rate of fire remained unaffected. The pivot collected 33 points over three months separated from Draisaitl, rekindling with the Deutschland Dangler only on the League's leading power-play unit, which at 29.5 percent efficiency stands as the fourth-greatest in NHL history. 

McDavid, the perennial 100-point man and four-time 30-goal scorer, carved out an unbelievable return in '19-20. One that has the two-time Ted Lindsay Award recipient on pace for yet another career year with a point per game average of 1.52, equalling a 124-point pace over an 82-game schedule.

So, while the NHL stands at a pause, there's plenty of cause for applause. Reason for celebrating all of Captain 97's achievements, but most importantly, for the fortitude he showed over a gruelling summer of rehab and for the comeback of incredible proportions Oil Country witnessed unfold in front of their very eyes.

Because only Father Time knows when they'll be able to marvel at it again.

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