. He had done extensive off-season research to make sure his stick was perfect. He had consulted a sports psychologist to help ensure that he was consistently in the right frame of mind. He had resolved to shoot more while playing on a line with ace passer
. And, it was all paying off. With 52 games under his belt, Horcoff was headed to the All Star Game in Atlanta. He had compiled a team best 21 goals and 29 assists for 50 points. But, lurking behind the scenes was the nasty reality that shoulder surgery was inevitable for Horcoff.
"When it happened for the first time early in the season, in October when the tear happened, we knew surgery would be inevitable and I tried to play for as long as I could," Horcoff told me recently.
The end of the line came when Horcoff tweaked it again while leading the Western Conference in ice time during the All Star Game. Horcoff couldn't believe that his season would end because of something done at the All Star Game, so he tried suiting up in an Oilers uniform one more time. He played over 23 minutes on January 29th at home to San Jose, one of the ugliest outings of the year for the copper and blue, and knew his season was done.
"When I hurt it at the All Star Game that was the 4th time I had done it and it was getting to the point where very simple things made my shoulder pop in and out of its socket," recalls Horcoff.
The official announcement came on February 4th. Horcoff's career year was over. He had the surgery to repair the torn labrum later that week at the Cleveland Clinic and settled in for the 6 month rehab process.
Fast forward to today and Horcoff has begun his training schedule in California. "I'm actually feeling really good. I'm not really limited too much with what I can do right now," says Horcoff. "It is a 6 month injury and there are a couple exercises, more the heavy load stuff, that I've got to be careful with. But, I'm working with the right people and I'm on the right track and definitely ahead of schedule."
"I've had a great first 4 months of rehab and I'm ahead of schedule and I want to keep it that way."
At the time, if you would have told Horcoff or the Oilers that there would be a significant silver lining to this injury...well, the claim probably would have fallen on deaf ears. But, hindsight is 20/20 and there are at least 2 positive developments to come out of this. Horcoff nails the first: "The good news is that I got the surgery done in February so I'm going to be ready go right for the start of camp. Even if I did get through the rest of the season with the 6 month timeframe I wouldn't have been ready for the start of next season. There's no way you can get it done in the off season and be ready to go."
The other silver lining is, obviously, the development time that youngsters like Sam Gagner
, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson got with the injuries to Horcoff, Raffi Torres and Ethan Moreau. Horcoff obviously didn't relish being on the shelf, but does admit it helped the young kids get better. "When players are good, it doesn't matter what happens. They're going to get their ice time and they're going to develop," Horcoff begins. "Would it have happened as quickly? Maybe not. Those guys played well."
And, Horcoff knows that the solid play of all the young players makes the team stronger heading into 08/09. "Even with me coming back and even with Tico (Raffi Torres) coming back, with those guys up front playing as well as they did it really solidifies us as having a second line," Horcoff says excitedly. "So just by them playing as good as they did, even with us healthy guys back in the lineup, they're still gonna warrant the ice time because when you're producing like that you're going to play."
"I've been here for 8 years but this is the first time that we've got the type of young guys that we have. And, it's not just one guy; it's 3, 4 or 5 guys who could really turn out to be impact players. With the kind of veteran leadership that we already have in place, the sky is the limit for us."
That being said, Horcoff can do the math. Too many bodies, not enough spots. "There's gonna be forwards that aren't gonna be there," admits Horcoff. "It's just impossible with what we have to have everyone come back."
Horcoff knows that there will be competition in camp again. It's no secret that Kevin Lowe wants to acquire a Top 3 forward this off-season via trade or free agency (easier said than done, admittedly). It's also no secret that Sam Gagner
will continue to bang on the door of the 1st line center job if he continues on the pace that he finished with during the final 30 games of his rookie season. For those reasons, Horcoff knows he can't afford to be complacent and he needs to come back stronger than ever. "I hope I'm not just gonna pick up where I left off; I wanna get better," says Horcoff. "That's the whole point of playing."
"I don't wanna just be as good as I was. I wanna be better."Dan's Dish:
Horcoff also serves as the Oilers rep on the NHLPA. They've got their annual meetings coming up next week in Colorado Springs and, heading into the meetings, Horcoff feels positive about the growth of the game over the last couple years. He was particularly excited to see the strong ratings that NBC had for the Stanley Cup Final with nearly 6 million Americans tuning in during Game 6 to watch Detroit hoist the Stanley Cup: "It was really comforting to see those kind of ratings. We have to get out there and we have to get it out in more households; the game has to be seen easier. It's hard for Canadians to understand that but anyone who travels to the U.S. knows that it's pretty difficult to find a game on tv on regular cable."