I stared at the ceiling as I lay in my hospital bed.
Was this really happening to me? Was it all over just like that?
Only minutes before, I was surrounded by screaming fans as my teammates and I tried to tie Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, and now I was surrounded by medical equipment in the hospital with a freakish thigh injury. Even just moments after it happened, I knew coming back to play at any point in the playoffs was probably not going to happen. I was done for the year.
But I couldn't give up on my team either. We were in the middle of a battle with the Anaheim Ducks for the Western Conference crown. I made a decision right then to just forget about the injury and focus on being the best teammate I could be. I wanted the guys to think that I wasn't even injured, even if my crutches would probably give me away. What I lacked in mobility, I was determined to make up for in support.
My new commitment was put to the test almost immediately. After my dog, Doug (follow him on Instagram: @Douggie_92), and I cheered the boys to victory in Game 5, while watching from the hospital, the team asked me and Kevin Fiala, who had broken his leg in the previous series, to wave rally towels before Game 6 to pump up the crowd. We rolled to the Bandstage in matching wheelchairs, propped ourselves up and seriously waved those towels. I'd had surgery that morning, and hours later, there I was - waving rally towels and trying, along with the fans, to will the team to finish off the series and advance to the Stanley Cup Final. I wasn't back on the ice, but I was back home in Smashville.
Seeing Nashville transform over the next two weeks during the Final was more than I ever imagined it could be. I believed right from the time I got here that this city had a special fan base; you could sense that right away. But I never thought it would get to that level.
I still don't have the words to explain it. I was out on Broadway with my family before Game 3 of the Final, and I was walking around just like everyone else: my phone out filming all the Gold and tens of thousands of people that were packed into this quarter-mile stretch to support the Preds. I got the whole fan experience during those next few games. From meeting artists at the CMA fest to yelling "go Preds" at everyone that walked past us, I experienced Music City Stanley Cup Final pandemonium. It was awesome.
It's memories like that which make me so anxious for this coming season. If that's what it looked like falling short in the Final, can you imagine what this June could look like?
The culture has changed so much since our run last season. Now, our expectation is to be the best. Every day when we come to the rink, that's the standard. There is no second place, there is no third place. For us, it's now a "first or last" mentality, because we know we have what it takes to win it all after getting so close last season.
One day at a time, we just have to improve a little bit more and do our best to get back in a position to win that Stanley Cup. We all want to see Preds fever in June.
Adding an old buddy in Scott Hartnell and a two-time champion in Nick Bonino is just what we needed to help give ourselves that second shot.
Hartsy and I go back for several years. We played together in Columbus and were really close. He's a fun guy to be around for an old fart. I think he's going to surprise a lot of people this year with how much game he still has left in him. I have 100 percent confidence that he's going to have a phenomenal year for us and play a big part in our success.
I just got to know Nicky at a wedding this summer and have been so impressed with his character during training camp and in the preseason. His hockey sense and IQ are just fun to watch, and I think he's another guy we're so anxious to see in game situations with our team.
You can't underestimate the unique situation we have in our room with the quality individuals we have on the team. Even with losing Mike Fisher, we've formed the new leadership group that's complemented by guys like Hartsy and Nicky who will keep us on the right path.
I'm really honored to be included in a leadership group comprised of such great guys (Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Filip Forsberg, Pekka Rinne, P.K. Subban and Bonino), it's humbling to be thought of as their equal.
I've been blessed to work alongside some of the best leaders in the game with Nick Foligno in Columbus and Shea Weber and Fish here, and I know it's the right time for me to step up and follow in their footsteps.
With Foligno, I learned how a professional hockey player is supposed to carry himself. With Shea, I only played with him for a few months, but I still soaked up so much in that time. He really is the definition of a warrior. You learn from guys like that every single day. And with Mike, I just can't say enough. He's the type of guy you want to surround yourself with. He's the guy you always want to text first, call first and just hang out with and learn from. I can't thank these guys enough.
I owe them so much, not just for helping me, but for being the men they are day after day. I think they're the reason I'm getting recognized with wearing an "A" this season. There are a ton of great leaders and people in the League, but for me, those guys were at the top by themselves.
Before I finish, I want to leave you with a daydream I keep having.
It's one I imagine you've thought about, too. On Oct. 10, we're going to watch a banner be raised to the rafters of Bridgestone Arena. And we're going to look at it and see that it only says "Western Conference Champions." Yes, that's a big achievement and we're proud of it, but I think it's more motivating than anything else. We're going to watch it going up and know that it's time to take the next step.
We have to do everything we can to take that step. I think this team and this city are embracing each other right now and we're all thirsting for that final win. We're going to do everything we can to make our fans proud again this season. We're going to do everything we can to make the crowds that I saw in June even better. We're going to get that banner to the top as fast as we can and then drop the puck and get to work.
If I smile envisioning the one banner being raised next week, then I can't even imagine what I'll look like when we hang an even better one right next to it a year from now. That's exactly what I want to stare up and see.