There aren’t many stories more inspirational than the one now synonymous with skilled forward Steve Sullivan.
“Sully” has been a fan favorite in Nashville since he stepped onto the ice in his first game as a Predator back in February of 2004. Midway through the first frame, Sullivan scored what was to be his first of three power-play goals that night.
Three goals on three shots in a 7-3 win against the Sharks – it didn’t take long for Sullivan to become a Nashville star. With 30 points (9g-21a) in 24 games, Sullivan also helped the Preds secure their first-ever postseason berth.
But three years and a multitude of points later, Sullivan’s world became drastically different. On Feb. 22, 2007 – after recording a goal and an assist in a tightly contested game against Montreal – Sullivan made an ill-fated twist of his body while turning to make a play to linemate David Legwand
"I remember scoring," Steve Sullivan told ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside earlier this year. "And I definitely remember the play that knocked me out, my last shift."
With that one move, his back seized up and, after attempting a shot on net, Sully had to be helped off the ice.
That was career game No. 723 for Sullivan. The road to No. 724 was one no one could predict.
At first, both Sullivan and the staff thought he might just need a few days off with rest and treatment – as Sullivan had missed a few games here and there with back spasm-type injuries before. But days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months; the season ended and still no Sullivan. That summer it was decided that surgery on his herniated disc was the only option and after the first surgery made little impact, Sullivan went under the knife again a few months later.
For the next year, Sullivan worked relentlessly on his rehab, facing setbacks at every turn. He would make some progress and the next day he would wake, barely able to move; one step forward, two steps back was the status quo. He missed the entire 2007-08 season and there were days when he couldn’t even play with his children because the pain was so intense.
"Did I hit rock bottom? I'm sure I did, but not to the point where I said I'll never play again," he said. "That never crossed my mind."
Sullivan never gave up and after more than a year of being away from his team and rehabbing on his own, the 5-9, 173-pounder made the decision to change his routine.
That decision was what turned things around.
Sullivan wanted not only to be part of the team again, he wanted to feel and be treated like a player. Before the start of this season’s training camp, Sullivan spoke with Predators Strength and Conditioning Coach David Good and worked out a routine to be done in the company of the team while they were practicing on ice. Soon after, Sullivan began to progress rapidly.
“At the end of last year I didn’t know if he was going to be able to come back,” Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz said. “Steve just got really determined. We met around training camp and he said, ‘I’m coming back this year, I’m going to make it.’ There was a different tone in his voice. We were very diligent – and he was too – on making sure he got really strong.”
It wasn’t long after that, Sullivan was skating again, then he began participating in practice, followed by full-contact drills. Finally, he was ready to play again.
|Sullivan in his first game back against Chicago |
After a span of 687 days, Sullivan returned to the ice to face his former team, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Jan. 10, 2009. His first game back was a home game and his first shift was greeted with a roaring, standing ovation from the hometown crowd. Though he didn’t get on the score sheet in that night’s 5-3 win, Sullivan put three shots on goal and executed a breakaway that looked as though he hadn’t missed a beat in his almost two-year sabbatical.
Since his return, Sullivan hasn’t quite posted the staggering numbers he had before his injury, when he collected 158 points (62g-96a) in 150 games, but he has still proven himself to not only be a dominant player, but also a leader both in the room and on the ice. This incredible journey is why Sullivan was chosen as the team’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.
“The fact that he has come back and almost returned to the dominant player he was is incredible,” Predators radio play-by-play announcer Tom Callahan said. “You can see he has lost a little bit of his step here and there, and he knows that he doesn’t quite have his speed back yet, but I think he trusts his back and that he can make those moves. He’s still got the hands, still got the mind.
“Right now he’s the leader on this team. Bar none. In the room he is the guy that has picked the team up and put them on his shoulders. And to come back from absolutely nothing to jumping in a couple months ago to now being the
guy in the midst of what we are going through would I think make him a front runner for the Masterton.”
The Masterton is awarded annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. The winner is decided by the Professional Hockey Writers Association at the end of the season in a poll of all chapters of the PHWA. Recent winners of the Masterton include Jason Blake (2008) who was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia but still played a full 82-game season, Phil Kessel (2007) who overcame testicular cancer and only missed 12 games, Teemu Selanne (2006) who overcame major knee surgery to score 90 points and Bryan Berard (2004) who came back from an eye injury that rendered him legally blind in one eye.
The running theme with all of these amazing comebacks is exactly what the Masterton is all about – dedication and perseverance.
“When I read the award and what it means, I think the word that came out to me was perseverance,” Sullivan said. “When you read what the trophy is about, there are a lot of different avenues players have taken to win the award and be nominated for the award. I have to think that it is all about perseverance; I never gave up, never gave up the hope that I would come back to the NHL and play. Did I learn from myself? Yes. I learned that I was a hockey player. It was just instilled in me, that’s who I am and that’s who I want to be. There was nothing that was going to stop me from coming back.”
That dedication is what led to Sullivan playing in his 750th career NHL game on March
12 vs. the New York Rangers. After missing 142 regular-season games and 11 playoff games, Sullivan has 27 points in 37 games, posted several multi-point efforts and led the team to a 20-12-5 record since his return.
His presence is especially important during this season’s playoff run, which has seen three of Nashville’s top forwards go down with injury and several call ups from Nashville’s American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee. Sullivan says his job with the young guys is to provide a veteran presence, to help settle their nerves and to help them feel comfortable enough to play their best hockey. The proof is in the pudding as recent call up Cal O’Reilly scored his first two NHL goals while playing on a line with Sullivan.
“The line looks fantastic because of him and how hard he plays and the energy he brings out there every night,” Callahan said. “I think inside the room, guys respect how hard he plays and the fact that he has come back – the fact that he has dealt with so much adversity to be able to come back in and play.
“I’m sure he has moments where his back is killing him and it hurts a lot, but he just says nothing. Just by that example alone, in the room, off the ice, shows the guys, ‘I’m here. I mean business. I want to play.’ That alone does so much to lead the team on without even having to say a thing.”
The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy will be awarded at this year’s NHL Awards held in Las Vegas on June 18.