|Senators centre Jesse Winchester, who's been sidelined since Dec. 20 with a concussion, remains optimistic he'll soon be ready to return to action. He's missed the team's last 32 games (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images).
To the outside observer, it seemed the most positive of signs.
When the Ottawa Senators hit the ice at Scotiabank Place for their pre-game skate in advance of tonight's matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks (7 p.m., TSN, Team 1200), injured centre Jesse Winchester
joined them for the ride. And, most noticeably, not clad in the grey no-contact jersey that players who aren't yet ready to return to game action normally wear.
"That would mean that he's made some progress," Senators head coach Paul MacLean observed about Winchester, who's been sidelined since suffering a concussion in a Dec. 20 game against the Buffalo Sabres. "It's significant that he was out there with us."
While Winchester would like to share that level of enthusiasm, he remains cautious about his current status. Missing 32 games of action — and riding the kind of rollercoaster he's been on over the last two months or so — will do that to you. But that being said, today appeared to represent a big breakthrough of sorts for the native of nearby Long Sault, Ont.
"I feel like myself," he said afterward. "It's a step in the right direction coming out with the guys. I've still got a ways to go, but I feel like (his return) is way closer and I feel more happy.
"There's no timeline as to when I'll be back, but I feel like myself and I'm working hard."
The 28-year-old Winchester has been skating for three weeks with assistant coach Luke Richardson "and I've really been able to ramp it up in the last week and a half."
"I don't know how much better (I feel), but I do know I feel better," he added.
While the wait for the symptoms to pass completely has been long — Winchester calls is "the toughest stretch of my career personally" — he's trying to temper his frustration level as best as possible.
"It's frustrating, but I'm dealing with it as postively as I can," he said. "I've improved a lot and I'm close to returning to my full self, and I'm eager for that day (when he can play again) ... At first it was tough and for a long time it was tough, but I've improved just like with any other injury. I'm getting to the point where I'm excited again, because I feel like it's not too far off, even though I don't know when it will be.
"I've tried to keep that optimism the whole time. I try to take it day by day. Today was just a light skate and it was fun and enjoyable to be there. We'll see what happens in the coming week ... I just keep progressing and keep plugging away and, hopefully, I'll be back (soon)."
Winchester admits seeing his teammates playing so well and pushing closer to a playoff berth has made the waiting game feel a little easier, though he'd obviously like to be out there on the ice with them taking it all in.
"We’re getting closer to the playoffs and the guys are playing well," said Winchester, who won't be cleared for action until he passes the baseline test that it part of the current National Hockey League protocol for dealing with concussions. "It’s so much more fun to be around … I just wish I was a part of it a little more than I am. But it’s fun to come in and see the smiles and the enthusiasm around the rink and take part in it a little bit."