'Tough road' traveled: The odds-defying resurgence of Mattias Janmark
His career once up in the air because of a rare knee injury, the Stars forward has returned with a vengeanceby Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com
What instrument measures heart? Desire? Character?
Can we measure such qualities by the manner in which a person addresses the unknown or the unthinkable?
If a pro athlete confronts the possibility that their career may be over or irrevocably changed with grace and determination, can we call that courage?
Does that denote character?
And if those things are true, then, perhaps, more needs to be known and said about Dallas Stars forward Mattias Janmark.
Even now, the path that Janmark has followed from the epicenter of uncertainty to seamlessly resuming an impressive career arc seems wholly improbable.
It was during training camp in 2016. A morning skate prior to a preseason game against Colorado. The Stars players, who were to make the trip to Colorado, were working on special teams when Janmark suddenly couldn't bend his knee.
"It wasn't painful," Janmark recalled. "I was doing a quick turn and then I couldn't really stand on it, and then, I had my knee in kind of a bent position."
He holds his hand out, bent at about a 45-degree angle.
"And I couldn't straighten it out," he continued. "It was like if I put my shoe where the door is closing, but I won't be able to shut it."
He got off the ice and they were finally able to get the leg straightened out.
"I went to sit down and eat, and then, when I was going to stand up again, the same thing happened," Janmark said. "So right then and there, I knew that it wasn't really good."
An MRI revealed that Janmark was, indeed, correct. It was not good.
In fact, it was beyond not good.
The test revealed a preexisting genetic condition in the knee joint called Osteochondritis dissecans, in which cracks appear in the cartilage and underlying bone had worsened and would require surgery to repair.
Worse, a procedure had virtually no comparable when it came to pro athletes and how the recovery might go.
There were two options for surgery: one using cartilage and materials harvested from the knee joint of a cadaver to refashion the bone and cartilage in Janmark's knee. Or if the cartilage was in good enough shape in Janmark's knee and there was enough bone to connect the two, to perform surgery using those existing materials.
After consultation with Janmark, his agent, family and with team doctors, training staff and management all agreed to do the surgery immediately.
The bottom line, though, was that Janmark's season was over even before it began. And more troubling that there were no guarantees this procedure would work.
"It's uncertain and concerning because I don't know of any other pro hockey player that's had this injury, nor this surgery," said Dr. William J. Robertson, head team physician orthopedic surgery/sports medicine for the Stars. "I don't know of any other hockey player that's had this injury and come back to play at that level."
"So you don't really have anything to compare it to," Robertson added. "If it does heal, is he going to be back to normal?"
And so, in the blink of an eye, the unreal became real -- a completely alternative life canvas laid out before Janmark.
"I knew it was going to take a long time," Janmark recalled. "Zeiser (head athletic trainer Dave Zeis) called me, I remember, after they got the MRI back, and he told me, 'Don't count on playing this year. And even further than that, it's going to be tough.' They kind of prepared me right away -- it's going to be a tough road."
The moment when preparation for a sophomore NHL season becomes preparation for a season without hockey?
"Yeah, it was, I mean it was tough, for sure," Janmark said during a recent interview with DallasStars.com. "Can't really put words on how it felt because it was kind of like getting hit hard in the face. I remember I was at the hotel and I didn't even really know what to say because I'd never experienced any long injury, never missed more than two weeks maybe from a concussion or something.
"That was tough and I didn't really know how to deal with it really. But I remember I had a meeting with Jim (Stars general manager Jim Nill) and stuff the day after to kind of get the process going, and one thing I remember is that I really wanted to get the surgery done right away so I could start the process."
Whatever Janmark imagined might take place was nothing compared to the reality of what he would endure, the challenges he would face and, in some way, the changes it would make in him.
Still, the one thing that Nill recalls about sitting down with Janmark as they mapped out the surgical options and the plan for rehabilitation was Janmark's quiet confidence.
"First of all, he's a very positive, upbeat person," Nill said. "Even when it happened, he looked me in the eye and said, 'Don't worry, I'm going to come back from this,' and I believed him. That's who he is."
• • •
The 25-year-old forward with the soft hands and speedy feet exists somewhere north of stoic and south of gregarious.
He is thoughtful and well-spoken, and while Janmark is little-known outside the relatively small orbit of his hockey world in Dallas and back home in Sweden where he grew up and played for AIK, it is not a reflection of his skill set or his importance to the Dallas Stars. In many ways, he has become the Stars' secret weapon -- "the fixer" -- since arriving via a trade on March 1, 2015, with the Red Wings in a package that sent veteran Erik Cole to Detroit.
In the fall of 2015, the plan was simple: Janmark would come to camp with the Stars, get a taste of NHL life and then return to Sweden to continue to mature and grow. Janmark had other plans. His play so impressed coaches and management that he made the opening-day roster and played an integral role in the Stars' run to the Central Division title, scoring 15 times and collecting 29 points while playing various roles up and down the lineup.
"He's a coach's dream," said Nill, who became the GM in Dallas in April 2013 following a long career with Detroit, the team that selected Janmark with the 79th-overall pick in the 2013 draft. "If he makes a mistake or they see something he needs to change, they tell him once and they don't have to tell him again. He picks it up. He's just is a very smart player and he's very gifted, too."
Veteran Jason Spezza might be the one player that has benefitted most from Janmark's presence in the Dallas lineup. The two played together regularly two seasons ago when Spezza struck for 33 goals and 63 points.
"He's just a great player. He's a really smart hockey player," Spezza said. "He's a great skater and he's so good on his edges, and I don't think people realize how strong his legs are. I think because he's a slight guy or looks like a slight guy on the ice, he catches some 'D' not realizing how fast he is wide. He pumps his legs. He's got big legs. He's a big, strong kid down low. He's just kind of slender up top. I think he surprises a lot of guys with his outside speed."
Video: DAL@STL: Janmark jams home a shot from the doorstep
"I love playing with him because he has really good hockey IQ," Spezza added. "We go out after the first shift last game, he sees the same thing that I see. We make an adjustment, then we have three good shifts in a row.
"You don't have to wait 'til between periods to talk about it. I feel like we're on the same wavelength hockey-wise. That's the same way we were two years ago when we played together."
• • •
Initial indications were that the surgery went very well.
The cartilage in Janmark's knee looked like it was in good shape, and there was enough bone to provide a good connection. Robertson did a bone graft from Janmark's tibia to pack the area and it all fit together quite nicely, like a piece of a puzzle. Two metal screws were inserted to help solidify the reconstruction.
But would a successful surgery yield a successful return to pro hockey?
"My thinking was if we can get this to heal that he'd come back and play at a near level of what he was playing," Robertson said. "The concerning thing was you're investing all this time in this thing healing and now, if this doesn't heal in six months, you turn the clock back and you go to the other procedure I'm talking about (using the cadaver materials) and you're probably talking a year. So that's the hard part and the unknown of which way it will go."
When Janmark woke up from the surgery, his older sister, who works in hotel management in Sweden, had flown to Texas and was at the hospital, even though Janmark had initially told his family not to upset their routines on his account.
"I hadn't moved into my apartment yet, but I was still at the hotel, so she helped me move into my new apartment and took care of me that first week. Because that first week, I couldn't get out of bed without help. So that was helpful for sure," Janmark said.
A week later, Janmark's dad came to Dallas. A friend came after that, as well as Janmark's mother, who had been especially upset at the news of the injury.
"I don't know. I feel like I have a good connection with my family, but of course, something like that, you really feel how much they would do for you," Janmark recalled.
Through the first part of recovery, there was one week when Janmark was on his own. But it was a harsh reminder of the road he would travel as he struggled to perform the simplest tasks like answering the door when takeout arrived.
"I didn't do much. I stayed at home and I pretty much ordered food," he said. "So the hardest thing was to grab the food from my door. That was actually pretty hard, but other than that, I got my family to help me, which was really nice."
As they waited for the sutures to heal, Janmark couldn't move his leg at all.
Video: DET@DAL: Janmark beats Mrazek with great effort
"The first couple of weeks was just about trying to bend the knee and get the movement back in there," he said. "And then, I couldn't really do anything for six weeks. I wasn't allowed to even set my foot on the ground for six weeks -- couldn't lean on it or anything. So (for the) first six weeks, was just plain crutches, doing nothing. I was pretty tired because I was on pretty strong medication first month, too."
As Dr. Robertson put it, the surgery involved a central part of the knee joint as opposed to a lateral or side part. In other words, it was a weight-bearing injury, and so that added to the complexity of recovery.
Once the sutures had healed sufficiently enough, the initial stages of Janmark's rehabilitation regimen included sessions at a high-tech aquatics center. But what rehabilitation also meant was being apart from his teammates and the only routine he's ever known.
"First two months, almost I was never was at the rink. I went to rehab centers, and the only times I really went to the rink was at games," Janmark recalled. "It's tough because you don't want to get in the mix either. You want to let them do their thing, and if you're around, you try to stay away and then let them come to you if they want to talk or something. So that's hard. It's for sure different. So that was hard."
• • •
At Christmastime, roughly three months after the surgery, Janmark's family returned to North America on a trip they'd booked hoping to see their son and brother play hockey. Instead, the family went to Mexico. It was a mark on the calendar that Janmark had hoped to have some more clarity in terms of his return to the ice and ultimately return to playing.
Instead, there were only more questions and few answers.
"I could barely walk," Janmark said. "I went to swim in the water one time and the waves were kind of big and I fell. I couldn't handle the pressure from the waves coming over."
It was a moment that resonated with Janmark because it seemed to illustrate the bleakness of the situation. If he went anywhere on vacation, he had to call a cab because his knee was so weak.
"I'd never walk for longer than like a hundred meters or whatever," he said. "So back then, it was pretty frustrating at times. We could do drills in the pool and I could just feel my knee didn't work like it should. And they didn't know, really. They didn't have any real answers."
Eventually, Janmark returned to the rink -- at least periodically. Although the best he could do was to put on skates and stickhandle while stationary with skills coach Stan Tugolukov and under the watchful eye of Zeis and strength and conditioning coach Brad Jellis. But never with his teammates.
It wasn't until March that Janmark felt some modicum of normality returning to his knee.
A month later, in April 2017, a second surgery was performed to remove the metal screws, and then it became less about the surgical procedure and more about how Janmark was feeling. Regular MRIs helped to reinforce that structurally the knee was where they needed it to be. And had the Stars been in a playoff situation, there was talk that Janmark could have accelerated his rehabilitation to play. But the team finished well out of a postseason berth, which, in the end, might have been a blessing.
Even then, there was no straight path for Janmark.
Video: DAL@CHI: Janmark pots his second for overtime winner
He returned to Sweden a few weeks after the April surgery at the end of the regular season.
He'd been on the ice for one full team practice the entire season.
"That practice I mostly stood around," Janmark said.
Back in Sweden, he found the lack of physical exertion had led to some atrophying of his muscles and he needed to build them up to return the overall strength of the knee.
"I actually had a month back home in Sweden when I got home after the second surgery that was pretty bad again. Like, really bad for two weeks," he said.
Finally, though, the skating began to return to normal.
He returned to Dallas and skated at one point with Tugolukov and a handful of players, including captain Jamie Benn and his brother, Jordie.
He arrived at training camp and began passing through a series of invisible doors. Drills. Contact. Preseason games. Regular-season games. Each day a step further away from the memory of last season -- and a step closer to something approaching normalcy.
"If you're out, if it's an ACL tear or something like that, you know that this is your time. This is when your rehab starts --this is your time, you've got that down pat," head coach Ken Hitchcock said. "But this was a question mark whether you're going to play again and nobody had assurances -- nobody'd gone through it, and then, to come back, he hasn't missed many days, which is a good sign and he's been getting better every day, which is a better sign.
"To me, it's having to live every day not sure if you're going to play again -- that's really, that's tough."
• • •
Heading into the trade deadline, Janmark has not missed a game and his effectiveness, his creativity, have all started to become more and more apparent on a nightly basis.
"After 15-20 games, he really took off and he felt good, and that gives you confidence that your knee is going to be able to be strong to hold up for the whole season," countryman John Klingberg said. Now, beyond the team's prominent forwards -- Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov -- "he's probably the main guy who's stepping up and being one of the best players on the team," Klingberg added.
"This guy's huge for us. He plays big minutes -- PK, power play, 5-on-5. He's a guy that I feel Hitch is really using to get other guys going as well. He fits him in different lines to get guys going and find their groove back in the game. He's a huge piece of our team, for sure."
Agent Peter Wallen represents both Klingberg and Janmark. He's known Janmark since he was 11 or 12 years old and barely tall enough to look over the boards at the local rink outside Stockholm. On one hand, he calls last season "a terrible year. Very, very hard."
And yet, he remains unsurprised at Janmark's return to his current level of play.
"To be honest, I was not surprised at all. It was another proof of what character he has," said Wallen, who praised the Stars organization's patience in dealing with the injury and the long rehab.
"He did what I thought he would do. That's the way he is. He's very determined. He's a very intelligent player -- a smart player. And he's a smart person."
Spezza has gone through enough hard time injuries including back surgery as a young player to understand not just the physical toll, but the mental toll such a journey can take.
"It's quite an accomplishment. What he did is not easy," Spezza said. "There's doubt in your mind, too, as a player if you're going to feel the same. He's lucky that it happened at a young age, I think, because you're young, dumb and stupid a little bit, so you don't really understand it."
"To miss a year like that and to have the durability he's had, let alone the numbers," Spezza added.
"That's a lonely year. He probably went through a lot of emotional stuff, being a single guy. That's a mentally-taxing year to be out like that. You're not really a part of things. You don't feel like a part of things. As much as the guys try to text you and keep you in the loop, it's lonely. You feel like you're just all alone and you're forgotten about and you're not part of the team. So I'm sure he went through that."
Sometimes, Janmark will feel something in the knee if he hurries across a street or stands too long in one place. But -- and isn't this how all hockey players wish it would be -- on the ice, nothing.
"I think there were moments throughout the whole process you're scared. I think I was scared the first couple of months because you don't know," Janmark said.
"For sure, scary, because you know what's behind the fifth door or whatever. That was scary, and this summer, when it didn't feel great was for sure not encouraging. You start thinking a little bit too much."
But being a pragmatist, Janmark sought out solutions to the problems, answers to the questions and here he is -- if not as good as new, he's close.
Does he think about it much these days?
"Yeah, a little bit. I remember the feeling and how weird it was, but now people ask me if I feel normal and I don't really have an answer to that, but I feel normal for now, so I don't know," he said.
"I don't really remember how it was two years ago, but I don't think it was worse now than two years ago. I think the only difference is, now, I'm moving in a different direction. I'm going from worse to better, while two years ago, I was going from better to worse, so that's probably the most positive thing right now that I know, hopefully, it's only going to get better and better."
Funny how something like this puts a stamp on your perspective. From the outside, we imagine that maybe he treasures every single moment of putting on his skates, of taping a stick, of driving the net.
But it's not really like that.
He's back doing his job. That's what he thinks about.
"During all last year, when I found out I wouldn't play, you wonder, 'What the hell are you going to do for a year now,' because all you really do in a season is think hockey and play hockey, and everything you do leads up to the next game or whatever," Janmark said.
"The only thing you think about is the next game. So that was probably the thing that I was most afraid of was, what am I going to do now? I think I handled that pretty good."
He acknowledges maybe he should be more introspective -- grateful, if you will. But the honest truth is he's too busy.
"I remember last year, the only thing I was hoping for was to dress up for one more game," he said. "And for sure I thought I would be thankful, but probably, when I look back at it, I'll be thankful like that. But in the heat of the moment, I don't think you appreciate it maybe as much as you should."
And maybe that's the best truth of all.
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Scott Burnside is a senior digital correspondent for DallasStars.com. You can follow him on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his podcast.
Read more: Mattias Janmark , John Klingberg, Jason Spezza