Brooks Laich approached the microphones and cameras on the day the Washington Capitals went through exit interviews and left for the offseason and offered up the line of the morning.
“There’s no way to polish a turd,” he said. “These days suck.”
Losing and facing questions about the end of the season is never fun for players, coaches and general managers. This one was different for Laich, who played only nine regular-season games and couldn’t recover from groin surgery in time to help the Caps in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers.
There may have been a few regrets along the way, but not throwing the 29-year-old into Game 7 Monday was not one of them.
“He didn’t have any practices with contact so for me it wasn’t a decision to put him in Game 7. It wasn’t at all,” coach Adam Oates said. “We wanted him for the second series, and we had to be good enough to get there and we weren’t.”
Laich wanted to play. Of course he wanted to play.
“I had Game 5 circled for myself,” Laich said. “Our medical staff and George McPhee and the coaching staff they made the decision that my return wasn’t going to be predicated upon circumstance but upon timeline. After Game 6 I approached our medical staff and wondered if there was a chance of me getting in for Game 7 and they said that this was decided before that we weren’t going to risk you based on circumstance; we were going to look out for your long-term health and your career, and the answer I got is sort of ‘protect myself from myself’ which is what I really need.”
Laich conceded being “stubborn,” which is why he tried to play through the injury at first. It’s believed that he suffered it while playing in Switzerland during the NHL lockout, but Laich wouldn’t reveal when he first felt the pain in his groin.
“I was ignorant to the fact that I actually was injured,” he said. “When I got injured, I thought it was a tweak, I thought it was a nagging little thing that you always get during the season. You have a sore shoulder, you have a sore knee, you have a sore hip flexor. That comes on weekly, and you get used to playing through that. And myself being an incredibly stubborn guy, I just pushed through it, and I was ignorant to the fact that I had actually been injured and it wasn’t just a day-to-day thing and I kept pushing it and kept pushing it until I was completely useless.”
Laich couldn’t participate in Caps training camp and was placed on the nonroster list. All the while he tried to seek out a way to fix the problem.
He had an MRI in mid-to-late February and consulted with Dr. Michael Brunt, who ultimately performed the operation that Laich called “a minor procedure related to my groin.” At the time, Brunt told him: “I don’t know what you want me to do, there’s nothing I can do here, I don’t see anything that I can possibly fix right now,” Laich recalled.
“So that was tough for us, too, if we’re not seeing something on film, what is actually causing the damage and the pain and why would we do an unnecessary, deemed unnecessary, surgery at the time?”
Laich wanted to avoid surgery badly. Some players believe that staying away from operations is the key to longevity, and Laich has said (at least half-seriously) that he’d like to play until he’s 50.
“During the whole process we made the best decision we could based on the information that we had,” he said. “Hindsight is 20/20 and looking back now, jeez, if I could’ve done it in January and been good to go by mid-February, late February, yeah I would’ve done it.”
That would have prevented what Laich went through in late March and early April. Making his season debut March 19 at the Pittsburgh Penguins, Laich deemed himself ready to go. But it was never quite right, and April 4 against the New York Islanders Laich hit the breaking point.
“I tried every rehab trick in the book,” he said. “I sought out people and different people gave us different ideas, everything to try and work through it. We weren’t able to get it back to healthy and then it was after the Islander game, I knew two shifts into the last Islander game that I played that I wasn’t going to be able to continue and that a procedure was the next option.”
After skating with teammates a few times during the Rangers series, Laich reported significant progress. Oates on Wednesday called him “really close” to returning, but not enough to risk the forward’s health in a deciding Game 7.
“It is certainly more difficult to watch, absolutely,” Laich said. “But at the same point, I had no nerves at all going into Game 7. I was entirely calm going to the rink, I had full confidence in our team and I was very close to returning. I was certainly going to be on the ice for Round 2.”
Instead of facing the Boston Bruins in the East semifinals, Laich is now focused on his offseason and how to recover for training camp.
“It’s actually maybe been a necessary evil,” Laich said of the injury. “My whole paradigm of thinking has switched on how to train my body. I’ve really been educated a lot, actually, on how to train my body. For myself, my next two, three weeks is going to be spent on getting myself back to a hundred percent health and strength and everything back to my body being completely normal, then take a vacation, some time off, and then get back to training, and in the fall when I come back I’m completely confident I’ll be a hundred percent healthy, fit and ready to launch.”