Brian Pothier was relaxing at his apartment complex in Orlando, Fla., eight years ago and reflecting on a successful first season in the International Hockey League with no idea where his life was heading.
Not only had he already surpassed any personal expectations by becoming a professional hockey player, but Pothier also was named the league's rookie of the year and his Solar Bears had just captured the league title.
"Our [complex] was like Melrose Place - a garden-style place with a big pool - and I knew it, too," Pothier said. "I was sitting there thinking, 'We just won the Turner Cup - unbelievable team with nine rookies and all awesome guys, and I'm in Orlando, Florida.' I didn't think it was going to get any better than that. I was well-aware that I could be in Toledo the next year - and [two years later] I ended up in Binghamton."
Pothier says he never considered the NHL an attainable goal growing up in Massachusetts, but despite going undrafted and unsigned through high school and college, he forged a career in hockey's greatest league. Having beaten great odds just to become an NHL player, it shouldn't have been much of a surprise that Pothier has returned to the Washington Capitals after missing 14 months with a concussion and subsequent health issues.
Because of this, Pothier is the Caps' nomination for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is given each year to the player "who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey" by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
"He's the epitome of it - to go through something like he went through is not easy," Caps forward Brooks Laich said. "He's worked so hard. I think the main thing about his comeback is he has come in with a happy-go-lucky attitude, and he's excited to be back and we're excited to have him. You see him in practice flying around, and I think it would be great. I think he deserves it."
After being hit by Boston's Milan Lucic on Jan. 3, 2008, Pothier was not only unable to resume hockey-related activities, but his ability to live a normal life was compromised as well.
Finally, after seeing several specialists, Pothier's problem - his eyes and his brain were not coordinating information correctly - was diagnosed and eventually fixed. His progress went from nonexistent to exceeding expectations as he began to function normally, then participating in off-ice workouts and finally returning to the ice.
Still, Pothier skated - first on his own and then with his team - for two months without gaining clearance to play again. After finally receiving permission, he has played four games for Washington, potting the game-winning goal against Tampa Bay on Friday night.
"This past year has given me the opportunity to really understand that there is a whole lot more to life than putting on skates and playing hockey," Pothier said. "It has really been an eye-opener perspectivewise. It has been quite a road and to actually come back and achieve [my goals]. The first goal was just to be functional, and when that happened it was, 'OK, let's keep pressing and get to the point where I can play hockey again.' I achieved that goal, and it is phenomenal."
After Pothier won the Turner Cup with Orlando, he signed a contract with Atlanta and reported to Chicago of the American Hockey League. A trade sent him to Ottawa, and he broke into the league with the Senators. His play there earned him a four-year, $10 million contract with the Caps.
As the postseason beckons, Pothier's return could be a boost for a team with aspirations of winning a Stanley Cup - a long way from his days as a kid in Massachusetts just trying to earn a scholarship.
"I never thought about the NHL. I went to see the Bruins growing up, and I just thought that was some superhuman race or something. It wasn't even on my radar," Pothier said. "[After my junior year] I said: 'Well, maybe I can do this professionally. Even if I end up down in the Carolinas or Mississippi, it will be nice weather and I can do some golfing and make a couple of bucks.' It has sort of taken off from there, and it has been pretty neat."