HERSHEY, Pa. | On Jan. 3, 2008, Washington Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier had his career and life altered by a concussion. For 11 months, he was hampered by symptoms - dizziness, vertigo - and he couldn't fully participate in life as a hockey player and as a father.
But on Saturday, Pothier was back on the ice in game action, playing with the Caps' American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Sure, he registered only a plus-1 rating in just under 13 minutes, but that night in Toronto marked another crucial milestone on Pothier's twisting journey back to health.
"It was an interesting road, the process we went through to find out what's going on," he said. "I was out for what, 15 months or something, so for that time, you're constantly thinking about the injury and you're thinking about your head and how things are going. When you step on the ice, it just doesn't vanish."
Pothier's progression to playing in a full-contact game has gone at a speed rivaling the rides at Hersheypark, adjacent to the Bears' rink, Giant Center. He has had no post-concussion symptoms since December, and he could rejoin the Caps as early as this weekend before the team starts a road trip Monday in Atlanta.
"Nobody knows 'cause it all depends on what happens with the games," Pothier said. "If I go out and obviously have an episode or whatever happens - I don't anticipate that happening - but if it does, that obviously changes things. But if I go out and I'm successful and I play pretty decent, that speeds things up.
"If everything goes great, it would be awesome if I could just travel and see what happens on that road trip."
Added Caps coach Bruce Boudreau: "[General manager] George [McPhee] will decide when he comes back. He can play three to five games down there [with Hershey]. I'm looking at in a year and a half he's played 30 minutes of hockey."
After appearing in a pair of games last weekend, Pothier takes the ice Wednesday in Hershey against the Springfield Falcons - with his wife, children and other family members in attendance.
And along with key members of the Caps organization, they can see firsthand the dramatic progress the 31-year-old has made in the past three months after the fourth documented concussion of his pro career.
In early December, Pothier struggled with his inability to play with his 5-year-old son, Jake, and his 3-year-old son, Luke. After meeting with an optometrist specializing in vision therapy, Pothier was fitted for a pair of glasses in North Carolina. He then began a process in which he essentially relearned how to see.
It was, he said, like a "light bulb turned on, and I was good to go."
"I'm a full-blown dad again," he said. "I'm functioning great. There were times throughout the process that it was frustrating, and I wanted to do things I couldn't do. But since we figured out what had happened and made the adjustments with treatment and everything, I haven't had any setbacks - not even really close to a setback.
"It's just been a great progression on and off the ice. On the ice and then at home as a dad, a husband and a family guy, too."
Caps prospect and Bears defenseman Karl Alzner has gotten to know Pothier a lot this season, most recently as his roommate on Hershey's road trip. And while the 20-year-old Alzner laughed about showing Pothier the routine in Hershey, conversations like the one they had at a Toronto restaurant last weekend centered on what's closest to the veteran's heart.
"He likes to joke around a little bit, but at the same time he's really passionate about a lot of things - in terms of hockey, not only on the ice but off the ice things that go on," Alzner said. "He talks about his kids, so it's nice to see the hockey player Brian and the home-dad Brian."
During his recovery, Pothier was supposed to go from lifting weights and riding an exercise bike to skating solo and then returning to full practices in about a month and a half.
It took five days.
So just weeks after returning to hockey activities, Pothier stepped onto the ice at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, full of nerves and some fear. In many ways, the game represented his chance to get back to normal.
"It was the emotional roller coaster, so to speak," he said. "Once I got a puck on the stick - the first faceoff our centerman won it back to me, and I put the puck on my stick and made a couple passes and got in and bumped a few guys - all that stuff sorta disappeared.
"The instincts of the game [took over] - just sorta like riding a bike, you don't forget how to play - so it turned into [a game] where it was a little more fun. I just reacted and had a lot of fun."
Added Boudreau: "Well, his first game his decision making was a little off, but he was a lot better in the second game. That's what I heard."
Not every bit was fun, as Bears coach Bob Woods noted, given the time needed for a defenseman to get reacclimated to a full-speed game. Pothier made it through his first hit - a good, clean check from former NHL tough guy Ryan Hollweg - and by his second game Sunday, Pothier said he was "a hundred times better."
Paired with Staffan Kronwall, Pothier played about 16 minutes against Lake Erie.
"I thought he made strides just from Game 1 to Game 2, and he just looked a lot more comfortable," Woods said. "You could start seeing him be himself again."
Being himself also means reclaiming his offensive game. Pothier has 20 goals and 100 points in 295 NHL games, but he registered only one shot over the weekend. He called it a "really good chance to score," lamenting how unfortunate it was that the puck hit Lake Erie goalie Jason Bacashihua right in the chest.
But the return of Pothier's offensive game - like everything else in the past 14 months - will be a progression, as will his status with the Caps.
"Right now, it's day-by-day. I'm definitely gonna play Wednesday here," Pothier said. "Then after the game I'll communicate, see what they think. They'll get feedback from me, and we'll make a decision.
"It's just about sort of refining my game, and I'm sure I'll continue to get a little bit more ice time, get in better shape, and I'm hoping to get back real soon."
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