When Brooks Laich was a healthy scratch for six straight games in his second NHL season with the Washington Capitals, he almost did something foolish.
“I talked to my dad on the phone, and I was thinking about going and playing in a men’s night just in Arlington just to be able to play the game again,” Laich said. “And he said: ‘No, no. You can’t do that.’”
Laich’s father was right. And the same applies now, as the 29-year-old forward struggles with time off for a groin injury that he calls “the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through.”
Laich skated Tuesday with his teammates for the first time since Feb. 16, and though that’s not an indication he’s ready to make his season debut anytime soon, it’s a welcome sign of progress.
“I was almost to the breaking point,” Laich said. “It was a lot of tough days, a lot of long, hard days mentally for myself. I really enjoy playing the game and I really miss being part of the team. And to be able to get this sort of mind vitamin today gives me some more energy and a better attitude and hopefully get me back in the lineup soon.”
Laich knew that when he got off the ice, he’d either be all smiles or a “tornado.” As he chirped at Joel Ward for moving to a stall across the locker room to avoid the media crush, it was obviously not the latter.
Laich has never been through anything like this in his hockey-playing career, unable to help his team on the ice or even take part in practices. He suffered the groin injury while playing in Switzerland during the lockout and has been trying to get back ever since.
Laich began skating with teammates Jan. 31 in Toronto and kept that pattern up before disappearing behind the scenes again after the Feb. 16 practice.
“There comes a point where you can’t kid yourself. You know if you’re close or you’re not,” he said. “And at that point, I knew I was so far away from being able to play and to help the team win that the best thing for me to do was get away from the ice and start to feel better because I’m not going to feel better on the ice if I’m feeling bad off the ice.”
Laich couldn’t stop thinking about what else to do, even sitting at home. He wondered what other treatments and strategies might work.
That tunnel vision isn’t surprising for Laich, whose stubbornness is well-documented. But real life provided the reality check.
“I need to be out of pain and be functional getting out of a chair, rolling over in bed, walking, getting in and out of a car. I need to be functional in that aspect before I’m going to be any good on the ice,” Laich said. “It was myself early on that said: ‘Get me on the ice. If I’m not on the ice, I’m not close to playing.’ But it was a learning experience for me to have to take a step back to go forward.”
When Laich took the step back, it was to find ways off the ice to improve strength in his groin.
“Physically it’s a lot of work, but mentally probably even more draining,” Laich said. “But hopefully it’s all for good. We have a great medical staff that’s really helped me and pushed me in the right direction.”
Typically, Laich has needed trainers to protect him from himself. This time, he realized the need to get off the ice.
“He’s a guy who likes to think he’s really in tune with his body,” said coach Adam Oates, who dealt with two groin injuries during his pro career. “Until you go through those injuries, you’re learning yourself.”
Laich “never understood what it was like to miss games.” He played through injuries in the past, including a knee injury last season and a broken foot during the 2009 playoffs.
“The things that I had played through were in my control,” Laich said. “This one, I was so limited I wasn’t going to be able to do anything. And the injury really makes you get an appreciation for how much you enjoy the game.”
And this time out has shown the Caps how much they miss Laich, whose last NHL game was May 12. Oates would love to be able to slide him onto the first line as the left wing with Mike Ribeiro and Alex Ovechkin and have him available for power-play and penalty-killing minutes, too.
“You miss his versatility out there,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He takes a lot of [defensive]-zone draws, a lot of PK time. He’s able to put points up as well. He’s one of those guys that every team likes to have and when’s he not in the lineup, you miss him.”
Hockey runs through Laich’s veins, but at this point he knows not to rush back before his groin is 100 percent. When that’s the case, he said there will be “no excuses.”
That time has not arrived, but Laich hopes it’s sooner rather than later.
“It was a long, long recovery. It’s still not over; we still have a ways to go,” he said. “But it’s been a long, long process, something I never, ever want to go through again. Ever.”