Wild goalie Alex Stalock and wife, Felicia, were cleaning their garage recently when they came upon the ankle/foot orthotic he needed six years ago, when doctors wondered if the South St. Paul native would ever play hockey again.
Felicia asked if she could toss it.
“For some funny reason, I’m like, ‘No, let’s hold onto that,’ ” Stalock said. “Because it was cool. I remember the first time I could walk and get rid of the crutches and all that.”
It’s a reminder for Stalock, 30, that no matter how intense the Wild’s backup goaltender competition gets, he’s fortunate just to be on the ice.
Stalock will get the start Thursday, when the Wild plays its first home preseason game against Winnipeg. He’s battling former Boston Bruin Niklas Svedberg to be Devan Dubnyk’s backup, a pivotal position for the team considering how the overworked Dubnyk hit a wall late last season.
But Stalock, a former Minnesota Duluth standout, has it all in perspective. Three days after winning his NHL debut for the San Jose Sharks in 2011, he suffered a career-threatening injury.
The Sharks had returned him to Worcester in the American Hockey League, with plans to bring him back for a subsequent game at Boston. Stalock went down on his stomach to cover a loose puck, only to have it wiggle free. Manchester forward Dwight King tried leaping over Stalock and didn’t make it, landing with one skate on the unprotected back portion of the goaltender’s left knee.
Nobody could see blood, but Stalock knew something was wrong; he couldn’t feel his left foot. He thought he might have a broken ankle or severe knee injury, but back in the training room, the team doctor discovered it was a serious cut.
Surgeons quickly repaired Stalock’s hamstring tendon, but the biggest problem was his severed peroneal nerve, which controls movement and feeling in the lower leg and foot. He had another surgery at the Mayo Clinic to reconnect the nerve.
Stalock spent more than two months stationed on a relative’s couch in St. Paul, with a brace that kept his left leg at a 45-degree angle. When the brace came off, his left quadriceps muscle was about half the size of his right from atrophy.
Stalock needed the ankle/foot orthotic, just to keep his left foot from dragging on the ground when he walked.
“You have to wait for growth in the nerve to regenerate and strength to come back,” Stalock said. “So really, there was nothing I could do other than sit and wait, and that’s pretty frustrating for any athlete.”
By January 2012, 11 months after suffering the injury, he was back playing for Stockton, San Jose’s East Coast Hockey League affiliate.
“The first game, we ended up winning 7-6, and I think the other team had like 12 shots,” Stalock said. “So I gave up six goals in 12 shots, and I remember thinking, ‘Holy cow, this is unbelievable.’ Obviously the results took time.”
Stalock spent the following season mostly in the minors, but by the 2013-14 season, he became San Jose’s backup goalie behind Antti Niemi. He posted a 1.87 goals-against average that season and played in three Sharks playoff games.
He spent another 1½ seasons as the Sharks backup before they traded him to Toronto in February 2016. That offseason, the Wild called, offering regular playing time at Iowa.
“I knew I needed to go and get some games in the American [Hockey] League and get my game back to where it was,” Stalock said.
Late last season, with Wild backup Darcy Kuemper struggling, the Wild gave the hometown goalie a chance. Stalock won his Wild debut 5-1 over Ottawa and drew more praise for his other effort, a 3-0 loss to Nashville.
Coach Bruce Boudreau is watching the backup battle closely this month. Svedberg stopped 22 of the 24 shots he faced Monday at Winnipeg. Now Stalock gets his chance.
“It is really important to get somebody that’s at the top of their game this year — and not floundering,” Boudreau said.
“We need that to give Duby a mental rest. You’re looking at somebody playing 25 games, and that’s a lot of games we have to have confidence in.”
Stalock would welcome the chance. He’s sure he’d savor it.