ST. PAUL, Minn. — Ryan Suter has ranked in the top three in the NHL for time on ice in all six of his seasons with the Minnesota Wild, logging an average of 28 minutes per game.
This year, he was forced to ponder the frightening question whether he'd be able to play at all.
When Suter and his right leg crashed into the wall during a game at Dallas late in the regular season, he broke two bones. He needed surgery to repair the fibula and talus and was told by doctors that, if he played a different sport, his career could have ended. Even with the expectation the 33-year-old defenseman would fully heal and return to his All-Star form, the offseason recovery was daunting at least and excruciating at most.
"It's been a long process, a long summer, getting up every morning and dealing with that," Suter said.
When he first began to skate about two months ago, oh did his foot hurt.
"I was thinking, 'Oh man, this might never get better again,'" Suter said.
Now, the arduous rehab complete, Suter was cleared to skate with the Wild to start training camp. He passed coach Bruce Boudreau's infamously grueling conditioning test earlier this week by special appointment, and took part in the first official practice with his team on Friday. Afterward, he said he "felt really good."
"I'm excited to be back playing for sure. You appreciate being healthy more. You appreciate being able to put your skate on and not having to limp around when you are healthy," Suter said. "Just take every day to its fullest and have fun."
Suter said he doesn't plan to wear any protective gear over his skate. With almost three weeks before the Oct. 5 opener at Colorado, he's on track to play in the first game. No exhibitions necessary, just the intrasquad scrimmages.
"The one thing about Ryan Suter is, experience-wise, he knows how to play," Boudreau said.
Suter's friend and teammate, Zach Parise, was a natural confidant. Parise has had his own injury troubles in recent years, including a herniated disk in his back that kept him out for the first half of last season.
"We all think that we're professional athletes and we're superhuman and we can rehab faster than everybody, but at the end of the day your body takes time to heal," said Parise, who had 15 goals in 42 games. "We may think that we feel great, but it takes time. A lot of different parts of your body shut down, and it's a long road back. You try to give him a little bit of advice: 'Just be patient. You may think you're feeling great, but at the same time there's still some catching up to do.' So I think that'll be important for Ryan to remember."
While Suter was powering through all those painful exercises, Parise was finally enjoying a rehab-free summer after two straight years of injury trouble, and "trying to play catch-up and trying to get out of just feeling like garbage. So that itself was a lot less stressful, and just the general well-being was way better."