Thursday morning, Xcel Energy Center. There are a handful of players on the ice in the nearly empty arena, skating, passing, shooting.
Josh Harding likes to call this the IR Club, as in injured reserve. It's an important association, but it carries a difficult job description; you're part of the organization, but you don't really feel a part of the team. When you're coming back from injury, from surgery, the hardest part is not really being a part of the team.
"We're always trying to stay out of the players' way," Harding said. "It is hard. ... When you don't get to see them much, you miss them. You miss the fun, the laughter. This is frustrating, but it's part of the game."
Harding should know. The goalie and center James Sheppard are charter members of this season's IR Club. Each man has a knee injury, one right, one left, and they've spent the past few months leaning on each other both figuratively and, at times, literally.
Already close friends and across-the-street-neighbors in Minneapolis, Harding and Sheppard have developed an even stronger bond through injury rehab. They drive together to the arena six days a week (Sundays off) to stretch, skate and lift weights. They eat dinner together, help each other through the ups and downs of endless rehab. When you're out of the mainstream of a hockey team fighting for a playoff spot, it's good to have company.
"It helps to have our own little stream, I guess," Sheppard said. "A big thing about being injured is the mental part. When you're away from the team, it doesn't help. So to have your own little group, someone to talk to, express how you're feeling? It helps."
In early September just before training camp, Sheppard, who was facing an important season before entering free agency, was in Colorado training at altitude to get ready. Then, while riding an ATV, he swerved to miss a vehicle and hit his left knee, breaking the kneecap. He had surgery shortly thereafter.
Harding? He spent all summer working his way back from hip surgery. He was in a contract year, too, and was having a strong training camp. On Sept. 24, in the first period of his preseason debut, he made a save and was getting up when St. Louis' Brad Boyes fell on his right leg, tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. The absolute low point was sitting in head athletic trainer Don Fuller's office when the MRI results came in. Torn ligaments, surgery needed. There were tears in Harding's eyes. He spent a month on crutches letting the MCL heal a bit on its own, then had surgery to repair the knee.
Both players have been on the comeback ever since.
On Thursday, Harding and Sheppard were joined by Marek Zidlicky, Guillaume Latendresse and Marco Scandella on the ice. Fuller was there, too, and strength and conditioning coach Chris Pietrzak-Wegner was in goalie pads. The players skated. Harding took shots. He hasn't been cleared to go down into the butterfly yet, so he made like an old-school stand-up goalie. ("A lot of pucks go in," he joked.)
By the bench Sheppard grabbed a board and started drawing up a drill.
"Class, class," he called out, smiling. Zidlicky skated up. "What's up, Coach?" he said. Harding laughed. "Coach? He doesn't even know how to spell the word."
In this thing together
Shortly after his surgery, all Sheppard could do was sit on a couch while a machine moved his leg. A couch is a haven when you are playing every other night. But during rehab?
"It's the worst possible thing," Sheppard said.
In the days following surgery, Harding would help Sheppard into the passenger seat, rear-end first, then bend over and lift Sheppard's leg in before driving them to work. Weeks later, the scene reversed. It was Sheppard helping Harding in.
They have been helping each other ever since. Harding said they have become like brothers; Sheppard joked that they often need some time apart. Harding has a new dog, and Sheppard is officially the dog's uncle.
How much harder would this have been to do alone?
"It would have been very hard," Harding said. "It helps to have somebody to relate to."
As Sheppard said, sometimes it's nice just to be hanging with someone who is unable to do the same things you can't do. They keep each other company, work out in the bowels of the arena while the games are going on.
"We're on the same wavelength," he said.
And the same difficult road.
Future uncertain for both
Both are holding out hope they will be ready to play at some point this season, though time is getting short and the odds are long. Neither can be put through waivers and sent to AHL Houston after Feb. 28, meaning both are likely to head into free agency not having played at all this season.
Not surprising, then, that Sheppard said "the uncertainty" is the hardest part of the process.
"I don't regret what I did, but I was really excited to show what I could do this year," Sheppard said. "It was a huge year for me. For something like this to happen in one of the biggest years of my life was, well, let's just say it gives you some perspective. But it also drives me to be better than I was when I was injured. I've learned a lot in the last year."
Harding prefers not to dwell on the future.
"We have two unbelievable goaltenders here,'' he said, referring to Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore, who was signed in the wake of Harding's injury. "My main focus is trying to get healthy. Once I'm healthy, I'll deal with what happens then."
The possibility remains the two friends could be across the country from each other instead of across the street. They choose not to think about that now. Instead, they stretch, work out, skate and watch as much of the Wild games as they can take.
"I want this team to win more than anything," Harding said. "But, when you're used to playing, it's hard to watch. I'm not a fan of watching."