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Peter Mueller will take the Xcel Energy Center ice Sunday for the first time since Feb. 10, 2010.
It's one more milestone for the 23-year-old Mueller, a Minnesota native now with the Colorado Avalanche who once seemed on a fast track to stardom. But that was before he lost 18 months of his career -- no, his life -- to symptoms stemming from two on-ice concussions.
Eighteen months filled with headaches, dizziness, nausea and uncertainty spent sitting in dark rooms wearing sunglasses, avoiding light and loud sounds.
Eighteen months that have left him feeling before every game like a little kid lacing up his first pair of skates.
"Being away makes you remember your love for the game," he said.
His parents, brothers, extended family and friends will be in St. Paul to share the moment Sunday. They, too, have a changed perspective of watching Peter on the ice.
"As a parent I used to wish he'd have a good game, get a goal or two, and that his team would win," said Randy Mueller, Peter's father. "Now I just want him to be safe so he can play the game he loves."
A promising start
Peter Mueller seemed NHL-bound from a young age. A Bloomington native, he played at Breck High School, then went to the National Team Development Program in Michigan, followed by major juniors in the Western Hockey League.
In 2006 he was drafted by Phoenix, the eighth player chosen.
One season later, as a 19-year-old rookie, he scored 78 points. That number dropped to 36 a year later, and when his production was still lagging the next season, Mueller was traded to Colorado.
Mueller scored nine goals and had 20 points in his first 15 games with the Avalanche. He was back. Then, on April 4, 2010, a hit from San Jose defenseman Rob Blake gave him a concussion and ended his season. Mueller returned for the next fall's training camp but took a stick to the head in the first preseason game and suffered another concussion.
He didn't play a regular-season game in 2010-11.
The months away were a blur, Mueller said. A typical day: Wake up, hope to feel normal, maybe take a walk. Then he would go into a quiet, dark room and rest. One bright light, one loud noise, and he could be hit with massive headaches.
"It took a while before I could even watch TV," Mueller said.
Concussions have become an NHL epidemic, as fans of the Wild know following the recoveries of Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse. It takes time, and even more patience.
For months, Mueller couldn't even board a plane. Once he could, he went to Boston to work with Dr. Robert Cantu, a Boston University professor of neurosurgery who is an expert in sports-related brain injuries.
But as hard as the physical aspect of his recovery was, the psychological issues might have been harder. Away from the team, Mueller stopped feeling a part of it.
"You wake up, you have symptoms, you can't even get out of bed," he said. "It's tough not communicating with people like you do on a normal basis."
It was hard for his family, too. His father remembers his son's frustration. "Every day, I wanted to call and ask, 'How are you feeling?' " Randy Mueller said. "But they get sick of that. They want to be left alone. But that becomes a vicious cycle."
Randy Mueller described the period as one of "agony" for family members, describing "many sleepless nights, prayerful nights."
There was little to do but wait. Mueller's parents visited when they could. Everyone credits Mueller's wife, Taylar, for her role in the recovery.
"I remembered how important the small things were," Mueller said. "Someone comes up to you, they say hello and it puts a smile on your face. For one minute your focus is taken away from the injury. You have to be around good people to overcome this, people who understand, who are loving."
Mueller started working out last summer. By mid-July he got back on the ice -- "like being on a pond for the first time," he said.
Mueller participated in training camp and was on the ice when this season started. But, after three regular-season games, things weren't yet right. Mueller was in the penalty box during Colorado's game at Columbus on Oct. 12 when a bright light brought the headaches back. He didn't play again until Jan. 12 in Nashville.
Three games after that, Mueller scored two goals and had three points against Florida. He had seven points in 12 games before a torso injury sent him to the sidelines once again. Mueller's latest return came Feb. 27.
"Take a year and a half out of a 23-year-old's life, playing at that level," Randy Mueller said. "You learn that, as quickly as the Lord gives it to you, it can be taken from you. Enjoy this, enjoy these days, enjoy every game."
Peter Mueller is trying. He is also taking all the precautions he can to keep himself healthy, wearing a new one-piece helmet made by Easton, working hard to strengthen the muscles in his neck and wearing a tinted visor to dim the bright lights.
"It was such a long process," Mueller said. "But my faith stayed strong the whole time."
He is, once again, back. Savoring moments like Sunday, when he returns to Minnesota.
"I'm not worried about tomorrow," Mueller said. "I'm worried about today. You have to take this second-by-second, day-by-day. I can't look towards the future."
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