Zach Parise’s life sounded pretty miserable for two weeks in October. He couldn’t stand for more than 20 minutes before pain shooting down his left leg became unbearable. Sitting wasn’t any more comfortable.
He couldn’t put on socks by himself. Couldn’t lift his kids to play. Driving was so painful that his wife would take the wheel while he lay down in the back seat. If he sneezed or coughed, his leg felt on fire.
He ate meals lying down, which basically was how he spent most of those two weeks. Lying down to escape pain caused by a herniated disk in his back.
“It was awful,” he said. “I just said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
Surgery brought relief, and now only a few final hurdles remain before he can play in a hockey game again.
Parise officially rejoined the Wild on Friday for his first practice since undergoing microdiscectomy surgery in late October.
Doctors have not cleared him for full contact yet, but his return to the lineup shouldn’t be far away. Parise has a target date in mind, but he declined to share it publicly.
So far, so good, though. He feels no pain when he skates or shoots a puck. Now, it’s just a matter of building up his endurance and making sure his back can withstand physical pounding.
“I don’t want to come back and ease in,” he said. “I want to come back and be ready to play right away.”
And play his usual way. That’s the most curious part of his return.
Parise plays a rugged, fear-nothing brand of hockey that invites punishment. He’s also 33 years old with a surgically repaired back and a contract that has eight years and $45 million remaining, counting this season.
That paints a complicated picture for the organization. Parise remains a face of the franchise and on-ice energizer. The Wild has a lot invested in him, which should compel the organization to cross fingers and hope that Parise’s back problems are fixed, for good. And that he’s the same player.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be able to get back to playing the way that I know that I can, the way I’m capable of,” he said.
Surgery was a last option. Some have wondered why Parise didn’t pursue surgery two years ago, but athletes almost always choose rehab over surgery when given the option. Especially when faced with back surgery.
Parise received an injection during training camp that reduced pain, but he aggravated his injury in practice and additional therapy did not help. Surgery made him feel better instantly.
“I went for a walk later that afternoon,” he said. “I can’t tell you the relief. It was incredible.”
He says he feels great now. Still to be determined is whether his back problems are behind him, and whether he can become the same player he was pre-injury. That’s the $45 million unknown.
Asked if he ever thinks about his future knowing back issues often persist or flare up unpredictably, Parise said, “Of course it’s in the back of your mind.” But in the next breath he expressed confidence that surgery and his rehab regimen solved the issue.
Parise likely will wear extra padding to protect his back, but he insists he’s not changing a thing about his style of play. He is who he is. A worker bee, buzzing the net and going hard to the corners, often as opponents jab their sticks into his back.
“I’m not going to shy away from the front of the net,” he vowed.
The Wild has been one of the NHL’s hottest teams the past month without Parise. The team has done more than tread water since early November. His return will make the lineup deeper, and grittier, and tougher to defend.
The Wild doesn’t need a savior. That’s not who Parise is anyway. The team just needs him to be himself, the same old Zach Parise, the guy who brings relentless energy and hustle to myriad roles.
Hopefully, his back will allow him to be that player again.