When the puck drops for the Wild season opener at Los Angeles' Staples Center on Thursday, Matt Dumba will have a couple of things going for him: better health and peace of mind.
The better health for the defenseman comes from being more than two years removed from a torn pectoral muscle suffered in a fight with Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk, an injury that ended his promising 2018-19 season and limited his effectiveness in 2019-20.
The peace of mind comes from making it through stressful situations that have included trade rumors and blowback from his stance on social justice issues. At 26 and entering his eighth NHL season, a reflective Dumba spoke to reporters on a video call Thursday and expressed confidence that his play will improve in 2021.
"I feel better now and know what I have to bring into each game and what kind of energy intensity I have to bring to the game to be successful,'' Dumba said. "It was a little humbling and a little check back into reality that this is a really good league and you've got to be ready every night. That's one thing that I'm going to emphasize this year, just holding myself accountable to always be prepared.''
Dumba was on his way to a great 2018-19 season, collecting 12 goals and 10 assists in 32 games. Then came the injury, surgery and lengthy rehab that he said limited his time working on his game in the summer of 2019. After a slow start, he finished with six goals and 18 assists in 69 games last season.
"It took me a while to step back from it and evaluate my game and what I'm doing right,'' he said. "I just didn't feel comfortable at the start. I didn't realize the effect that the injury had. I was working hard. I wanted to play better, but I just couldn't find it those first couple months.''
After the Wild's playoff ouster in early August, Dumba went to Arizona to train and eventually joined a group on the ice that included Edmonton's Connor McDavid, Toronto's Auston Matthews and Chicago's Jonathan Toews.
"You got to be on your toes every day that you go to the rink,'' he said. "Because if you're aren't, you're about to be embarrassed. Actually, it was really fun for me to do that.''
Wild coach Dean Evason sees a rejuvenated Dumba.
"Sean Skahan, our strength fitness coach, was saying how much stronger he is from last year,'' Evason said. " … He looks bigger, he looks stronger. That was a heck of an injury. And one that took a lot away from his hockey game.''
Dumba made news with his social justice initiatives in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who was killed while being arrested by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day. Dumba helped form the Hockey Diversity Alliance with seven current or former Black NHL players. He received the King Clancy Trophy from the NHL for his leadership qualities and humanitarian efforts.
Before the opening night of the playoffs in the Edmonton bubble, Dumba became the first NHL player to kneel before the U.S. national anthem, drawing both praise and criticism.
Dumba shared the story of the bad and good he's faced since making his public stance.
While training in Arizona, he wanted to have a vehicle shipped there from Minnesota and called a service to arrange it. He said he was greeted with racist words.
"[He was] saying that I should keep kneeling for my anthem,'' said Dumba, a Regina, Saskatchewan, native. "Didn't ship my car down,'' Dumba said. "That was a battle I was facing.''
A positive situation quickly followed.
"You know what? Two of my boys from the apartment that I live at, the valet guys — great dudes I see every day — they heard the story, boom, jumped in my car drove it down to me in AZ,'' Dumba said. "It don't faze me.
"That's the kind of people I have around me,'' he added. "People in Minnesota have been awesome about it.''
With the Wild continuously looking for scoring punch and flush with high-quality and high-priced defensemen, Dumba's name has come up in trade rumors over the past year, but he's learned to deal with it.
"I've honestly parked a lot of those thoughts when I do see them,'' he said. "It's part of the business. I've been going through this. For seven years now I've been on the block and I haven't been moved yet. I think I'm good.''