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LAS VEGAS -- It's not the award itself that grabbed the headlines for me on this night, but the player did grab my attention. That Steve Sullivan won the Bill Masterton Trophy was a just reward. The trophy is awarded to the player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey."
Sullivan missed 687 days with a back injury that needed two surgeries and almost ended his career. I go back with the guy, both of us being northern Ontario boys. I remember talking to him during his two-year absence, and he was trying to sound brave and confident, but it was clear it was a battle, both physically and mentally. But he kept with it.
"I just can't see myself doing anything else," Sullivan told a handful of us Thursday night. "I felt I had a lot more to offer, and that kept me going. The rules changed after the lockout, and I felt I could thrive with the way the game was now played."
He came back this past season and played 41 games in the second half, putting up 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists) without a single moment of regression.
"The back feels great, awesome," Sullivan said.
An emotional Sullivan had many thank-yous upon accepting his award Thursday, starting with his wife and kids, who were the "rocks" that stood behind him during some tough times in his difficult recovery.
"You need a support system," Sullivan said. "Being away from the game for so long, that was hard. But I threw myself even more into my kids' activities, and that really helped in taking my mind off hockey for a while. I think it helped in my road back."
He's back in the NHL, but where will he play next season? He's an unrestricted free agent July ,1 and contract talks with the Nashville Predators haven't gone anywhere so far.
"I would love to stay in Nashville; I really do want to stay there," Sullivan said. "I love it there. No matter what happens, my wife and I decided that that is where we're going to call home. We love it there. There's not a bad thing I can say about Nashville. It's just a matter of us trying to come to an agreement and finding some room so I can fit in."
It doesn't look promising right now for a return to Nashville, but the days before July 1 are always the most crucial.
"There's a lot of time for things to happen from here to July 1," Sullivan said. "Usually, you get your most talks at the 11th hour. I've talked to [GM David Poile] myself the last couple of days. He said he wants me back and we'll try and make it work. My agent will talk to him again in Montreal next week at the draft."
Sullivan is not looking for a long-term deal; he knows teams will view him as somewhat of a risk. Two years will do it. Could be a sneaky pickup for a team looking for a power-play boost and an injection of character.