Mental will drives Sullivan's return
He recalls the details of that last game, even though it's been almost two years.
"I remember scoring," Steve Sullivan said. "And I definitely remember the play that knocked me out, my last shift."
He's never bothered to watch the video, but the memory remains vivid. It was late in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 22, 2007. He was killing a penalty. Back checking in the Nashville Predators' zone, Sullivan saw one of his teammates was going to ring the puck along the boards. He raced for the puck and, knowing the Predators were going in on the Canadiens two on one, he looked for center David Legwand. He turned to make the play and, in twisting, felt his back seize up. He released a feeble shot toward the net, let his momentum carry him to the bench and left for the dressing room.
And for a long time, almost two years, it appeared that would be Sullivan's final NHL moment, the final memory of a career that had spanned 723 games and seen him become a consistent point producer.
Gone. Long gone.
"When you're out that long, usually you don't come back," Nashville coach Barry Trotz told ESPN.com this week.
But after visiting a battery of doctors across the continent, after weeks and months of working out and overcoming setback after setback, Sullivan is set to return to NHL action Saturday night against his old team, the Chicago Blackhawks.
"It's very nerve-wracking," Sullivan told ESPN.com this week. "There are still so many uncertainties. How is the body going to react to that first game?"
There are many layers to Sullivan's return.
On the individual front, there is the raw determination not to let pain stand in the way of pursuing his career. Because let's get this straight -- Sullivan's return does not mean his pain is gone.
"It's just tolerable," said the 34-year-old native of Timmins, Ontario. "It doesn't feel great. That's just part of who I am for the rest of my life. Lots of people deal with back pain and go on with their lives."
Lots of people aren't NHL players, though.
Yet it was the pain that allowed Sullivan to soldier on when, from the outside, it looked like his career had come to a premature end. There were lots of days when the pain in his lower back was so extreme, he never could have played. There were enough days, however, when the pain was manageable, lessened to a degree at which Sullivan could imagine playing and being the kind of player he was before. Then, it was just a matter of finding enough days like that so he could come back.
"The pain in the lower back is there all the time. But on my best days, the pain isn't that bad, and that's what kept me going," he said. "Because I figured I can play through that."
Sullivan said he never got to the point at which he imagined that last shift against Montreal would be his last. "There really wasn't," he said.
A father of four children between the ages of 3 and 9, Sullivan has kept busy. There have been extended stays rehabbing in Vancouver and Seattle and lots of minor hockey games and gymnastics classes and dance classes and learning-to-skate outings with his youngest.
"I definitely think it was a silver lining," he said of the extended family time. "They make the bad days not so bad."
Trotz figures Sullivan will return a different player, not because of physical limitations, but because of the mental process of watching the game unfold from the press box for the past two years.
"He doesn't look as explosive as of right now because he's not at game speed. But he seems to score at will in practice because he spots the puck so well," Trotz said. "I think he's an even more cerebral player than he was before. Now, he's a cerebral, smart player with great instincts.
"I think everybody is truly happy for Sully."
Trotz said he will ease Sullivan into the process, using him on the power play, letting him feel his way into the flow of the game. Sullivan, for his part, just wants to get through that first game and create a base for moving forward instead of looking behind him.
"I'm just trying to be a very basic player. No mistakes and just get through the hockey game," Sullivan said. "I just hope instinct takes over."
His trademark puck handling and vision will come eventually, he hopes.
"Once my body knows it's going to be able to handle everything, I think eventually that'll be a big hurdle," Sullivan said.
Beyond the personal struggle, Sullivan's return to the Predators' lineup is more than a little symbolic. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Sullivan is arguably the most important player in franchise history.
When GM David Poile acquired Sullivan from Chicago at the trade deadline in February 2004, he represented a stunning change in direction for the expansion franchise. After years of scrimping and saving and selling off assets, Sullivan was the team's first big-name acquisition.
He became an instant hit in Nashville, recording 30 points in 24 games and helping push the Preds into their first playoff berth. The building was rocking, and the future looked bright for both Sullivan and upstart Nashville.
Later, Paul Kariya came on board, and the Predators challenged the Detroit Red Wings for the Central Division crown. They were an exciting, up-tempo team. In 150 games with the Predators, Sullivan has produced 158 points. Pretty heady stuff.
A lot has happened since Sullivan went down, though.
Former owner Craig Leipold jumped ship, sold off pieces like netminder Tomas Vokoun and allowed free agents Kariya and Peter Forsberg to walk away. Local ownership came in after it looked like Jim Balsillie would drag the team north to Canada, and part owner William "Boots" Del Biaggio III further embarrassed the Preds with a very public bankruptcy.
The team has reverted to its former personae as a small-market, low-budget and defense-first team that struggles to put points on the board.
Indeed, before a stirring 5-3 comeback win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, the Predators had lost five in a row and tumbled out of the Western Conference playoff bracket. Through that five-game skid, the Preds managed just seven goals, and they were 27th in goals per game and 28th on the power play heading into Friday's action.
"So many things have been taken away from us the last couple of years," Trotz said. "To me, it's like a free-agent signing just because he's been out so long. It'll be a big boost for the hockey club."
A boost that's been a long time coming.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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