Brian Pothier and the Washington Capitals will open their regular season against the Boston Bruins on Thursday, October 1st. Christopher Blunck/DC Sports Box File Photo
WASHINGTON, D.C.—For many players, returning to the city and the rink where they suffered a major injury can be a difficult or even emotional event. Brian Pothier is a different breed.
On Thursday evening, as a member of the Washington Capitals, Pothier will visit Boston and take on the Bruins in each team’s season opener. The national storyline will be about the meeting of two teams expected to vie for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but for Pothier it is also the return to the place where, twenty-two months ago, he began a long, confusing, and sometimes-scary journey that will finally, hopefully, reach its conclusion.
Of course, things would be a little different for a guy who grew up in New Bedford, Mass., rooting for his local Boston Red Sox, Patriots, and yes, Bruins.
“That’s my hometown, that’s where I grew up … every time I go back there it’s a special treat,” said Pothier of Boston. Twenty-two months ago, playing in Boston’s home rink at the then-TD Banknorth Garden, things were not so positive for the local kid made good.
Early in the second period the quick-moving defenseman went into the corner to dig out a loose puck and failed to sense Bruins rookie phenom Milan Lucic bearing down on his blind side. Lucic, listed at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, caught the much smaller Capital in the head with his shoulder. Pothier played the rest of the period in a daze, and would leave the game at the second intermission.
Diagnosed with a concussion, Pothier missed the rest of the 2007-08 season. More troubling was that long after his projected timeframe for recovery passed, Pothier continued to suffer from headaches and could barely get out of bed some days, let alone train or lift weights.
Eventually the defenseman’s troubles were traced not to his brain but to his eyes. The concussion long passed, Pothier had suffered for months with an undiagnosed astigmatism caused by the Lucic hit.
Armed with the new knowledge of his injury (and a set of contact lenses), Pothier began a vigorous workout routine in late December 2008 with the goal of returning to the Capitals by the end of the regular season. After a four-game conditioning stint with the Hershey Bears, Pothier joined the Caps in the middle of March, registering a goal and two assists in nine regular season games before seeing action in all but one of Washington’s fourteen playoff games in 2009.
General Manager George McPhee credited Pothier’s return shortly after the trade deadline for reinvigorating Washington’s blue line. According to McPhee the Caps considered making a deal for offensive-minded defenseman Derek Morris, then with the Phoenix Coyotes, but thought Pothier was “as good or better” than Morris.
That assessment was spot-on, as Pothier was one of the team’s better defenders in the Caps playoff run, and is playing even better coming into this year. Last winter he might have been healthy, but for the first time in a long time Pothier looks to actually be comfortable with his health, something he attributed to a “long summer of working out and trying to get strong again” under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish.
While the concussion has long healed and the eye problems have been treated, the issue of head-hunting in the NHL remains a primary interest for the defenseman.
Soft-spoken and always exacting with his words, Pothier let his emotions slip Tuesday afternoon at the Capitals media luncheon, holding court with a group of reporters on the topics of respect amongst players, head-hunting, and the increase in concussion diagnoses in the NHL in recent history.
On the subject of respect, Pothier feels there isn’t enough in today’s hockey. He referred specifically to the hit by Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta on Chris Bourque earlier in the preseason, a high hit away from the play that forced Bourque, who was fighting for a roster spot, to miss several games with a concussion.
As players get stronger, faster, smarter and better conditioned, Pothier said he fears concussions will continue to increase because helmet technology has not caught up to current play conditions. Capitals teammate Matt Bradley will be one of five NHL players this season to wear a prototype helmet designed by Cascade Sports and Mark Messier, the M11, that claims to protect players at impacts up to 100 mph (most popular helmets are compromised around 70 mph), but the technology could be several years away from becoming mainstream.
In the meantime, with family and friends in the stands, Pothier looks forward to Thursday not as a chance for redemption but as the start of a true Cup run in which he will play a significant role.
“It’s great to be healthy and in a situation where I can jump right in at the beginning of the season,” said Pothier, adding later: “Every time I go on the ice I want to be successful and I want to contribute, and I want to make good plays.”
Given another chance to be successful, Pothier’s ninth season as a professional could very well be his best. In 28 games playing in head coach Bruce Boudreau’s high-flying offensive system he has five goals and three assists, a rate that would average out to a gaudy 15 goals and 23 points over the course of an 82-game season.
Odds are Pothier won’t hit 15 goals, a benchmark that would have put him in the top-10 for defensemen goal-scorers last season, but the mere fact that he has a chance to play a full season after the trials and tribulations of the past two years is itself cause for celebration.