By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009
Brian Pothier got his life back when the headaches and dizziness suddenly subsided in December, almost a full year after he suffered the fourth documented head injury of his professional hockey career. Now the Washington Capitals defenseman is on the verge of regaining something else: his NHL career.
Pothier rejoined the team yesterday after a four-game conditioning stint with the minor league Hershey Bears and is accompanying the Capitals on a five-game road trip that begins tonight in Atlanta. The 31-year-old will be available to Coach Bruce Boudreau immediately.
For Pothier, boarding the charter flight with his teammates at Dulles International Airport signaled the end of one arduous journey and the beginning of another that's filled with excitement and hope but fraught with new challenges and risks.
"It's been a long time coming," Pothier said on a conference call with reporters.
For the Southeast Division-leading Capitals, the addition of Pothier, in theory, adds a veteran puck-mover with offensive potential to a young blueline that has, at times, struggled to get the puck out of its own end efficiently. Pothier is solid at both ends and was ranked fourth in time on ice (18 minutes 41 seconds) behind Mike Green, Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn before suffering the injury.
What's unknown is how soon, or even if, Pothier will completely regain the form that made him a coveted free agent when Washington signed the former Ottawa Senator to a four-year, $10 million contract in July 2006. But this much is certain: After two months of practices and a weeklong stint with the Bears, Pothier can't wait to pull on a Capitals jersey again.
"You can practice all you want, shoot as many pucks as you want," Pothier said. "But as soon as you get someone skating in to get you, give you a hit and bump you and give pressure, things change."
The first big test came in his first game with the Bears last Saturday in Toronto.
"I actually had a few good collisions," Pothier said. "I took a couple of big hits and gave a couple. I was relieved. You go in and you don't know what to expect. [But] when you do get hit, you realize that I'm not damaged goods, I'm not fragile and everything still works real well."
The Capitals have played 111 regular season games since Pothier absorbed a devastating blow from rugged Boston Bruins winger Milan Lucic at TD Banknorth Garden on Jan. 3, 2008. Lucic, one of the game's most feared hitters, lined up Pothier in the corner and then leveled a booming -- but legal -- check that sent the defenseman hurtling into the boards. His head took the brunt of the impact.
For months after the hit, Pothier was unable to do everyday activities, much less play profess ional hockey. Bright lights, loud noises and strenuous activity put him in bed, sometimes for days at a time. He couldn't play with his young sons, Jake and Luke, and even contemplated retiring.
But then he had a breakthrough in December during a visit with optometrist Susan Durham in North Carolina. The problem was his eyes, not his brain. The effects of the concussion, in fact, had long since cleared up. But a nerve that connected his brain to his eyes continued to cause the lingering blurry vision. Pothier began vision therapy and started wearing glasses and contact lenses.
"At the end of [the exam], she sat me down at a computer screen and she had me look at the screen," Pothier said. "The letters were kind of gray and pink and blurry. Then she put these glasses on, and I mean, it's hard to explain, but instantly, everything, even the letters changed colors. The letters turned crisp and dark. Instantly, all the pressure and headaches and tension in my head was gone. At that moment, I knew that was it."
Within days, Pothier was riding a stationary bike. A couple of days after that, he was skating again.
He slowly ramped up the intensity of his workouts, culminating with his return to practice with his teammates in January. The final step was to compete in a professional game.
"Each game [in Hershey] I got better," he said. "At that level, I felt like I was effective. I felt up to speed. Now the next step is to play in an [NHL] game and get acclimated to that level. I'm hoping that happens real quick."
Once a week, Pothier said he visits optometrist Paul Harris in Cockeysville, Md., to continue the therapy that saved his career. He also performs eye exercises three times per day for 10 minutes. In time, he hopes to discontinue using glasses and contacts.
Pothier acknowledged the risks involved in returning to pro hockey. The concussion he suffered in Boston was his second in a year. But he also is heartened by the knowledge that his long layoff was caused by an eye problem, not post-concussion syndrome.
"If you look back, the concussion resolved itself within two to three months and we were unable to diagnose the astigmatism until December," he said. "That's the thing that was causing all of the headaches and all of disorientation and the lack of coordination. If you look at it that way, it's not a huge injury. Just because the length of time I was out, people have made this out to be a catastrophic injury. I would say that I've been symptom-free for almost a year from my concussion."
Capitals Notes: Rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov was recalled from Hershey yesterday and could make his third career NHL start in Atlanta or Florida. To make room for him, the team sent goaltender Michal Neuvirth to the Bears.