On his best days, which seem to come more often lately, Brooks Laich’s girlfriend can sense the bubbling excitement over the telephone, whenever he finishes another on-ice training session and gives her a call.
“Geez,” celebrity actress and dancer Julianne Hough would say, “you had a good day. I can just tell in your voice.”
“Yeah,” Laich would respond. “I feel like I’m 5 years old again.”
On the darkest days, which don’t come around much anymore, the injured groin still throbbed and robbed Laich of his skating abilities. The Capitals forward never quite considered it a career-threatening issue, but he was without his favorite fundamental aspect of hockey, left to digest the emptiness and hope everything would get better. He was close to 100 percent. No, wait, now he was 100 percent. No, he was injured again, but confident he would be 100 percent soon.
“It was a difficult time,” Laich said.
On Thursday morning, which was another good day, Laich scrimmaged with his teammates at Washington’s practice facility, eight days away from the start of training camp. At one point, he barreled toward the net, ready to launch a puck at goaltender Braden Holtby, when a defenseman plucked it from him and took off in the opposite direction. Laich reared his head back and groaned, but just being there was enough.
It’s the best he’s felt in years, Laich said later. He stopped thinking about the groin in mid-July, because by then it was fully healed. Over the past two seasons he has appeared in just 60 games, after first undergoing abdominal surgery in April 2013 and later adductor surgery in March 2014.
Now? Playing 82 games, a feat accomplished in four of five seasons before the rash of injuries, seems like a realistic goal, at least in his revitalized mind.
“It’s so much fun,” Laich said. “Honestly, I come in with a monster smile every morning. Something you really realize is when you go through a little bit of health problems and the game gets taken from you a bit, you realize how important it is to you, how much fun you have playing.”
At first, Laich assumed the groin would heal much like an old elbow injury did, when one morning he woke up and it felt fresh. “Bulletproof since,” he called the elbow, though few would describe the groin in similar fashion. Laich hoped his recovery would follow a similar trajectory, but time passed and frustration mounted, until finally, at the end of the 2013-14 season, Laich underwent a small procedure.
“Nine hours later I was hopping around,” Laich said, and he danced about to demonstrate, “going, ‘Okay, this is noticeably different.’”
The injury also cut short the Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Brooks Laich line, with Laich on the left side, after two games. After the second game, Laich said, he couldn’t skate anymore.
“Whether it’s there or in the middle, got some younger guys I’m sure are going to get some shot in the middle which may I’ll play more on the left side, but I’m comfortable,” he said.
The new head coach charged with determining how to deploy a healthy Laich, Barry Trotz, hasn’t discussed such matters quite yet, but discussions on a personal level have left Laich impressed.
“A man who comes in with a lot of respect,” he said. “Very structured, very direct, very honest. We haven’t talked a whole lot about the systems and the structure and hockey related stuff. Just getting to know him as a man. A very confident person and the one thing you can pick up from him right away is he’s a leader. For us as players it’s going to be fun to play for a veteran head coach, which we haven’t had the luxury of doing here in Washington in my tenure.
“He commands himself in a very poised and calm demeanor. He’s very respectful of other people and in return demands that respect back and demands that people be polite and courteous to other people. He feels like a guy who’s calm and in control of this hockey team, even though it’s early and we haven’t hit the ice yet.”
Calm and in control. On his best days, Laich can relate.