The injury happened less than a week ago, and already defenseman Nate Schmidt found solace in the results of a follow-up test. The initial diagnosis was clear and devastating enough: Six to eight weeks with a fractured shoulder blade, best-case scenario five, or so the doctors told him. But they were also concerned about something much worse.
Damaged rotator cuffs demand timetables measured in months, not weeks, and this was the fear when Schmidt underwent another MRI Wednesday morning. The results were negative. Schmidt’s head began to clear.
“Thankfully I guess it’s the only thing that’s wrong,” he said. “Everything’s still intact in the old shoulder. That’s definitely a positive. Now it’s just waiting for it to heal up.”
Leave it to Schmidt, of course, to unearth optimism with his left arm dangling like a dead tree branch, unable to rotate beyond 15 degrees, unable to raise high enough for a handshake. He was speaking on the telephone Thursday, having just picked up his father at Reagan National Airport, packed his stuff from the Residence Inn in Ballston and schlepped back to Hershey, Pa., where he will live while rehabilitating.
Had a reporter called Wednesday, before the MRI results returned, Schmidt said, different emotions would have come through the earpiece. The Capitals dispatched him to Hershey for two games, and the first went better than anyone could have dreamed. He scored two goals and came within a tipped puck of a hat trick, which didn’t stop the fans from sprinkling Giant Center with caps anyway.
“Saturday was so good,” Schmidt said. “The thing was, Sunday was going really well too. Had a couple chances as well, legs were feeling good, then all of a sudden just tried to make a play and the guy clipped me. The next thing I knew, I was laying down and couldn’t move my arm.”
Surrounded by several doctors, Schmidt felt helpless. None could diagnose the injury and, Schmidt later recalled, none had ever witnessed those symptoms in a hockey player before. At first, because Schmidt couldn’t move his arm but felt little pain, they thought it might be nerve-related. So they sent him home.
When he woke up the next morning, the shoulder throbbed and Schmidt called the doctors. He received a CT scan around 8 a.m. Even before the doctor told him the results, Schmidt knew. He had looked at the X-rays without anyone noticing.
The Capitals sent Schmidt to Hershey to regain his confidence, a move Schmidt understood. When he boarded the initial plane, the message was clear. The 23-year-old had started 31 straight games for Washington this season, but sporadic mistakes torpedoed his psyche. He excelled with defenseman Mike Green and his possession numbers (53.5 percent even-strength Corsi-for, per stats.hockeyanalysis.com) led all blue-liners.
So why, some wondered, not keep Schmidt around and let him work out the kinks on the ice, rather than watching from the press box and stewing? Why not consider the entire impressive body of work, rather than harp on one costly turnover?
Because Schmidt was fixating on the miscues too.
“Just one or two a game, or one every two games and there was a string of three games in a row every game, and it just kind of consumed me,” he said. “That was the only thing I thought about. Never thought about the good plays. Just that. It’s tough to have the mindset that you’re going to go out there and do positive things when the only thing you have your mind on is not screwing up.
“For me, [assistant coach Todd] Reirden and I, we evaluate my games, and that’s just one of them, is being really sound and secure with moving pucks. That was the thing, I had hoped it would clear itself up, but it just kept nagging at my game. I would think I’d play great, then something like that would happen, and it would, like I said before, kind of consume my perception of how I played that night.”
The perception of how Schmidt played in Hershey matched reality, earning the first star against the Norfolk Admirals, but then misfortune decided to knock Schmidt down again. Last year, in the second period of the second game of a series with the Admirals, Schmidt injured his knee.
“This time it was in Hershey,” he said. “Last time it was in Norfolk. Maybe I’ll skip that game next time we play them.”
It was a joke, of course, and a good sign from the normally happy-go-lucky defenseman. He recently received a visit from strength coach Mark Nemish and they outlined a plan for recovery. After the All-Star Break, Schmidt will return to D.C. for reevaluation, then go from there.
Since he got injured in the American Hockey League, Schmidt must receive his AHL salary, which he, true to form, spun as a plus. Living at the Residence Inn, he ate out in Arlington constantly. Now, living with fellow defensemen Patrick Wey and Erik Burgdoerfer, Schmidt cooks for himself.
“It’s a little bit harder to do one-handed, but I made myself a turkey taco salad,” he said. “I just threw it in there, grilled it, chopping with a spatula.”
He’s not wearing a sling, because doctors wanted his shoulder muscles to stay active. He’s already thinking about returning, and how the Capitals will be engaged in the final playoff push through March by then. He doesn’t feel as consumed by his miscues anymore.
“It really felt like yeah, that’s the way I need to play again,” he said. “That’s getting back to who I am as a player. It was a big deal. Same thing for Saturday, minus what happened.”