By any standard, Dennis Wideman is having an impressive season. Leading up to his first NHL All-Star Game appearance this weekend in Ottawa, the Capitals defenseman has appeared in all of Washington’s 48 games, averaged more than 24 minutes per contest and recorded 34 points, on pace for a career year.
But considering Wideman is just 10 months removed from what team doctors described as a career-threatening leg injury, his success has been nothing short of stunning.
On March 29, Wideman hobbled off the Verizon Center ice during the third period of a game against Carolina. The defenseman knew instantly that something was wrong when Tuomo Ruutu’s knee made direct contact with his right thigh, but he didn’t anticipate that he’d spend the next 12 days in the hospital undergoing six surgeries.
“My whole quad seized up instantly,” the 28-year-old Ontario native recalled earlier this month. “I knew it wasn’t just a regular charley horse or something like that. I never thought it would amount to all the surgeries I had, all the time I was in the hospital and all the recovery time.”
Wideman suffered acute compartment syndrome in his thigh, which was further complicated by a rupture in a branch of his femoral artery — an extremely rare and severe combination of problems. In the NHL’s injury database, which dates from 2006, there has been no case like Wideman’s, according to Capitals team doctor Ben Shaffer.
“There are only two articles in the world’s medical literature that describe this exact problem,” said Shaffer, who will present a case study of the injury and treatment to NHL team doctors during all-star weekend. “There was no data at all to go on in terms of a precedent of knowing whether he could get back to playing hockey, playing in the NHL — whether the demands would outstrip his abilities after the injury.”
When Wideman came off the ice following the hit, the pain increased in his leg as it tightened and swelled rapidly. That was an indication that Wideman had compartment syndrome, a pressure increase in the muscle that can cause nerve damage and blood-flow problems. Within 21 / 2 hours, Wideman was out of his first surgery, which involved making a five-inch incision to drain the blood from the hematoma.
“His thigh muscle was under such enormous pressure,” Shaffer said. “When we made the incision to do the decompression, his leg sprung open like an overstuffed suitcase.”
Roughly eight hours later, Wideman was in the intensive care unit when the muscle unexpectedly began to swell again. Doctors discovered that one of the branches in his femoral artery had ruptured and was bleeding into the muscle, Shaffer said. Once the torn branch was repaired, the defenseman underwent a second surgery to extend the cut on his leg and decompress the muscle once again. It would take four more trips to the operating room over the next 10 days for Shaffer and other doctors to gradually close the gaping wound, which stretched from his knee to more than a foot up the length of his thigh.
The injury looked “pretty grotesque,” said teammate Mike Knuble, who was on the receiving end of some “pretty graphic” pictures Wideman sent from his hospital bed via text message.
Given the uncommon nature of the injury, it was impossible for Shaffer to estimate what rehabilitation would require or whether Wideman would come close to getting the same level of strength out of his leg.
“I didn’t really think about it being career threatening, that never crept into my mind,” Wideman said. “It would have been different if there was muscle damage; it could have been much worse.”
Although he was on the ice 10 days after being released from the hospital, Wideman wasn’t close to a return when Washington’s season ended in a second-round sweep to Tampa Bay. The first two months of his recovery were extraordinarily painful as he worked to get mobility back in his leg, Wideman said, but he was able to participate fully once training camp began in September.
“I was shocked when I first saw what he went through, the amount of trauma his leg endured, it’s remarkable that he’s managed to come back and make it look like nothing happened. That’s incredible,” said assistant coach Jim Johnson, who joined the team in late November and was initially unaware of the severity of Wideman’s injury. “We overplay him at times but we’re trying to make sure he gets the proper recovery time between games, that we keep his practice time short.”
Wideman said the main change has been that his right leg tires more easily, but he relishes the strain of the heavy workload that has made him an indispensable part of Washington’s blue line this year.
So far he’s passed tests of durability, having played more than 25 minutes in 10 of the past 12 contests, and is humming along at an offensive pace (nine goals, 25 assists) that would lead to a 58-point season. Whether Wideman reaches or exceeds that plateau may be immaterial, though, given where he sat last March.
“I think he was extremely lucky,” Shaffer said. “I knew he was very committed to his own fitness, that he was very driven and that we got to it fast enough that the muscle was in great shape. But for him to wind up having essentially normal function, nearly full strength return to the leg is remarkable. Given where it began, it’s certainly a happy ending.”