After a two-year layoff, Sullivan can take the big hits.
When Predators’ forward Steve Sullivan collided with Leafs’ defenceman Luke “The Human Eraser” Schenn just thirty seconds into the first period of last Tuesday’s hockey game, 19 of his teammates held their collective breath.
The crafty forward, who collected 158 points in 150 career games with Nashville prior to a prolonged absence due to back ailments, not only shrugged off the hit, but went on to register an assist against his former team.
While Sullivan modestly acknowledged his contribution on the scoresheet in a game won by the Predators 2-0, his instantaneous and seamless recovery from the hit from Schenn was the epitome of his resilience that has led to his return to the NHL after missing 687 days of action.
“I held up,” noted Sullivan. “I took the hit, but on my way down I just hoped that I didn’t hurt on my way back up. I was able to bounce back up and I didn’t really feel it at all. So it’s a good sign.”
The comeback for the native of Timmins, Ontario is remarkable, considering that – prior to last week – the 34-year-old had not laced up the blades for a game since February of 2007, four months before his former Devils teammate Scott Niedermayer won the Conn Smythe Trophy while guiding the Anaheim Ducks to their first Stanley Cup.
Following a pair of disc operations in 23 months, Sullivan made his return on January 10 against the Blackhawks, but said that his game three days later against the Leafs was a better measuring stick for his tolerance. “I wasn’t tested like that against Chicago, and it was still in the back of my mind, ‘Could I take that hit?’ So it’s nice to go and take it and respond positively. I can continue to play, and know that if the hit’s there, I can take it and still keep working on my game.”
As fate would have it, the league’s schedule makers had coincidentally laid out an itinerary for Sullivan to play each of his three former teams within a span of nine days ending on the 19th against the Devils. “I played Chicago, Toronto, and I got New Jersey on Monday, so I’m doing the full circle here!”
Predators head coach Barry Trotz couldn’t be happier to have his left-winger back into the lineup as Nashville scrambles to get back into the Western Conference playoff hunt. “He’s just so smart, and in two years of watching, he’s even gotten smarter. He’s one of those remarkable players, and as we go along here, he’s getting better and better.”
Many Leafs fans incredulously recall how Sullivan was placed on waivers almost a decade ago to clear roster space for eventual bust Dmitri Khristich.
While the Air Canada Centre will never be known as the arena where Sullivan earned his greatest success, the rink will surely be remembered as the locale where his comeback was cemented.
“He had played here in Toronto, I knew he was excited, “ said Trotz. “He took that first big hit and everybody held their breath, and I think even Sully held his breath.
“And then he got up and said ‘Hey I’m ok’, and we were good to go from there.”
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca