VANCOUVER, B.C. – Forward Taylor Pyatt skated with the Vancouver Canucks on Friday, his first practice with the NHL team since his fiance was killed in a car accident earlier this month.
While the Canucks welcomed Pyatt back, defenceman Willie Mitchell and Sami Salo both sat out Friday’s session. Veteran centre Mats Sundin skated with the team, but said he isn’t sure if he will be ready to play when the second round of the playoffs begin.
Pyatt did not speak to the media after the one-hour practice.
In a prepared statement released by the Canucks, he thanked the team and its fans for the support shown him since his long-time girlfriend Carly Bragnalo died April 2 while on vacation in Jamaica.
Pyatt and Bragnalo, 27, were to be married this summer.
“I would like to thank my teammates, coaches and the entire Canucks organization for their tremendous compassion and support during this very difficult time for myself, my family and the entire Bragnalo family,” the statement said.
“I would also like to thank the passionate fans of the Canucks for their support and the media who have given us the respect and time to grieve in private. I loved Carly very much. My family and I will forever miss her. At this difficult time for our families it is my wish to not speak about our loss publicly.”
Defenceman Kevin Bieksa said it was good to see Pyatt back.
“We weren’t sure when he was going to come back or if he was,” said Bieksa. “To see him here this morning and see him on the ice skating, I’m very happy for him.”
Bieksa didn’t want to talk about what the players said to Pyatt.
“That’s for us to keep in this room,” he said. “We’re all trying to be there for him as much as we can.
“That’s why it’s nice to have him back and give us an opportunity to give him some support.”
Pyatt, 27, missed the final five games of the regular season and did not play during the Canucks four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues in the opening round of the playoffs. He had 10 goals and nine assists in 69 regular season games.
Bragnalo’s death was the second tragedy the Canucks have dealt with this season. Last spring defenceman Luc Bourdon died in a motorcycle crash in New Brunswick.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo said the two deaths have strengthened the team.
“We have had a great chemistry since the beginning of the season,” said the Canuck captain. “We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, not only on the ice but away from the ice.
“I think it’s brought us closer together and it’s an extra reason to play harder.”
Coach Alain Vigneault isn’t sure when Pyatt will be ready to play again.
“It’s day to day,” said Vigneault. “I don’t think he did anything on his own for those three weeks. Hopefully we’ll get him back soon.”
Sundin looked strong on the ice after missing the final two games against St. Louis with a lower body injury.
“It feels a little better,” said the former Toronto Maple Leaf captain, who signed a US$5.6-million, free-agent contract in December. “It’s nice to be out there skating.
“It seems like it is improving and going the right direction.”
But Sundin hesitated when asked if he would be ready to play if the second round of the playoffs begins next weekend.
“I don’t know at this point,” he said. “We’re going to do it day by day. Hopefully I can keep skating and work the way we did today.
“We’ll make a decision as we go on here.”
Sundin fell heavily near the end of last Friday’s game against the Blues and appeared to hurt his hip or groin.
Both Mitchell and Salo said they will be ready for the second round of the playoffs.
Salo sat out Tuesday’s series-clinching game against St. Louis with a suspected groin problem. Mitchell played but appeared to be hobbling on a sore hip.
“I want to make sure I’m feeling good before I get back out there,” said Mitchell. “I have a few aches and pains form the last series.”
It will be next week before the Canucks know who they might face in the Western Conference semifinals. The series probably won’t start until Thursday or later.
The long wait is both a blessing and a curse. It will allow players to heal injuries but rust can also form.
“You want to try and keep your mind completely on hockey and use these days off to heal and keep in good shape,” said forward Kyle Wellwood, who is making his first playoff appearance after three seasons in Toronto.
“It can be a challenge having this many days off without games but we are going to be up to it.”
If the Anaheim Ducks upset the San Jose Sharks in their first-round series, the Canucks will open the next round of the playoffs at home against either the Calgary Flames or Chicago Blackhawks.
If the Sharks battle back to defeat the Ducks, Vancouver will begin the next round in Detroit.
“I honestly don’t care who we play the next round,” said Bieksa. “We’re playing good hockey right now.
“Who ever we have to play to get to the next round, we’ll play.”