ANAHEIM, Calif. – Joffrey Lupul thought he would be out for several weeks after back surgery last year. Those weeks stretched to months when the surgery resulted in an infection.
Yet three days shy of a year after the right wing last skated for the Anaheim Ducks, Lupul returned to the ice Sunday night, determined to put the ordeal behind him.
“The whole time, you try and keep a positive attitude because, that’s the first step to getting better,” Lupul said after playing nearly 15 minutes in Anaheim’s 3-0 loss to Phoenix. “That was one thing I tried to do the entire time. I mean, there were a couple of times when negative thoughts creep into your head, but the whole time I was pretty focused and was shooting for this goal.”
The three-time 20-goal scorer shook off speculation his career was in trouble after complications resulting from surgery to fix a herniated disk in his back last December. He developed a blood infection during his second surgery, requiring months of antibiotics and bed rest before he could get back in NHL shape.
After a three-game rehab stint with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse last week, Lupul was ready to get back on the NHL grind. He got a loud ovation when he was introduced to the Anaheim crowd before Sunday’s loss.
“I think I’m ready 100 per cent to do whatever is asked of me,” Lupul said. “I just want to play.”
Lupul took three shots and skated on Anaheim’s power play Sunday night. He didn’t help the Ducks out of their scoring funk against the Coyotes, their second straight shutout defeat, but hopes to provide a boost to an up-and-down team still dealing with a brutal early-season schedule.
“I think at times he looked a little winded, but he looked OK,” said Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle, who used Lupul in place of injured Teemu Selanne. “You can’t expect that much out of a guy who hasn’t played in over a year. Our expectations were to ease him into it. … I think it was a little too much too early, so I moved him back when we shuffled the lines a little bit. I just think he got worn down.”
That won’t discourage Lupul, who changed jerseys for his return, going from No. 14 to No. 19. After his infection confined him to bed for two months and sometimes required a daily dose of intravenous fluids, he’s simply grateful to be back among his teammates and in the Ducks’ locker room.
“I was doing rehab in other places, and not even at the rink,” Lupul said. “You do definitely miss that aspect of the game—of being part of a team, flying together, getting to know new guys and young guys coming onto the team. You don’t feel like you’re quite part of the team, and that’s something I’m really looking forward to getting back to.”
The 27-year-old Lupul has reached double digits in goals during each of his six NHL campaigns with three teams. The Ducks chose him with the seventh overall pick in the 2002 draft, and he scored 28 goals for them in his second NHL campaign.
But a few weeks after Lupul scored the first post-season hat trick in Anaheim history, the Ducks traded him to Edmonton for defenceman Chris Pronger. After a stop in Philadelphia, Lupul was sent back to Anaheim in another deal for Pronger, who wanted a bigger contract than the Ducks were willing to provide.
Lupul was with Edmonton when the Ducks won their only Stanley Cup title in 2007, but he was eager to return to the organization 18 months ago. He scored 10 goals in his first 23 games last season before numbness in his left leg led to back surgery.
The Ducks could use any burst Lupul can provide, although most of their problems this season have been related to defence and weariness. They’ve scuffled around .500 for most of the season while dealing with an exhausting early schedule, playing an NHL-high 29 games heading into Monday night’s schedule.
After Sunday’s loss, the Ducks immediately hopped on a plane to Alberta for back-to-back games starting Tuesday against Edmonton—near where Lupul grew up—and Vancouver, followed by two more home games Friday and Sunday—and then they’re off on a seven-game road trip that stretches past Christmas.
“I know the back surgery is going to be a topic a lot of people want to talk about,” Lupul said. “But I just want to good player, just like I was before.”