ANAHEIM, Calif. – Jonas Hiller would rather have a broken arm.
Give him a sprained ankle, or even a nasty case of the flu.
Just about any ailment would be better than vertigo, which has kept the Anaheim Ducks’ Swiss goalie off the ice for all but four periods since he played in his first all-star game six weeks ago.
“At least with a broken leg, they can tell you how long it’s going to be until you can play again,” Hiller said.
Nobody can explain why Hiller’s incredible reflexes and puck vision suddenly were enveloped by a fog of dizziness and fatigue in early February. Nobody is sure why Hiller feels perfectly normal away from the rink, and nobody can tell him when—or whether—it will go away.
“I’m still having the same issues, especially on the ice,” Hiller said. “I start feeling out of myself, kind of feeling all over the place. I guess it’s just going to take time. All I can do is be patient. It’s definitely not easy, especially the mental side. It’s really tough.”
Hiller missed his 10th consecutive game Wednesday night for the Ducks, who are scrapping to get into the West’s crowded playoff picture with 15 games left in the regular season. He has sat out 13 games and played just once since getting pulled from his first start after the break, when he began falling into a lightheaded stupor whenever he tried to stop pucks.
“It feels like I’m always falling behind the play,” said Hiller, 26-16-3 with five shutouts this season. “It’s like I can’t keep up with the puck any more. I might be physically there, but I always feel like my head’s not there yet. I almost feel like I’m running behind the whole play for half a second or something. I’m always trying to catch up, which throws me off even more.”
Anaheim has suited up five goalies in his absence. Newcomer Dan Ellis has been effective over the past two weeks, and the Ducks entered Thursday’s games just two points out of eighth place in the Western Conference.
“It’s a tough situation for (Hiller), but he’s doing everything our doctors tell him to,” Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said. “There’s no timetable, no clock ticking down. When he’s better, he’s better.”
Vertigo is a particularly cruel affliction for Hiller, whose entire career is built on reflexes and smarts.
He went undrafted and unnoticed as a teenager, but got attention while playing with Joe Thornton and Rick Nash in Switzerland during the NHL lockout. Hiller unseated longtime Ducks starter Jean-Sebastien Giguere two years ago and earned a US$18-million, four-year contract last season.
The malady hit Hiller at the peak of his career. He had won nine games in a four-week stretch heading into the all-star game, where he was the only Western Conference goalie invited. The first Swiss all-star goalie was among the league leaders in most goaltending statistics at the time, and he still ranks third in save percentage.
Although two shots hit Hiller squarely in his mask during the all-star weekend in Raleigh, N.C., the doctors don’t know if that jarring had anything to do with his vertigo. He was pulled from the first period of his first game back against San Jose, and he sat out the next three games before shutting out Edmonton on Feb. 13 after a visit to a chiropractor in Vancouver.
The symptoms returned, and Hiller hasn’t played since. He spends his days undergoing tests and skating in practice, but the vertigo always surfaces when he gets in game conditions—or even when he just works out aggressively in the Ducks’ gym.
“I know most of the doctors in Orange County right now,” he said. “There’s so many things involved. Even vertigo, there’s a wide possibility of what it could be.”
The Ducks can’t wait for Hiller, so they’ve attempted to stay in the race without their single most important player.
After backup Curtis McElhinney struggled mightily in an everyday role, allowing 19 goals in a four-game stretch, Anaheim took on salary while shipping him to Tampa Bay in a trade for Ellis, the former Nashville starter. The Ducks also signed veteran Ray Emery, but he hasn’t cracked the lineup with Ellis taking over.
“Dan has given us a chance to win games, and that’s all we ask our goalies to do,” Carlyle said after Ellis improved to 4-1-1 with Anaheim on Wednesday night in a victory over the New York Rangers. “He stepped in and made some critical saves at important times.”
Hiller said his doctors have encouraged him to “keep provoking the symptoms” with tough workouts and puck-stopping drills. They want him to keep putting his body into difficult circumstances, hopefully forcing his mind out of a virtual rut.
So far, it isn’t working—but Hiller remains faintly hopeful he’ll get himself together in time to help the Ducks.
“Every time I push it a little, it’s almost like a step back,” Hiller said. “Some days I feel pretty good, and it feels like the next day is going to be fine. Then the next day feels like two steps back. It’s just discouraging, that’s all.”