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How Nicklas Backstrom is accelerating his return to the ice after hip surgery

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over the past two seasons, Nicklas Backstrom faced conversations he frankly had no interest in having.

the Washington Capitals Center’s stubborn left hip had deteriorated to the point that he had difficulty putting on his socks and shoes. He had difficulty playing with his children (9, 6 and 2 years old). He limped around the team facility.

“I couldn’t bend my left leg, I could barely bend over,” Backstrom told ESPN. “It hurt all the time, especially after games.”

The daily pain was accompanied by frustration.

“Yeah, I played,” Backstrom said. “But I wasn’t really effective there.”

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan had several conversations with the 35-year-old, who is already a franchise legend.

“I said to him, ‘You’ve had a great career,'” MacLellan told ESPN. “I played 1,000 games, scored 1,000 points, won the Stanley Cup. You’re at an age where, if you leave, nobody would say anything.”

Backstrom didn’t want to think about it. “He was keen to keep going,” MacLellan said. And so we thought it was important to support him.

Last June, Backstrom flew to Belgium to try to extend his career. He underwent hip resurfacing surgery, a type of artificial joint replacement designed for younger, more active patients who have worn down the cartilage surface but still have good overall bone quality. The surgery involves placing a metal ball on top of the head of the femur (thigh bone), capping it like a tooth, and then fitting the socket with a thin metal shell.

The first hip resurfacing surgery to be performed in the United States was in 2006. There is still not enough long-term data on several aspects of the surgery, and it is unclear what might happen during the surgery. introduction of a metal hip implant in collision sports; not enough patients have tried this.

Only two previously active NHL players have had their hips redone. Defender Ed Jovanovski underwent 10 months of rehabilitation after his 2013 procedure, then played 36 games before being bought out and subsequently retiring; Forward Ryan Kesler never played again after his hip resurfacing in 2019.

As Backstrom lay down on the operating table, he turned to his surgeon: “The last thing I said to him was, ‘You better do this right. It’s my last chance. “”

ACCORDING TO MacLellanBackstrom is expected to return to the Capitals roster this week, which is remarkable in itself.

“I really thought he was going to be out all year,” MacLellan said. The optimistic case was six months. All doctors [we consulted] – no one was really going to commit to six months. Why push, why not wait all year? But he feels strong. He pushes as hard as he can. The proof will be in the pudding.

Backstrom’s return will be watched closely by other NHL teams and players. The center has two-and-a-half seasons left on a five-year, $46 million deal he signed in 2020. If Backstrom finishes him off — at an effective level — he could chart a new course or give hope to those who have been told they have exhausted all options.

“Hip injuries are pretty common in hockey,” Backstrom said. “The technique and the medicine are so good today. Even if there is metal in there, there is a chance to come back there if you want. If it works for me, I hope it can inspire a lot of guys too.”

Backstrom has always clung to hope, despite hip issues lasting nearly a decade. He underwent arthroscopic surgery in 2015, a common and less invasive procedure. This eased the discomfort, until three years ago when it started bothering him again. Backstrom took two months off to start the 2021-22 season, hoping rest and holistic treatments would help. This was not the case. He rejected any suggestion of hip replacement surgery, believing it would end his career completely.

One of the specialists Backstrom saw in New York mentioned hip resurfacing surgery as a last resort. Backstrom did his homework.

“It’s something that hasn’t been tested in hockey and in sports in general, but I’ve done everything I can to research this surgery and talk to a lot of athletes who went through it,” Backstrom said.

He found two hockey players in Sweden who did, as well as Isaiah Thomas from the NBA and Andy Murray from tennis. Murray was set to retire after the Australian Open in 2019, telling the crowd in what seemed to be his last match: “Maybe I’ll see you again…I’ll do my best to try .” Murray underwent hip resurfacing surgery shortly thereafter and continues to play professionally today.

Backstrom contacted all of them.

“We all had the same issues. The seal was just too damaged, there was nothing you could do about it,” Backstrom said. “You tried to do things to feel better, to find solutions. All the guys I spoke to, they said one thing: ‘I should have done this sooner.’ I also heard, ‘It’s life changing’ and ‘It’s too good to be true’. I was like wow, it’s really good feedback from guys who came back and played professionally.”

Swedish hockey players recommended Dr. Koen De Smet in Belgium, whose website says he has performed more than 5,500 hip resurfacing surgeries.

“I spoke to him directly, he was really positive about it,” Backstrom said. He said, “Actually, you’re going to feel better than before. I felt so confident going there because he was so confident about it.”

BACKSTROM WAS IN swimming pool three days after surgery. He was able to walk without crutches in two weeks. Within two months, he was lifting weights. And in four months, he was back on the ice.

“I felt way faster than I thought I would,” Backstrom said. “And when I walked on the ice, it was a game changer for me. I could turn, pivot without a hitch.”

Backstrom’s X-factor has always been his demise. His vision is that of the elite, able to process opportunities before they develop. Even as he faced the restrictions, he found ways to produce — including six points in six playoff games last season.

“You noticed it the most in his skating. His first strides weren’t there,” MacLellan said. “He’s such a smart player that he could get away with it.”

But for Backstrom, that wasn’t enough.

“I love the game and I don’t want to end my career like the last two years,” he said. “It’s been a battle to go to training and to get through training and games. I don’t want to end this way, it just doesn’t feel right. I feel like I owe it to myself , to my family, to my organization, the fans, everyone who has supported me for all my years, to give him everything I have.”

Backstrom’s return comes at a critical time for the Capitals. The team received an emotional boost this week with the return of TJ Oshie. This will be fortified when Backstrom and Thomas Wilson return. Wilson, who underwent off-season ACL surgery, is also expected to return next week.

Washington weathered a brutal injury storm early and, in a season punctuated by Alex Ovechkinit is historical milestonesthe group is back for a new tour.

Backstrom would not allow himself to contemplate a scenario where he would retire.

“Thoughts like that, I tried to push out of my head,” he said. “I know it’s easy to go through it when you’ve been through it, but my love of the game, I couldn’t lose it. If there’s a chance to come back, I’m going to stay there mentally, it’s The only way.

Says MacLellan: “For a lot of people, I think they would say it’s not worth going through all of this. But there’s a stubbornness about Nick, which stems from his love of the game. It’s a good lesson to keep moving.” forward, keep finding a way.”

Additional reporting by Stephania Bell.

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