Malhotra’s NHL return defies odds and Canucks

The Montreal Canadiens signed centre Manny Malholtra to a one-year contract. (Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

The hockey world is full of wannabe orthopedic surgeons carrying notepads and tape records. Or in Manny Malhotra’s case, press boxes full of ophthalmologists, disguised as National Hockey League GMs and scouts.

And as all of that highly qualified medical personnel watched his ice time and production fall of from March of 2011, when he was reaching to accept a pass and took that puck in his left eye, to the 2011-12 campaign, they nodded their prognoses to one another. His numbers sagged again the next season, and the Canucks finally put him on their long-term injured reserve after only nine games, basically declaring Malhotra a danger to himself.

Hockey people are not big on Disney-like comeback stories. To them, it was clear that Malhotra’s NHL career was over. But luckily, not only was Malhotra’s vision not very good at the time, his hearing wasn’t either. He was never directed to retire, or at least, he claims, never heard those words from anyone who was important to him, or whose opinion he valued.

“I believed in myself. My family and friends believed in me,” he says. “Players who I had played with, played against, retired players in the Vancouver area, all said the same thing: ‘If you feel you can still play, go and get it.’”

Malhotra scored the first goal of his comeback Tuesday night on an overtime breakaway against Philadelphia, snapping a five-game losing streak for the Carolina Hurricanes. On Wednesday he spoke to me about about self-belief. “I always knew I was healthy enough to play; I always felt I had something to offer,” he says. “The biggest thing was just getting that opportunity again.”

“I’ve always been grateful (for) every moment I’ve played in the NHL. But (the injury) puts it into perspective, just how close it was to having it all be done for me.

“After everything I’ve been through, it’s special to know that there is still a (team) who believes in me.”

The fact remains that Vancouver’s doctors and hockey personnel agreed Malhotra was endangering himself on the ice. Former coach Alain Vigneault, now behind the New York Rangers bench, was in on that decision.

“He had a real serious injury where we felt, as an organization with our medical staff, he was putting himself in a tough situation on the ice,” he told the New York Daily News last weekend. “Like, I showed him a couple of times (on video)—quite a few times I showed him—‘Manny, did you see this guy here?’ Most of the time he’d answer that he could feel them, or see him. In my opinion, there was a gray area there.”

“He’s a real quality person, a real quality guy,” said Vigneault, still clearly trepidatious about Malhotra’s return. “I know he wants to play. I just hope everything works out.”

I was there when Malhotra was kicking around with the black aces during Vancouver’s 2011 Cup-final run. He made his way into six playoff games but was a shadow of himself, and guarded with the media about the extent of the injury. “There’s a level of uncertainty you go through. (You don’t) really have the answers to give people,” he says. Testing has shown improvement now, “but more so, there’s a process you have to go through to get back to feeling normal. My left eye is not what it was, nor will it ever be. But just getting used to what I do have was a big transition. Now I feel more like myself. I’m not in a panic on the ice.”

He has leaned on an old friend throughout the past two-and-half years, Bryan Berard. Of course, Berard’s career was altered on an eye injury that occurred almost exactly 11 years earlier than Malhotra’s. After seven eye surgeries, Berard returned for six more NHL seasons. “I don’t think he’s trying to live vicariously through me, but towards the end of his career he didn’t want to hear about the eye,” Malhotra said. “Bryan wanted to be judged on how he was playing, but everything always came back to, ‘It’s because of the eye, it’s because of the eye.’”

GM Jim Rutherford has watched hundreds of players score thousands of goals over the years, and even though he was relieved as anyone to see a losing skein snapped on Tuesday, he softened up when he thought about who had scored it. “Anyone who has been around Manny Malhotra, they know how much respect they have for him as a person and a player,” Rutherford said. “Look at our circumstances. Everything that Manny has been through? I couldn’t have been happier. Couldn’t have happened to a better guy.”