Tyler Bozak nears return from toughest layoff of his career

Mika Zibanejad's elbow ended up clipping the nose of a Tyler Bozak skating at full speed to get past him, sending the Maple Leafs centreman flying.

TORONTO – Tyler Bozak thinks he remembers the hit that gave him his first career concussion almost five weeks ago, but can’t be entirely sure.

He’s gone back and watched the replay of Ottawa’s Mika Zibanejad clipping him in the neutral zone so many times that it’s become tough to separate fact from fiction. What the Toronto Maple Leafs centre has been searching for is an idea of what happened.

“He didn’t get me that hard,” Bozak said Wednesday. “I’ve been hit like that before. … He kind of just grazed me a bit.”

What was different this time is the way it impacted his brain function.

Bozak initially felt good enough to remain in the Feb. 6 game at the Canadian Tire Centre, but the Leafs training staff took him back to the dressing room for further evaluation. He was then ruled out for the night and hasn’t played another game since.

It’s been a trying layoff for the 29-year-old, who has experienced on-again, off-again headaches while ramping up his level of exercise.

He also twice failed baseline tests before finally passing one Tuesday, which cleared him for contact and allowed him to return to practice with the Maple Leafs on Wednesday.

“It’s just weird,” Bozak said. “You’re not really hurt. Like when you’ve hurt your arm or your leg or something you know what you can and can’t do. But when you have (a concussion) it’s kind of hard. When I started riding the bike I’d get headaches right after.

“And then some mornings I’d wake up with a headache and some mornings I wouldn’t. I guess every day is a new thing.”

He thinks he’s back on the road to recovery now, but isn’t yet sure when doctors will allow him to return to the lineup.

One of the people Bozak has leaned on for advice is former teammate Clarke MacArthur, the Ottawa Senators winger who suffered a couple concussions in succession at the start of the season and hasn’t played since October.

The most important message from MacArthur was to be extra careful about not rushing back to play.

“He just said (to) try and stay positive and try and stay patient,” said Bozak. “He had a couple (concussions) pretty much back-to-back and it’s been a tough road for him. It’s obviously really frustrating because you want to be out there – any time you’re not out practising with the guys and going out on the road, it’s tough – but it’s one of those things that it’s a lot more important to be patient and make sure everything’s all right.

“You’ve got a long road ahead after hockey, too.”

There was still plenty of frustration for Bozak as his recovery stretched on much longer than he originally anticipated. He’s been going through daily rehab sessions and skating a bit on his own, but has been largely removed from the dressing room during a period where captain Dion Phaneuf and goalie James Reimer were traded out of town.

He’s now the longest-tenured player in the organization and hopes there’s still a place for him in the longer-term plans.

One of the immediate benefits that will come with his return is that it should give Mike Babcock the option to move rookie William Nylander to the wing, but the coach cautions that it might take some time still.

“I don’t know when (Bozak’s) back,” said Babcock. “He’s obviously got to get in shape. ... We’re just glad that he’s healthy and in position now to start practising and being around the guys.

“That should give him energy and us energy.”

Bozak was having a pretty solid season when he suffered his injury – he has 10 goals and 31 points in 47 games – and labeled this the toughest layoff of his career.

He’s gained a new appreciation for how difficult a concussion can be to deal with.

“I’ll be prepared for the next one, which I hope I don’t get, but it’s a tough injury,” said Bozak. “I definitely feel for those guys that have had them now more than I probably did before.”