BROSSARD, Que — On Monday morning, Michael Bournival entered the locker room at Montreal’s South Shore training facility to find an open stall with his nameplate hanging overhead.
It was a small step in his recovery from post-concussion syndrome, but a massive coup for his sense of self-worth, for his ego, and for his confidence.
Another was joining his Canadiens teammates for a practice, as Bournival did later that morning for the first time since last February.
“The guys were teasing me a bit,” said Bournival in French. “I also think they were happy for me because it’s been a long time that this situation has been lagging, so it’s good to again be a part of some little jokes.”
He arrived at Canadiens camp in the best shape of his life, prepared to win back the spot injuries and the team’s depth at forward had robbed him of last season.
But after participating in some off-ice drills on the very first day, Bournival failed a baseline cognitive test. Thus began an unexpected spiral down the unpredictable path of post-concussion recovery.
“It was a huge disappointment,” Bournival said of being shut down by team doctors in September. “It was frustrating. I had every intention of coming to training camp and earning my spot on the team, but I had to think about my health first, try to put this behind me and come back after at 100 per cent.”
Bournival was trying to recapture the spark that made him an impactful rookie with Montreal in 2013.
He had led the team’s first-year players with 14 points in 60 regular season games before appearing in 14 of the Canadiens’ 17 Stanley Cup playoff games in 2014.
If 2013-14 was a dream come true for the Shawinigan, Que., native, the 2014-15 season proved to be a nightmare beyond his wildest imagination.
After a flat preseason showing, Bournival couldn’t crack Montreal’s lineup through October. When he finally broke through in November, this happened.
After returning to action a month later, Bournival couldn’t keep pace. His role continued to diminish until the Canadiens finally demoted him to the Hamilton Bulldogs at the end of February.
Five games into his AHL stint, the Bulldogs became aware he had been hiding symptoms of dizziness from a concussion and immediately closed the book on his season.
Bournival wasn’t officially given a clean bill of health until May.
He suffered no setbacks in his summer training, so what happened to him at this year’s camp both shocked and scared him.
Days turned into weeks before he re-emerged for solo skating sessions in Brossard, in late-October.
“It was strange at the beginning,” said Bournival. “Just the effects of seeing the puck land on my stick and things like that were making me feel dizzy. I had to retrain my system to properly react to things on the ice after what happened to me. My concussion messed up my whole system, and it was up to me to retrain myself and bring things back to normal.”
He had suffered in the past, but never to this degree. A concussion had kept him out of games from Feb. 7 to Mar. 23 of his rookie season. To think his career would be seriously jeopardized by it was unimaginable to him then.
A little over a year later, at 23 years old, Bournival refused to contemplate the possibility that his playing days might be numbered. His mental strategy was to focus on the rehabilitation as it was outlined for him and to not allow dark thoughts to rise to the surface of his consciousness.
Slowly, his recovery brought him back to the light.
“I feel good,” Bournival proclaimed after Monday’s 65-minute practice wrapped with wind sprints.
As for the road ahead?
“I’m taking it just one day at a time,” Bournival said “I was really happy to just be able to practice with the guys. I’m really happy to have the day I had today.”
He can only hope his next steps bring him back to NHL game action soon.