MONTREAL — I could hear the exuberance in Noah Juulsen’s voice, even through the phone and from close to 4,600 kilometres away.
"I’m feeling really good," the 23-year-old said from the home he shares with girlfriend, Brooke, in Cultus Lake, B.C.
They are the four words the Montreal Canadiens and their fans have been longing to hear since November 2018, when Juulsen was hit in the face with two shots in a 12-minute span during a game against the Washington Capitals.
Juulsen played six shifts in just over three minutes that night, returned to action for four games three weeks later and then played three games with the Laval Rocket before he was sidelined indefinitely with what he referred to on Tuesday as "multiple vision issues and migraines."
"Something just wasn’t right," Juulsen said. "I could tell being on the ice, which was the biggest thing. Running around and walking around, I felt alright. But as soon as I was on the ice, there was something off."
The prescription for his recovery was rest.
No one, least of all Juulsen, anticipated that would mean missing the remainder of the 2018-19 season.
And here’s where his story takes its sharpest turn: after a summer of working out fervently, after skating four to five times a week with NHLers in the B.C. area throughout August, Juulsen arrives for Day 1 of Montreal’s September training camp, runs through the media circuit feeling great, but emerges from off-ice testing back at square one.
"It was the virtual eye-test one that did it," said Juulsen. "Kind of like a 3D one where you wear those virtual reality glasses."
To call it a gut-shot would be diminishing the severity of the situation.
"I so was excited to get back to camp," Juulsen said. "And then there was just a slip up and things went back to the way they were. It was so frustrating."
If it was frustrating for Juulsen, it was horrifying for his family.
"They were devastated, but I think the fact is they were more worried," he said. "All my family, girlfriend’s side, parents — everyone was just worried not knowing why it’s happening or what’s going on. That was the biggest problem. People were just worried."
After a few weeks of rest, Juulsen was cleared by doctors and sent to Laval, where he got back on the ice and did everything he could to get back up to game speed.
The Surrey, B.C., native was finally prepared to resume playing on Oct. 25.
Juulsen, a six-foot-two, 200-pound right-handed defenceman, appeared in 12 games between that date and Nov. 30 — missing only three in between — but he just couldn’t shake lingering symptoms.
"Things just weren’t feeling the same," Juulsen said.
They wouldn’t feel the same again until March, when he made his triumphant return for Laval in a big win over the Belleville Senators at Place Bell.
Juulsen played just over 18 minutes that night and came off the ice no worse for wear, despite taking a nasty hit from behind in the second period of the game.
"I felt great," he said. "I was so excited. I felt like I could play hockey again, which is obviously a great thing for a person who loves to play hockey."
And that’s when the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to North American sports.
"I was just crushed to see the season shut down right after I got going again," Juulsen said.
But the vision issues and headaches were gone, and with renewed optimism of reviving his NHL career Juulsen is doing all he can to get himself into optimal shape for when hockey eventually returns.
"We got a little gym in the basement, so we’ve got some free weights and a Peleton bike we bought right before we got home," he said. "And I’m sure they’re all backordered now just because everyone wants a bike, but that’s one thing that we got one. And I’m just stickhandling and stuff like that, trying to stay in shape the best you can. It’s hard when you can’t go to your normal gym and have all your tools to do it."
But it’s a comfort to Juulsen that every player is dealing with the same challenges at the moment, and that he’s not being left behind once again.
His goal is simple, and hopefully achievable, as he hopes to secure a new contract before playing next season.
"I just want to be the player I was a year ago," Juulsen said. "I’m feeling really good, and that last game was quite a big boost for me. I went out there and I felt great. I know coming back from a year off you’re not going to feel perfect, but I felt that was one of my better games I had had in a long time and that was great to feel."
The symptoms are gone and so is the bitterness.
"It was a frustrating full year, to say the least," Juulsen said. "It wasn’t fun at all and I was frustrated for a long time about it.
"I’m just happy to be where I’m at right now, but it was a long time coming to get here."