BROSSARD, Que.— Andrew Shaw acknowledged that the 2016-17 NHL season was the toughest one of his career, but a lesson he took away from his experience might be the most valuable one he ever learns.
"If there’s something wrong, right away you have to speak up and say something," he said in an interview with Sportsnet Monday.
There’s no way of knowing for sure, but if Shaw had said something to a member of the Montreal Canadiens medical staff after butting heads with New York Rangers defenceman Brady Skjei in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup playoff series last spring, perhaps he’d have not endured the subsequent collisions that likely compounded the concussion that kept him from Game 6 and affected him up until mid-July.
It was harrowing listening to him detail what he suffered through during that time.
"I wasn’t sleeping right," Shaw said. "My emotions were all out of whack; I’d be happy, angry, sad, irritated, anxiety — stuff I’d never experienced before."
But the truth is he had already been through some of it.
It was on Dec. 12 of last season that Shaw absorbed this hit from Boston Bruins defenceman Torey Krug, leading to a concussion that kept him out of action until Jan. 14.
"I was in my room in my house for a month in the dark with depression issues, being sad and miserable," Shaw said. "My anxiety was through the roof."
But he picked himself up and worked as hard as he could to return in short order.
It wasn’t until March rolled around that Shaw started to produce at the level he expected himself to after signing a six-year, $23.4-million contract to play with the Canadiens.
But whatever momentum he had gained over the final weeks of the regular season all but came to a halt at the 2:34 mark of the second period of Game 1 of Montreal’s series with New York.
Shaw had gone in on a routine forecheck and in following through with a hit on Skjei his head came forward and smacked right into Skjei’s helmet.
"I got up and just kind of felt like this exact play had happened to me before," he said. "I skated and ended up going off. I didn’t feel right, but it kind of just went away."
He knew that the collision, which he described as a "bell ringer", should’ve prompted him to seek immediate medical attention. But as he acknowledged on Monday, he wouldn’t be the first hockey player not acting in his own best interest under the circumstances.
What’s hard to understand is how many more blows he took to the head in the games that followed—and what he went through as a result—before he finally spoke up.
"In Game 2, I took the puck to the net and Brendan Smith cross-checked me in the face," Shaw recalled. "That rung my bell again. But me being the player I am, I wanted to keep playing. It’s playoff hockey and I just figured I’d work through it. Then I took a couple of big hits from Dan Girardi in [Games 3 and 4] in New York and we came back to Montreal and I ended up getting into a fight [with Smith in Game 5].
"You get punched a few times in the head in a fight and I’m thinking, ‘This is just getting worse and worse.’"
But Shaw remained silent.
You wonder how any player could go through all of that without ever being pulled from the game and sent to the quiet room by one of the NHL-appointed concussion spotters in attendance. You wonder how no one from the Canadiens pulled him—especially when you consider that Shaw had already suffered a concussion that had kept him out for a month of the season.
But when you watch the video of Shaw getting cross-checked by Smith and you see how quickly he gets up and how he stations himself on the bench and readies himself for the next shift, you begin to understand his role in how his injury went undetected. You see him wince in pain, but you don’t see him exhibiting signs of being in a daze.
You didn’t see signs of Shaw being out of it after absorbing punishing hits from Girardi in New York. He played a regular shift in both games.
Watch Shaw’s fight with Smith, which happened just over 10 minutes into the first period of Game 5, and he looks no worse for wear afterwards. He played 17 more shifts in the game before a hit from Girardi in overtime effectively ended his night.
He left the rink after the game thinking he’d still be able to fight through what he was feeling.
"I remember waking up in the middle of the night, puking, not sleeping, and I wasn’t getting more than two or three hours of sleep during that night," Shaw said. "I was worried. If I’m worried, there’s really something wrong. The wife knew there was something wrong with me and she was angry with me for not doing anything about it earlier. A teammate came up to me and asked me if I was all right because he could see it in my eyes that I didn’t look right. He said it looked like I was looking right through him, and I was thinking there must be something wrong with me then."
Shaw talked at length on Monday about how hard he tried to conceal what he was feeling and how it wasn’t the first time he had done it.
"I took a slap shot [it was a wrist shot] to the face in 2013 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final and I knew right away I wasn’t right," he said. He missed a few shifts and went on to play 10 minutes of that game, which was consistent with the ice time he was allotted throughout that run with the Chicago Blackhawks.
"You go in, you lie to the doctors, you tell them what you need to say to get back out there," Shaw said. "You’re the only one that knows what’s going on upstairs in your head, it’s not something a doctor can see.
"They put you through the protocol and you focus to make sure you pass every protocol you can. All of us, not just me, we’re all hockey players; we have that nature of wanting to play, wanting to be there for the team. We don’t want to miss games and we push ourselves so hard to make sure we’re not missing games. I would come in and try to act normal just to get by and I’d go home and keep everything to myself. You tell everyone you’re feeling fine, but deep down you know there’s something wrong with you."
It’s difficult to break from that pattern of behaviour, but, as Shaw admitted on Monday, there’s too much at stake for him now not to. He’s six years into an NHL career, he turned 26 in July and got married in August.
"Yes it’s hockey, but you have a life outside of hockey," he said. "You’ve got family and friends. I plan on having kids and I want to be able to spend time with my kids and enjoy their life and have them enjoy mine. If you push yourself through it over and over again, you’re going to have difficulties later in life."
It’s a realization that came later than it should’ve, but one that might save him from himself moving forward.