VANCOUVER – In the middle of his first Zoom call of training camp, long-lost winger Micheal Ferland dropped “vestibular system” into an answer about preparing to play his first scrimmage with the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night.
It passed largely without notice and totally without a follow-up.
Ferland may have been talking about coach Travis Green’s summer tinkering with the way the Canucks play. (The National Hockey League’s four-month shutdown for the novel coronavirus gave coaching staffs a lot of time to think about systems).
It was only upon transcription of Ferland’s video conference that “vestibular system” really popped out.
“Just the stimulation, seeing a bunch of bodies moving around, going at full speed, getting my heart rate up — that’s what I need,” Ferland told reporters. “I just need to rewire my vestibular system. I haven’t had many symptoms, but I just need to continue to get out there with more bodies, and full pace and contact.”
Thank goodness vestibular is spelled phonetically, and there was time to Google it between when Ferland said it and when the Canucks’ Blues beat the Whites 2-0 Sunday night at Rogers Arena.
After the 28-year-old suffered a concussion last Oct. 30, 12 games into his four-year, $14-million-US free-agent contract with the Canucks, the rest of Ferland’s season consisted of four periods of NHL hockey in December and one in the minors in February when concern for Ferland’s health jumped the barrier between sports and real life.
His problem, however, is not a concussion but his vestibular system, which is complicated. It is the inner-ear sensory system responsible for providing our brain with information about balance, eye movement and spatial awareness from neurotransmitters — which carry messages to the brain about the body’s functions. It is what allows us to stand and move. And it can be short-circuited by trauma.
Former NHL defenceman Bryce Salvador wrote about his debilitating vestibular problems a few years ago in an article for the Players’ Tribune. The system can be re-trained, which presumably is what Ferland has been trying to do the last few months while working out and skating near home in Brandon, Man.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the year I wanted,” Ferland said of his one-goal, 14-game regular season. “It’s unfortunate [because] I got myself in the best shape I’ve probably ever been in. I felt really good coming into camp. It’s obviously just been tough. I kept getting symptoms coming back and it was a lot longer than my prior [concussions]. I’m feeling good now. I’m just trying to get into game shape.”
Given how badly Ferland’s two comeback attempts went after he was injured fighting Kyle Clifford in Los Angeles, the surprise on the first day of the Canucks’ summer camp wasn’t that Ferland was kept off the ice, but that he was in town at all.
His attempt to work his way back to the NHL lineup during a conditioning assignment in the American Hockey League in February lasted only a few shifts for the Utica Comets. And that was after more than two months of preparation. Ferland just seemed done.
But he got back on the ice during the shutdown, and felt encouraged enough to drive back to Vancouver to join teammates to prepare for the NHL’s extraordinary Stanley Cup tournament this summer.
The Canucks were not allowed to explain Ferland’s absence at the start of camp last Monday, but he practised the rest of the week and on Sunday skated in the scrimmage on a line with minor-league callups Tyler Graovac and Justin Bailey.
A few of his shifts were alarmingly short, and Ferland did not look particularly good — although he did appear to get better as the scrimmage progressed and was confident enough to finish checks on Quinn Hughes and Brock Boeser. The important thing is Ferland played the full scrimmage. He has played one full game in eight months.
We’ll see if he’s back on the ice for practice this week, but Ferland plans to give Green another lineup option when the Canucks open their playoff qualifying series against the Minnesota Wild in Edmonton on Aug. 2.
“It’s been a long process for him,” Green said Sunday morning during the Canucks’ only media availability of the day. “We’re going to have to make some hard decisions on our lineup. The next couple of weeks here are going to be important for a lot of guys. When we signed Ferly, there was no secret that we signed him for this type of game and this type of scenario. When things get heated in the playoffs, his physical presence is well known.”
Barring injury or illness to others, there are only one of two lineup spots that look remotely available to Ferland and one of those may be disappearing with Zack MacEwen’s ongoing impressive play. The physical rookie looked excellent again Sunday on a line with Adam Gaudette and Antoine Roussel. The trio produced both goals and was easily the most effective line of the scrimmage.
“I think I’ll be ready,” Ferland said. “I’m just taking this day by day. I’m just trying to get going here and if Greener needs me. …I want to give myself the best opportunity to play at my best.”
The Canucks cancelled Monday’s practice after Sunday’s scrimmage.