ST. LOUIS — This is the season that nearly never was for Connor McDavid.
There was a mix of comfort and relief as the world’s top player arrived at Enterprise Center for the NHL’s all-star weekend and spoke at length with reporters about his arduous recovery from a torn PCL in his left knee last summer.
That recovery is detailed in a fascinating documentary called “Whatever It Takes,” which was released Friday, and covers a lot of ground that until now had been kept quiet. Such as the fact that McDavid had a surgery booked in May that would have required more than a year of recovery before embarking on an experimental rehab route that beat the odds and returned him to the Edmonton Oilers in time for opening night.
So while all seems right in the hockey world — McDavid once again leads the league in scoring and is on pace for 127 points — it’s not very difficult for the 23-year-old to imagine a scenario where he’d be a long way from here right now.
“I feel real good. I don’t think I’d be sitting here at the all-star game if I wasn’t,” said McDavid. “I feel good on the ice and I’m happy with how I’ve been playing.”
With hindsight, that seems like a minor miracle given how hard he smashed into the post while trying to go wide around Calgary Flames defenceman Mark Giordano at top speed last April 6.
McDavid was initially diagnosed with a Grade 2 PCL strain because of all the swelling around his knee. A second medical opinion in Colorado revealed the full PCL tear, plus a torn meniscus on both sides of the knee, cracked fibia and a popliteus muscle that was torn right off the bone.
The doctor recommended undergoing a surgical procedure that included the extended recovery time and no guarantee of how well the knee would heal afterwards. And he recommended McDavid go under the knife within days.
At that moment, there were some concerns about his career.
“I’m a 22-year-old kid at the time and you never want to miss a season and you never want to go through a surgery that — I’m not going to call it risky or anything like that, but there’s lots of questions,” said McDavid. “It’s not like it’s an ACL where doctors can do that almost in their sleep. It’s a PCL and that’s a surgery that only a few people can do and it’s not been real mastered.”
While the surgery was booked, McDavid sought a third medical opinion in Los Angeles. That doctor confirmed the nature of the injury, but recommended rehab over surgery — a decision that led to highly respected Dr. Mark Lindsay being brought in to oversee a fluid recovery process, and helped return McDavid back to health in time for the season.
He had to approach his recovery like a full-time job and Lindsay lived with him for as many five days per week throughout the summer. He spent a couple hours in a Hyperbaric chamber wearing a large knee brace every day for 40 days and later advanced to rehab exercises in the pool.
McDavid would have regular MRIs to gauge how effective the rehab process was advancing and surgery remained on the table into July. However, that was never necessary and by August he was able to start doing some on-ice work, which included an emotional first skate with his father, Brian.
All of this was kept completely under wraps from the media — not even coming to light when McDavid arrived back in Edmonton for training camp. He required that level of secrecy while going through a rehab process that never included any firm timelines or outcomes.
“I think the main focus was just getting healthy,” said McDavid. “I didn’t need any pressure of media, I didn’t need any more questions. There was already lots of questions going on, so it was actually really nice just to be able to focus on myself and not have to answer questions and [deal with] the pressures of all the media and all the fans and stuff like that. It was a different way to go about it.
“I understand obviously if that rubbed some media the wrong way. I mean it’s not like we’re trying to hide anything and ultimately we didn’t really know. Simply saying ‘I don’t know’ was the right answer because we didn’t know all the answers to all the questions.”
The primary motivation for sharing his journey in the documentary was to educate other athletes about what’s possible if you take your recovery into your own hands, according to McDavid.
He learned a lot himself.
And about himself.
“You learn to stick with it,” said McDavid. “There’s lots of days where you don’t feel like doing it or you don’t feel like grinding it out, but you’ve got to do it. Those are the highs and lows of being an athlete, and if you want to feel those highs, you’ve got to go through those lows every now and then.”