FRISCO, Texas — Stephen Johns sometimes wondered if he would play hockey again while missing nearly 22 months with headaches that may or may not have been related to concussions.
The Dallas Stars defenceman just didn’t appreciate it when doctors suggested as much.
"That just kind of pissed me off because it wasn’t their decision to make," Johns said after a week-plus break for Dallas that came after his first game since March 29, 2018.
"Obviously there were times when I thought I would never play again, but that was probably when it was the lowest of my lows. Obviously I climbed out of it. In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t done yet and I still had a lot to prove."
The Stars didn’t have much to celebrate on the ice in a 7-0 loss to Minnesota in Johns’ return Jan 18. They liked the ending of his first home game a lot more, a 3-2 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Monday night.
Either way, there’s still an aspect to Johns being back that has little to do with scores and stats. Even the 27-year-old feels it.
"Trust me, it’s not frustrating," he said. "Now I know where my game is. It’s a breath of fresh air almost to have something to work towards again."
After sitting the final four games of the 2017-18 season, Johns missed all of 2018-19, which ended with Dallas’ Game 7 loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs.
When training camp opened, general manager Jim Nill declared Johns still wasn’t ready to return and wouldn’t discuss it further. For Nill, it was about protecting a player who had been dealing for more than a year with issues bigger than getting back on the ice.
Post-traumatic headaches — the official explanation — were part of the mystery, and Nill said doctors couldn’t know for sure whether Johns’ history of concussions played a role. Ultimately, Nill said, the cause paled compared to the recovery.
"In the end, we’re just happy he’s back playing and feeling good," Nill said. "He can feel good about himself and he looks like himself again."
Johns was a top prospect for Chicago when Nill got him in a trade, with Patrick Sharp the headliner when the Blackhawks were dumping salary in 2015.
Late in the first season after the swap, Johns made his NHL debut and ended up playing all 13 playoff games. Dallas lost a Game 7 in the second round to St. Louis that year as well. Johns had to watch when it happened again three years later.
"It’s hell. It’s very simple," Johns said. "A couple of guys stood back and watched us lose 7-0 to Minnesota. I know exactly what they were thinking sitting on the couch watching. It sucks watching."
Captain Jamie Benn tried to be mindful of Johns being stuck on the periphery of the team for the daily routine, "pretty much rub elbows with them on my way out and they’re on their way in," as Johns put it.
For Benn, it was diversions such as playing golf, and other ways to try to keep the focus off his teammate’s injury.
"I’m sure the amount of times were endless that he got asked how he’s doing," Benn said. "When I talked to him, I didn’t really ask him. We all knew he wasn’t doing very good. So the last thing he wants to hear is, `How you doing?"’
Much better now, after a two-game conditioning assignment with the AHL’s Texas Stars before joining Dallas. Johns is still looking for his first point after averaging about 16 minutes in two games.
Interim coach Rick Bowness said Johns was too eager to show his physical style against the Lightning, leaving himself and the team in some bad positions after delivering hits.
"We’ve got to give the kid a chance to play," Bowness said. "We knew this going in that he’s going to be rusty and there’s going to be bad decisions and bad timing."
Nill figures there’s plenty of time to work on the timing of a player who looked to be a key piece on the Dallas blue line before Miro Heiskanen emerged as a 19-year-old rising star as a rookie last season.
"I’m happy to see him around the dressing room, with his teammates, smile on his face, feeling good about himself," Nill said. "We know he’s a good hockey player. He knows he brings a lot to this team. Now he can start working on that."