WINNIPEG — Bryan Little isn’t ready to say goodbye to the sport he loves, at least not yet.
But the veteran Winnipeg Jets centre has spent a lot of time during the past 10 months contemplating his hockey future.
And for good reason.
Little has been dealing with a head injury since Nov. 4, when he was hit in the left ear by a slapshot from linemate Nikolaj Ehlers.
Judging by the emotion he displayed during a Zoom call with reporters that lasted nearly half an hour, these have been challenging times for Little.
Trying to come to grips with one’s hockey mortality isn’t an easy subject to address — especially when a big part of you still wants to keep playing.
Provided it’s safe to do so, of course.
The prospect of retirement has been discussed, even if it’s a word Little himself isn’t comfortable using at this time.
“I don’t like using the word ‘retirement,’ because if I were done, it wouldn’t be retiring. I would be done from the injury, basically,” said Little. “But like I said, it’s kind of been in the back of my head since it all happened. The first doctor I talked to brought some things up and that’s kind of been constantly in the back of my head. Especially in talking with my family and wife and stuff, there are some things definitely in the future, there are going to be some decisions that are going to have to be made about what’s next.
“I’m kind of treating it the same way I have been. I’m not really thinking about it until I know for certain and until then, I’m going to keep preparing myself to be ready, so that’s my plan.
“It’s something I thought about the first few days I was in (the) hospital. Some of the things the doctors were saying scared me a bit. It still does. The biggest thing I’m thinking about through this is having a healthy and long life and being cognitively all there when this is all over. Until I am told there’s not a lot of huge risk in coming back, it’s kind of just waiting and hopefully a good amount of time will change things.”
Suffering a career-threatening injury like this one has left Little with plenty of time to put things in perspective.
“A lot of the doctors said I was unlucky, but lucky. Unlucky about the chances of it hitting me in that spot and the injury, but lucky it could have been a lot worse for what it was,” said Little. “If anything, it’s one of those things where you have an injury like this and you see other players have injuries like this and you never think it’s going to happen to you.
“All of a sudden, one bad-luck play, one misstep and it happens to you. If I could say one thing to a young player, it’s never take it for granted. When you’re young, you think you’re going to be in the league for 20 years, and you think you’re going to be playing forever and will always be healthy. Things can change in a blink of an eye. They did for me for sure. On the road to recovery. Hopefully, one day I will be back out there.”
Little has clearly made a point of prioritizing his quality of life after hockey when it comes to the next step. For the time being, he’s going to focus on that recovery and remain in a positive frame of mind.
“That’s kind of why I want to wait and get all the information and all of the tests and stay as ready as I can, because when that decision comes I want to make the right decision,” said Little. “Until that day, I’m not going to really stress too much or think too much about it. Stay positive and wait until then. But it’s definitely something I’ve thought about a lot over the past year because you think you have a lot more time left and you always think about what you’re going to do after hockey, you have a lot of time to think about that. And sometimes you don’t.
“Sometimes you don’t have an option. Something I’m definitely going to be thinking about going forward here, thinking about life after hockey.”
Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey described what the loss of Little meant both on and off the ice.
“It’s just devastating,” said Morrissey. “Bryan is just a phenomenal person, first and foremost. He’s had an amazing career all the way along. He played at such a young age. He’s been great from the time he started in the NHL, which is again very rare. But when I think of Littsy and my relationship with him, he’s just an amazing person. His work ethic, the type of guy he is, I feel like you really couldn’t find a better guy. So to see him have that injury and struggle with it this year, obviously, you’d feel bad no matter who it was but it feels that much worse because it is (Little) and, obviously, he’s such a big part of our team on the ice, of course, but off the ice, just having him around and being in the room, it just feels that’s how it should be — he should be there. It’s been really tough. I also think obviously it was a huge, huge loss on the ice. I felt like he was playing great hockey. And it was scary to see.
“I just want the best for Bryan’s family, his health in the long term going forward and obviously I think that’s what we’re all hoping for. Hoping he can get some great news and eventually come and play but first and foremost, have his health now and for the rest of his life for his family.”
The impact of the shot caused a perforated eardrum that required 25 to 30 stitches and Little had to spend a few days in hospital.
It also left Little with a concussion, his second in a six-week period after suffering another in the final pre-season game against the Minnesota Wild when he was hit by Luke Kunin.
It didn’t take long for Little to recognize he was dealing with a serious injury.
“I remember passing (the puck) to the point and like I’ve said before, I don’t know why I drifted behind the net, maybe I was just trying to lose my guy. But I lost sight of the puck and I was coming around the net and I felt it right away. I knew I got hit with the puck,” said Little. “I knew it was bad but I didn’t know how bad it was until probably when I went back to the dressing room. I went to stand up and I felt dizzy and nauseous right away. I knew it wasn’t good.
“The whole side of my left side was pretty numb and throbbing and in pain. I didn’t know how bad it was. I knew it was bad and once we got to the hospital, we did a bunch of tests and stuff. That’s when it really sunk in, the extent of it.”
Little has gone through a litany of tests — including a trip to the Mayo Clinic where the decision was made to shut him down for the season — and there are more to come.
Although he dealt with some hearing and balance issues, the ear has been surgically repaired and Little is now dealing with the next step in the process.
“The biggest thing is just getting the ‘all-clear’ from the doctors. When I get tests done and they go through it with me and kind of give advice, I want to listen to them,” said Little. “I’m not going to say, ‘Screw this, I’m going to go out and try to play through this or take a big risk.’ So the biggest thing for me to get back would be them telling me that the risk is lower, that I have a good chance of going out there and nothing bad happening. I haven’t heard that yet and hopefully at one point I will hear that from them.”
Asked to try and describe everything he’s gone through during the past season, Little struggled to find the words.
“Yeah. It’s tough to sum it up. Basically, it goes with the whole 2020 theme. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” said Little. “It was definitely the toughest year of my career. Physically and just trying to stay positive through the whole thing was tough as well. It was good to have the support of the team and my family through it all. That definitely helped keep the spirits up. There weren’t a lot of positives for me.
“The biggest highlight was probably playing in that outdoor game and scoring that goal. That’s probably one of the few highlights I will have from this season. I just watched a lot of hockey and did a whole lot of nothing. Definitely frustrating.”
Discussing the injury and the recovery process with reporters for the first time was more difficult than Little imagined it would be.
“Yeah, it’s not easy. It’s definitely more in my comfort zone to answer questions about the game last night, or you know, how my line chemistry is going, as opposed to talking about stuff health-related, especially to the extent of this injury,” said Little. “It’s definitely been a new experience and one that I kind of wish never happened in the first place. I wish I was talking about the season right now and wish I was out there with the guys in the playoffs.”
Little has often been described as the conscience of the Jets. As the longest-serving member of the organization, it’s easy for him to keep things in perspective.
With that in mind, Little was asked for his opinion on where the Jets currently stand, with two early exits following the 2018 trip to the Western Conference final.
“I think we have all of the tools to get back to where we were at. I think we’ve got probably a Vezina-worthy, winning goalie in net. A lot of young skilled all-stars on our team. We have all of the tools,” said Little. “We have all of the talent. It’s just a matter of getting it together and peaking at the right time. It’s tough to sit down and analyze this year because it’s such a strange situation, especially from doing nothing and not knowing when the season is going to start and these guys are thrown into playoff hockey after one exhibition game and losing a few of their best players. I think Jets fans don’t have a lot to worry about. I think this team is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future and the young guys are only going to get better and better.”
As for where he could fit in with this group, provided he’s eventually able to return to play, Little is keeping an open mind.
“I’ve always had the attitude of wherever I am needed, I am needed, whether that be second line, third line, fourth line,” said Little. “Whatever the coach thinks is best for the team and thinks is going to help the team win, I’m willing to play whatever role is necessary. At this point, I’m happy just getting back and playing hockey.
“That’s one thing I’ve thought of, if I do come back I want to make sure I’m not going to be tentative out there, that I can go out there and try to pick up where I left off and not be scared to go in certain areas.”