What we learned about Connor McDavid’s rehab in ‘Whatever It Takes’

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When Connor McDavid scored his first goal of the season, there was plenty of reason to be excited.

The play was vintage 97, as he darted between Vancouver Canucks defencemen Quinn Hughes and Chris Tanev before lifting a shot over Jacob Markstrom’s blocker and under the bar. The tally broke a 2-2 tie and came with just over five minutes remaining in the third period of a contest that doubled as Edmonton’s first game of the new campaign and its home opener.

It also came on the heels of a summer-long rehab process McDavid required to heal a left knee injury sustained in the final game of the 2018-19 season, when he crashed into the post in a contest against the Calgary Flames

Given all that, it seemed completely natural to witness McDavid drop down to one knee and unleash a few furious fist pumps. His dad Brian, though, sensed a little extra mustard on this particular celebration.

“There was a different level on that one,” Brian McDavid says.

That’s because Connor McDavid — unbeknownst to most of those watching in the building and around the country — came terrifyingly close to missing this season of NHL hockey, a fact revealed in an hour-long documentary titled ‘Whatever It Takes’ that aired on Sportsnet Friday night. In it, McDavid and his inner circle — including his parents, girlfriend and medical professionals — speak candidly about the extent of an injury that, in the early stages, created real concern about his long-term future in the game.

Thankfully, McDavid is right where he should be, leading the NHL in scoring at the break. It’s a happy ending to a chapter in his career he’ll never forget. Here are some of the can’t-miss aspects of this story.

It takes a lot, but it’s possible to rattle Connor McDavid

Despite the fact he plays a faster game than anybody in the history of hockey, McDavid always seems in control. On the ice, he’s the one dictating the action. In the dressing room, he’s measured and economical in front of microphones.

Even in the immediate aftermath of his injury, we saw McDavid calmly say the words, “It’s broken” to the group of teammates, trainers and opponents huddled around him. Once he was out of view, though, hobbling down the hallway, McDavid came undone.

“I held it together until we got through the tunnel and [then] I was a mess,” he says in the doc.

You’d expect nothing less from an athlete in that position. Still, it was jarring to hear those closest to him explain how distraught McDavid was as he processed what had happened and what might have to happen next

One of the doctors consulted told McDavid surgery was the way to go, the recovery period would be upwards of a full year and, even then, there was no guarantee his knee would be exactly as it was before he fully tore the posterior cruciate ligament, tore the medial and lateral menisci, fully tore the popliteus muscle, tore the posterior capsule and sustained a tibial plateau fracture.

Oh, and by the way, the sooner you have this surgery, the better.

“I’ve got to make this decision at 22 [years old] and I’ve got to make it in 24 hours,” McDavid says.

Maybe for the first time in his life, the next move wasn’t obvious.

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Squeeze; Release; Repeat

With his surgery already scheduled, McDavid sought one more opinion before going under the knife. That doctor suggested forgoing the scalpel in favour of a pioneering, multi-pronged rehab program. Feeling there was no harm in trying, McDavid opted for that route.

The film details the painstaking steps McDavid undertook as — for 10 hours a day, seven days a week — he worked to heal his body. In the beginning, he was spending two hours a day locked in a hyperbaric chamber doing the one tiny exercise he’d be cleared for.

“I’d be in [the chamber] and I would flex my quad muscle for 10 seconds on, rest for 10 seconds, and I would do that over and over again trying to save the muscle,” McDavid says.

When he was finally allowed to put some weight on the knee, McDavid spent so much time in the pool his skin is probably still wrinkled. For a while, he didn’t know if the work would be in vain and surgery would still be required. But the hours of meticulous and varied rehabilitation started to pay off as the PCL fibres began to re-attach.

Somebody knows how to keep a secret

Any time the game’s premier star is suddenly worrying about the potential for career derailment, you’d think word would leak out and travel at lightspeed around the hockey world. Somehow, the team around McDavid managed to keep the deep details of this injury under wraps — even from high-profile new hires.

When Ken Holland was talking to Oilers chairman Bob Nicholson about the possibility of filling the vacant general manager’s office last summer, the former was justifiably curious about how the franchise’s foundational player was recovering from his injury.

“I gave him information; I didn’t give him all the information,” Nicholson explained. “We [the Oilers] really talked about, hey, we’ve got to keep this as tight as possible. There were a lot of people poking around, trying to get more information and we just clamped it down.”

Holland acknowledged he really didn’t understand the full extent of things until after he’d put pen to paper. Now, we’re all in the know. And that makes what McDavid is doing this season even more remarkable.

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