TORONTO – After getting slammed by 217 pounds of full-force Brooks Orpik, spinning through the air and cracking his right leg upon an impact so awkward that it makes you sick to watch, Roman Polak waited until three weeks after surgery to experience his first good day.
“Yeah, it was a while,” the bruising, stay-at-home, dump-it-in defenceman sighs. “After the drugs wore off and you start to feel like yourself.
“I don’t know if I can describe it. I try to forget it. First of all, it was painful. Second of all, every injury is bad—especially in the playoffs. You’re waiting all season for it, and then you get injured right away in the second game of the playoffs. I knew it was a bad injury too.”
So nasty was the break, so brutal was the timing, Polak — bound for unrestricted free agency with his leg in a cast — would find himself fighting to cling to the positive, to not consider what the heck he’d do with his life if his NHL journey was finished in a snap and a scream.
“I’m thinking about it right now,” Polak quips. He and everyone within earshot laughs. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
It’s a question Polak was determined to delay, and by putting off post-NHL life for at least one more winter, he has rightly earned the Professional Hockey Writers Association of Toronto chapter’s nomination for the Bill Masterton Trophy, honouring his perseverance and dedication to the game.
“I’m not going to lie. I don’t need an award for it,” Polak says.
“I did it all for me, not for anybody else. Not for the coaches, not the team. I was kinda selfish about it. I did it to prove to myself that I can do it, that I can play again.”
By turns fearsome and funny, Polak draws a serious line. What he did for himself, he didn’t do by himself.
As he lived out of a hotel and rehabbed his leg with the Toronto Maple Leafs this fall with no contract and no assurances of one coming, Polak was treated as a member of the team anyway—minus the road trips.
For this, he’s grateful to the club’s training and coaching staffs and general manager Lou Lamoriello, who eventually rewarded the 31-year-old Czech with a pro-rated one-year, $1.1-million deal in late October.
“I wouldn’t say the door was open. I just treated it as my opportunity to get better,” Polak says. His leg was only 50 per cent healthy when training camp opened. “I’d skate for an hour and then I couldn’t walk for a day.”
As the game tries to eliminate slashing and elevate speed, Polak is a dying breed who plays a brand of hockey so ugly, to find the beauty in it is to be romantic. A puck can smash his face and he’ll keep ploughing.
Nazem Kadri calls the right-shot, bottom-pair defender his toughest opponent in practice.
“He’s a big beast out there,” Kadri says. “His structure is good, he plays physical and he competes hard.”
In Monday’s loss to Buffalo, Polak smashed Johan Larsson so hard into the glass, his helmet popped off like a cherry stem. Polak smash. No one in a Sabres uniform dared fight him.
When Dallas came to town, Polak lured Alexander Radulov into coincidental minors. He got under the skin of Sidney Crosby and had the world’s best player yapping at him during the champs’ last visit, too.
“It was the other night on the bench when he ran over one of [Nashville’s] best players, [defence coach] D.J. Smith said to me, ‘What’s the Corsi rating for that?’ ” recalls Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who elevated the big man to the top four when Nikita Zaitsev fell ill.
“We like Polie just because he’s big and he’s hard and just ask our guys who they don’t want to play in practice every day. It’s Polie. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but they don’t tend to score when he’s on the ice and he whacks lots of people and they know he’s out there. We’re light on the back anyway, so having a man back there is important.”
Add the fact that security blanket Matt Martin doesn’t appear destined to see playoff ice, and Polak’s role as intimidating presence will gain emphasis come gut-check time.
“This is my job. This is what I do,” Polak says.
To keep his leg healthy, Polak goes for short walks with his kids on days off. Movement, ironically, is better than rest. He insists he’s 100 per cent healthy now. His game is free of hesitation and, with Babcock’s full trust, the man on the back end is eager to do damage in the post-season.
“There was a chance I’d be done in the NHL,” Polak says. “We made it through this, and made it happen.”