TORONTO – With his worrisome history of head injuries, it would not have been far-fetched to imagine Ondrej Kaše calling it a career last summer.
Instead, he signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs — and embarked on his healthiest and most productive hockey season in four years.
Consider the gauntlet that this posterboy for perseverance — this focal point for risk/reward — had run before arriving fresh and eager at training camp.
Kaše played all of six regular-season games for the Bruins down the stretch in 2020, plus 11 more in the Toronto playoff bubble. He was concussed in Game 2 of the 2021 regular season by a Miles Wood hit that January and needed nearly four months to recover and ramp up to a return.
“It wasn’t a big hit, but [Wood] hit me in a bad spot,” Kaše told reporters that May, gearing up for his return, against the Islanders. “It’s been pretty hard for me.
“I hope I can help the team. I haven’t played too many games here, so I need to show the team that I am important to play here.”
Kaše skated all of 6:49 that night and was shut down for good.
He never scored a goal in a Bruins uniform, and multiple Boston reporters suggested retirement might be the next logical step.
The six-foot, 190-pound right shot has suffered more than a career’s worth of brain injuries. He’s only 26 years old.
“Kaše’s concussion woes are not new. He arrived to Boston with a substantial injury history, and it’s believed that this latest concussion was his fifth documented concussion in his professional career At just 25, that’s downright terrifying,” Ty Anderson of 98.5 The Sports Hub wrote in May.
“[Kaše] is almost certainly hitting a career crossroads where he may have to put his long-term health above his job.”
Kaše chose to go back to work.
And, on Monday, the Toronto chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association chose Kaše as its nominee for the 2022 Bill Masterton Trophy, recognizing perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.
When Kyle Dubas took a flyer on the talented Czech, he hadn’t scored an NHL goal in 544 days. But the GM was sold on potential, and the player was sold on redemption, an invested medical staff, and a chance to play with longtime pal David Kämpf.
“Great times together, so it’s good to be with him on the same team,” Kämpf said Sunday. “He’s working every shift on the ice, 100 per cent.”
Before suffering yet another concussion (in Nashville on March 19), Kaše had collected 14 goals and 27 points in 50 games as one of Toronto’s most effective and versatile two-way forwards.
The Leafs are 31-19 with Kaše in the lineup.
“We saw in the training camp and exhibition the player he could be for us. Right from the start of the season, I was really impressed with him,” Sheldon Keefe says.
The coach was aware of the talent. The mindset and drive, however, were a mystery after all that time off, all those frightening blows to the head.
Teammate Justin Holl says he can’t imagine what it must be like to skate a mile in Kaše’s boots.
“I'm sure it's very exasperating and frustrating for him,” Holl says. “But he's got a really good character. He's a great guy. And I'm sure he's doing everything in his power to come back.
“He's a vital part of our team, both when he's playing and when he's not. He's just a great hockey player, and you want what's best for him.”
The Maple Leafs have exercised supreme caution with Kaše. Yet his wrecking-ball approach to every shift is at once commendable and, at times, concerning.
“We're always conscious and aware of his health. But when he's played and when he's practising, he gives you nothing but everything that he has — and you can't help but appreciate that,” Keefe says. “It just speaks to his love for the game.
“He's wanting to come back. He's wanting to push. And when he has played, he's played at such a high level. And he's been so competitive. And, in fact, he still wants to continue to work and be available for the playoffs. That also speaks to the fact he loves our team and loves his teammates.”