Oilers’ Klefbom must wrestle with tough decision over NHL future

As Gene Principe reports, The Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens hooked up for a pair of intense, chippy tilts, where they would each come away with hard fought victories in the split, in this week's Oilers Roundup for ATB Financial.

EDMONTON — Let’s start with the news.

Did the doctor at the renowned Cleveland Clinic tell Oscar Klefbom that he would definitely be able to play again after his shoulder surgery?

“That’s the thing… It’s tough to say,” began Klefbom. “He says I might be able to play again, but there’s always going to be a risk. We’re going to see where I am at when the rehab time is coming to an end, and it’s time to make a decision. We’re going to follow up ­— many, many times.

“He’s optimistic, but he cannot really guarantee anything.”

Let’s get this out there: Klefbom might play again, but he might never play again. That’s where we’re at, with an arthritic left shoulder that has been troublesome since he was a teenager.

It’s not “when.” It is definitely “if.”

It just could be that the shoulder, operated on by the renowned Dr. Anthony Miniaci at the Cleveland Clinic in late March, simply does not reach the point where it can be used in a National Hockey League game.

Or more likely, it can get to a place where the doctors tell the 27-year-old Klefbom, “This is as sound as it can get. It should withstand the rigours of NHL play, but if you get blown up by a forechecker and this thing comes apart again, you might never be able to lift a baby above your head, carry in the groceries, or comfortably put a t-shirt on ever again.”

Then, it will be up to Klefbom the person to have the chat with Klefbom the player.

Of course, as an impossibly handsome young Swede in the prime of a lucrative NHL career — who has lifetime earnings of $21 million but would have room to more than double that were he healthy — he wants it all.

Why wouldn’t he?

“I still want to play hockey, and have a life after,” he said Friday, in his typically welcoming, well-spoken way. “When it comes to quality of life, that’s priority No. 1. I want to come back playing, and I’ve been playing with pain — most of us have — for many games. Maybe a long time.

“When I affects your private life — how you sleep, you can’t really put your clothes on or lift anything — it’s different,” he said. “You can play with a lot of pain on the ice. It’s mental. If you really want to help the guys, you can play through a lot. When you get home to your apartment and you can’t really sleep, or get the rest you need, put your clothes on, it gets really mentally tough.”

Forget how important he is to the Oilers. He averaged 25:25 of ice time last season and quarterbacked the best NHL power play in 40 years. As good as Tyson Barrie has been, the power play is not better with him up top than with Klefbom.

If Klefbom were guaranteed to return and be healthy the Oilers would likely let Barrie explore free agency, and make out like bandits on the salary exchange. He is not a great defenceman, but a very efficient and well-rounded one — Top 4 in 31 NHL markets. Thirty-two if GM Ken Holland leaves him unprotected in the Expansion Draft, which seems logical, even to Klefbom.

But this is about more than all that.

NHL players have been notorious for digging into their retirement account for capital to pay for a few crucial playoff games. A couple more seasons.

It’s a culture where taking a needle, like Ryan Kesler did for all those years, is expected. Damn the consequences.

But the bill arrives on schedule in retirement, and the post-hockey phase of life lasts a lot longer than the phase when you are actually playing the game.

“I’m injured, I’m going to take a pill. I’m not going to worry about what happens to me 15 years down the road,” Kesler said in a TSN report, talking in retirement about himself as a player. “I’m not going to worry about my hips when I play through injuries or I don’t get surgery right away and I play through pain the rest of the year and I live on (the pain killer) Toradol.”

Kesler ingested far more Toradol than was safe, and now suffers from the colitis caused by the holes it ate in the lining of his colon.

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Johan Franzen suffered too many concussions, and has not enjoyed anything close to the retirement that a man who earned almost $45 million should enjoy. His bill arrived in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and sometimes, he told the Swedish newspaper Expressen, the symptoms became unbearable.

“All I can do then is to sleep and lay in my bed,” Franzen said in 2018. “I take antidepressants and try to feel better again. But it quickly gets dark. Very dark.”

Klefbom, thankfully, is ahead of that curve today. And his is not as complex as a brain injury.

But still, a guy only has one career, and one life. And throughout this past winter, Klefbom the future father and rest-of-his-life guy has been having some serious discussions with Klefbom the hockey player.

He’s lived his dream, to the tune of 378 NHL games. He’s made over $20 million, with another $8 million left on his contract.

There’s a lot to risk, just to get more of what he’s had.

“Most hockey players, when you’re out there and you’re in the zone, it is hard to put a value or be smart in the big picture. When you get a surgery like this, you really start wondering if it’s worth it. It’s a matter of risk. How my life might look in 20 years.”

It’s a big decision for a 27-year-old.

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On Friday, this big, fit, high-pain threshold, tough hockey player sounded kind of scared.

“Yes, for sure,” he admitted. “It’s been really mentally tough, knowing you’re going to have surgery. Not 100 per cent sure if you’ll be able to come back and play, or how your quality of life is going to be after your hockey career. How it’s going to be in 20 years?

“When you start thinking about it, life is more than hockey. But, I’m here because I love hockey, and playing in the best league in the world was a dream of mine when I was growing up. I want to stay here as long as possible.

“But,” he allowed, “hockey is a small thing in life, if you see it overall.”


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