ST. PAUL, Minn. - The post-concussion fog Pierre-Marc Bouchard endured last winter often left him uncertain about how long his comeback would take and when the debilitating symptoms would finally subside.
Now, he can put an exact number on it: 424 days. That's how long he went between games.
Bouchard rejoined the Minnesota Wild after an absence of roughly 14 months, his head fully healed and his body back in shape. The completion of his comeback brought the natural mix of excitement and nervousness prior to playing against the Phoenix Coyotes, and afterward he described the goose bumps he got when his skate hit the ice for his first shift and the cheer came from the crowd.
"I was a little excited, a little nervous," Bouchard said after the 4-2 loss.
His father, Denis, was feeling the same emotions. He couldn't make it to Minnesota for his son's season debut, but he planned to be fixated on the TV at home in Montreal.
"We'll have our fingers crossed," he said.
Bouchard first took a hit to the head in March 2009 and missed the last eight games of that season. Another blow in training camp later that year set him back, and after skating sluggishly through last season's opener on Oct. 3, 2009, Bouchard was ordered off the ice indefinitely when he realized he wasn't right.
Post-concussion symptoms persisted throughout the winter, and he could barely watch TV or read a book without feeling tired or developing a headache. After seeing several specialists, Bouchard began exercising again at the beginning of the summer.
He took to the ice the first time with his father to pass some pucks around in Montreal, a proud moment for both of them. Then came informal workouts and scrimmages with fellow NHL players. He started to ramp up his involvement in practice once the season began, and clearance for full contact came in late October.
After one of his doctors suggested pushing the pause button in early November, citing occasional pressure Bouchard felt in his head following intense activity, the 26-year-old finally felt fully ready to return about a week or so ago. After receiving medical approval and the team's blessing, Bouchard had reached the end of the odyssey.
He's wearing a new helmet—the "M11"—designed by former NHL star Mark Messier as well as a special mouthguard to help minimize his risk of further injury.
"We were very concerned about his career for a while, and now it looks like things are getting much better for him," his dad, Denis, said in an interview from Montreal. "For sure the first few games we'll be quite nervous, but on the other hand it's a contact game and you can expect to be hit. As long as people respect each other. The NHL is working hard to avoid these hits to the head. We just hope that there's no bad accident."
The NHL targeted the problem earlier this year by beginning a ban on shoulder hits to the head from a player's blind side—considered the most dangerous type of contact. Such hits are subject to a major penalty and ejection from the game as well as supplemental discipline, though the league stopped short of eliminating all head contact.
"At the end of the day, it's a physical sport," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "We never want to take the physicality out of the game."
Head injuries, with stiff competition from performance-enhancing drugs, have become perhaps the most pervasive issue in all of sports. Hockey has clearly taken notice, as evidenced by a recent two-day summit at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic where all kinds of specialists from all over the world—scientists, doctors, trainers, coaches, referees and more—converged to talk about their experience, their concerns and their strategy.
The main message being pushed across all levels is this: "When in doubt, sit them out."
Bouchard's recovery sure followed that mantra.
"It's your head. It's not a wrist or a shoulder," he said. "After your career you still have hopefully a lot of years in front of you, and you want to have a good quality of life."
Teammate Brent Burns, who has had his own concussion trouble, has also been wearing the "M11" helmet. Burns becamea valuable sounding board for Bouchard as he struggled to make sense of his condition and make progress in his recovery.
"Anybody that gets to this level plays through a lot of pain and wants to play and loves the game obviously, so it's got nothing to do with that," Burns said. "It's your brain and anybody that says there's anything wrong with that has just got no clue."
Messier connected with manufacturer Cascade Sports last year to develop the "M11" helmet and launch a public awareness campaign. He said he's motivated by his own experience of seeing teammates trying to play through post-concussion symptoms as well as a desire to make the game safer—not just for current players but for his own kids and their aspiring peers.
The "M11" helmet is designed to better absorb impact and minimize the head-injury risk, though Messier is adamant that grass-roots education about the issue is far more important in the fight against concussions than equipment.
"Players, they're really trying to balance this whole kind of inner battle of protecting themselves but being looked at as being afraid, this whole macho kind of thing," Messier said. "But I think that there would be a lot of players relieved if someone told them they had to wear it."
Bouchard wondered at times whether Wednesday would ever come. But, finally, he had his moment.
"To me, he looked fine. He was able to separate himself from defenders with his first couple steps," coach Todd Richards said after the game. "His conditioning isn't going to be great right now, but as he plays more games he'll get better."
Teammate Matt Cullen was impressed.
"After being off the ice for so long it's not easy to come in and handle the puck the way he did and play with confidence," Cullen said. "I was really happy for him."