When the St. Louis Blues open the 2018-19 season on Oct. 4, it will mark exactly 20 months since Robby Fabbri will have played an NHL regular season game. You remember Robby Fabbri, right? Feisty, undersized guy with really good vision who can make plays and shocked the Blues by making the team as a 19-year-old a couple of seasons back?
We only ask because perhaps it has been easy to wipe Fabbri from your memory bank. That’s because the last time he played in a game in the NHL was Feb. 4, 2017, the night an innocent check along the boards by Carter Rowney of the Pittsburgh Penguins resulted in a knee injury that knocked him out of the lineup for the remainder of the 2017-18 season. Then after a pre-season game against the Washington Capitals last fall, Fabbri discovered that the anterior cruciate ligament had been damaged again. With a high ankle sprain and a concussion already behind him, Fabbri is hoping his injury woes are behind him.
“Wow, that’s a long time. That’s crazy,” Fabbri said after a workout at the BioSteel Pro Hockey Camp in Toronto in late August. “This year I have to come in and prove myself all over again. There are a lot of things I want to prove to St. Louis and I’m pretty confident I can go in and prove it all over again.”
The pros who had been working out alongside Fabbri have been doing so under the watchful eye of Matt Nichol for the summer, but Fabbri has been quietly and diligently doing his rehab with Nichol since last December. And they’ve taken a rather unique approach to his training with an eye to preventing any further injuries. The two have left no stone unturned, doing everything from visual training to working out with members of the National Ballet of Canada. “We’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink in there,” Nichol said. “We went outside the box a little bit because we had lots of time. I like to believe that in a case like this, the goal should not only be just to return, but to maybe be better than ever before. There might be some underlying fundamental weaknesses that guys aren’t motivated to address when they’re feeling great and playing well.”
Nichol said one of the underpinnings of Fabbri’s work was vision training and reactive work. That involved performing drills with different types of strobe glasses and technology to challenge balance and perception. “There’s actually a lot of new research right now that shows that with ACL injuries in particular there’s a visual component involved,” Nichol said. “The way I sold it to him was, ‘We’re stuck together for the next six months and we’ve got a lot of time, so let’s try some different things. Maybe it’s going to do nothing, but maybe it’s going to be the best thing you’ve ever done.’ ”
That extra time was spent working in a swimming pool, with gymnasts and with the National Ballet, the same way he did with the late Ray Emery when he trained the former NHL goalie. “To me, they’re not just artists or dancers, but incredible athletes,” Nichol said. “It’s because they’re unbelievably strong, way stronger than anyone who is going to come through here. They’re spinning around in space and they have to make sure they get their equilibrium in balance and there’s a lot of research that shows that’s tied in with ACLs.”
Not surprisingly, Fabbri was signed to a one-year bridge deal after coming out of his entry-level deal. He knows that his durability as an NHL player is now in question and it’s something he’s going to have to overcome this season. On the plus side, the Blues have been without him so long that getting him back is almost like making a big trade or signing a free agent.
“Obviously I don’t want to be known as a guy who gets hurt and is fragile,” Fabbri said. “I play a hard game and along with that comes bumps and bruises and I’ve never been one to sit out because of bumps and bruises, but an injury like this makes you pay more attention. I’ve been doing everything (Nichol) has to say and I think that’s been the right thing to do. And I think that shows in how I feel and how I’ve felt for a long time.”