VANCOUVER - Cody Hodgson is getting a second chance to make a first impression in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The rookie centre was with the Vancouver Canucks a year ago after completing his junior eligibility with the Ontario Hockey League's Brampton Battalion, but couldn't play because of a lingering back injury. Now, after playing four of the first-round games against Chicago, he's become a lineup mainstay as the Canucks approach the Western Conference finals.
"When you look back on it, it doesn't seem possible," Hodgson said Saturday before Game 5 of Vancouver's second-round series against Nashville. "It's been a long journey, but I'm happy to be here and happy to be part of the team."
Hodgson's back injury, suffered during off-ice training prescribed by the Canucks in the summer of 2009, forced him to miss four months of his final campaign with Brampton and prevented him from representing Canada a second time at the world junior championships. He also missed action because of a broken foot.
The back injury prevented him from opening training camp with Vancouver's regular group last fall and he started this season in the minors. He was up and down between Manitoba of the American Hockey League and Vancouver during the regular season and ran into more injury troubles, suffering a fractured orbital bone during practice with the Moose. But he stayed with the Canucks for good after centre Manny Malhotra suffered a season-ending eye injury in mid-March.
"At the start of the season, (the goal) was just to get healthy and enjoy playing the game again—get back physically and mentally to be able to play at this level," said Hodgson. "I've accomplished that goal and now it's a different level. It's just fun to be part of a great team and a great organization."
Hodgson was Vancouver's highly-hyped first round draft choice, 10th overall, in 2008. But there were questions about his future with the organization after coach Alain Vigneault had questioned his toughness during training camp in 2010—before the full extent of his back injury was known. The Toronto native did not attend a Canucks rookie camp last summer and chose to train with former NHLer Gary Roberts instead, and reports of a rift between Hodgson and Canucks management surfaced.
Vancouver trainers and team doctors also came under criticism for allegedly not diagnosing his injury properly, prompting Vigneault to defend their capabilities. After limiting his comments on Hodgson at the outset of the season, the coach now praises his development.
"I think Cody's coming along," said Vigneault. "Obviously, this is a big stage and he's getting an opportunity to play—not a lot but he's getting a couple of minutes here and there—and he's shown that he's a smart player. He understands the game, understands it at both ends of the rink, and I think he's only going to get better."
But even with the Western Conference finals in sight, Hodgson was taking the one-game-at-a-time approach and did not want to look too far ahead. But he is happy with the distance he has travelled thus far on his road to recovery.
"Just being healthy, just being on the ice and (able to) play and not worry about things, that's a reward in itself," he said.
Notes: Even though they were facing elimination, the Predators did not hold a morning skate.…Nashville's centre J.P. Dumont drew the assignment to replace Jerred Smithson, who was injured in Game 4.