Family offers perspective for Stars' Patrick Sharp as he battles through injuries

1:28 | NHL
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Thursday March 9th, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The first time that an injury kept Patrick Sharp from playing hockey, he was in grade school—no older than 8—and evidently outgrowing his britches at a rapid pace. One winter afternoon in Thunder Bay, Ont., he went tobogganing with some friends on a local hill. As memory serves, Sharp tried to show off by attempting a big jump. Instead, he wiped out and cracked his collarbone. “I remember being devastated,” he says. “I guess I got an early dose.”

Everyone learns eventually, of course. What kind of unicorn cruises through an 82-game NHL schedule without straining some muscle, or mangling some limb, or culturing bruises that swell to the size of honeydews? Check back in a month, when teams start holding exit interviews, for the annual ritual of revelation. Vague descriptors like “upper” and “lower body” disappear, replaced by actual medical terms and long lines for the off-season operating table. Until then, though? Hush-hush is hockey's generally prescribed policy.

Which makes Sharp’s situation somewhat unusual. It’s Monday morning at Verizon Center, an hour and a half before the Dallas Stars’ pregame skate. Sitting in a drab, empty TV studio near the visiting dressing room, the 35-year-old winger starts stripping tape from his stick blade and explains: If and when the Stars are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention—even after ending the Capitals’ 16-game home winning streak 4-2, they were still seven points back of the second Western Conference wild card follwing a 5-2 loss to the Senators on Wednesday—Sharp says he plans to have season-ending surgery to fix an injury that has worsened over “a couple years,” followed by months of rehab that could sideline him through the start of ’17-18...but not yet.

Few of these details are new. Dallas general manager Jim Nill revealed as much to potential suitors in rejecting their bids before the March 1 trade deadline. It’s also what he told reporters regarding why Sharp and his expiring contract stayed put, rather than move for assets to playoff-bound clubs like Johnny Oduya (Chicago) and Patrick Eaves (Anaheim). “Nobody would’ve known about it if it wasn’t for the trade deadline,” says Nill, who declined to specify the exact injury. “Once we realized where his injury was at, I knew I wasn’t going to trade him.”

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That surgery could be delayed so long reflects a career flush with success. Sharp won three Stanley Cups with Chicago before the Stars traded for him in July '15, then captured last season’s Central Division title in Dallas. He has also appeared in eight straight playoffs, including four straight runs to the second round or later, which continued leaving insufficient time to heal before the next season. 

As for why Sharp continues to play now until the surgeons scrub up, publicly hurt and fully aware of the next step?

“It was tough,” he says. “With the trade deadline I’m sure there was an opportunity to maybe play deep into the playoffs. Or I could’ve shut it down earlier. But that goes against everything you grow up doing. If you can put the skates on and play, you go. The way my body’s playing on the ice isn’t the way I feel I can move when I’m at my best. That’s the frustrating part. But being out there on the ice beats laying on the couch or in the bed recovering. Slim chances to make the playoffs, but our season isn't officially over."

Perspective comes in other forms, too. Through his wife, for instance, and two daughters, ages 5 and 3. And the presence of his older brother, Chris, on the Stars’ road trip to Florida and then Washington, the team's annual excursion for “mentors” of players. And the several philanthropic relationships Sharp formed during his free time while recovering from concussion issues earlier this season, like 8-year-old brain cancer patient Nathan Beatty.

Then there’s the screenshot, snapped during a FaceTime session with his parents in December. Until recently it was set as his lock screen on his cellphone, always the first thing Sharp would see. In the picture his mother, Ruth Ann, rests her head on the shoulder of his father, Ian, who is bald and wearing glasses. To an uniformed eye, he looks healthy. Sharp knows the truth.

“You talk about the tough season the Stars have had, or my injury, that puts things in perspective when you get on the phone and hear what he’s going through,” he says. His eyes cast down at the phone. “Maybe that doesn’t look like anything to you. To me, that doesn’t look like my dad.”

***

Halfway up the lower bowl at Verizon Center, behind the visiting bench, Chris Sharp watches as the Stars take the ice. The roles were reversed when they were kids; for pickup games of street hockey or sandlot baseball, Patrick always tagged along with big bro. “He would set the bar and I’d always try to get there and pass him,” he says.

They worked the drive-thru window together at a chain of donut shops that their father used to own. (“He kept stealing tips,” Chris says.) At 17, Chris left Thunder Bay to play tier-two junior hockey in Ottawa. When the family moved him in, Patrick, then 15, brought his skates and stick to keep busy. One of Chris’ teammates got hurt during training camp, so the coach asked Patrick to sub for an exhibition game. He was so good, he wound up spending the entire season.

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“My parents only let him stay because I was there,” says Chris, now a commercial insurance broker in Calgary. “I took on the father role, I guess. I had to make sure we got up, went to school, learn how to make it on our own. We figured it out together. I’m the one who’s organized. He’s always last-minute, not a worry in the world.”

Perhaps more than anyone, then, Chris knows how much this season’s events have threatened his brother’s resolve. It was seven years ago that doctors diagnosed Ian Sharp with leukemia, but only recently did his condition worsen to the extent that drastic measures were required. Over the winter, Ian and Ruth Ann rented a condo not far away from Ottawa General Hospital, where he received intravenous stem-cell transplants, several hours each day, for 100 days. 

“It was shocking to see the transformation from the guy I’ve known my whole life, then every two weeks he’s losing weight, losing his hair, in rough shape,” Patrick says. So imagine the triumph last month when Ian finally returned home to Thunder Bay, where Patrick reports that he enjoys going to the gym and watching every Stars game. “He’s comfortable, waiting word on what’s next, trying to resume his life he had before.”

As his parents shuttled back and forth from the hospital in Ottawa, Sharp was striving for something similar in Dallas. After the concussive effects of an Oct. 20 hit against the Kings shelved him for 14 games, he returned to register only one goal in seven before symptoms resurfaced. He would sit again until New Years’ Eve. “In retrospect,” says Rick Curren, Sharp’s representative at the Orr Hockey Group, “he realized he came back sooner than he should have.” 

"It took a lot out of him," Nill says.

Indeed, Sharp struggled behind the scenes. Watching Dallas games, he saw a group wrecked by injury—Nill says his ideal full lineup still hasn’t dressed together in ’16-17—that never quite found its footing, making for a disappointing follow-up act to the team’s first division title since ’05-06 and its first 100-point season since '06-07. In December, his recovery rounded a corner when he consulted former Chicago teammate Brent Seabrook, whose advice to “work the neck and try to loosen up” brought “instant relief.”

But Sharp also calls sitting out “the most difficult thing I’ve had to go through in my career. It’s a s----- process. I’d have to thank my wife for putting up with me this year. A lot of long talks about life and future in hockey, things you don’t really want to talk about when you’re playing.”

Much better to focus on moments like in Washington, where Chris and the other mentors took in local museums, where he and Patrick could reconnect on the rare occasion in person. Chris has been there for the big games, including all three Cup-clinchers with Chicago, but this is his first mentors’ trip. With Ian unable to travel, he happily took off work and even rekindled an old sleeping arrangement from their junior days together in Ottawa.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

“It’s been a while since I had a roommate,” Patrick says. “Haven’t laughed this hard in a while, either.”

“He’s always been a pain in the butt,” Chris says.

***

After the win over the Capitals, Sharp stands barefoot for interviews near his stall in the visiting locker room. His empty-netter, whipped from deep in Dallas' defensive zone, served as the clinching goal but was just his eighth on the season and first in nine games. In his right hand, he holds a personal electronic stimulation device called an ARP machine, no bigger than a lunchbox and popular among NHL players for daily recovery. Wires hooked into the machine snake up his gym shorts, pumping current to help treat the injury that eventually needs surgery. “Using it a lot more lately,” he reports.

The last time the 2014 Canadian Olympic gold medalist and four-time 30-goal scorer remembers being this far behind the playoff field, this late in the calendar, was his first full season with Chicago in ’06-07. They carry very different vibes. “I was excited,” he says. “It was an opportunity to make mistakes and not be punished for them. It was an opportunity to grow as an NHL player... Traveling around, being an NHLer was the fun part for me. Fast forward 10 years later, I’ve been very lucky to experience the things that I have, played in a lot of different big games and international play and that stuff. But it’s not quite as fun playing out [this] season.”

Which is not to say Sharp is merely going through the motions. After all, he could have bowed out already, gone under the knife, and gotten a head start on good health. “It’s been a trying year for the whole team,” Nill says. “But he’s been the bright spot in how he’s fighting through it. I think he's been playing as well as I've seen him in quite a while.” 

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An alternate captain behind Jamie Benn, Sharp has particularly enjoyed mentoring young Stars forwards Devin Shore and Brett Ritchie, seeing bits of his younger self in them. “I never thought of myself as an older guy, never thought of myself as a veteran guy, but it’s to that point now where I’m realizing, okay, this is how things are playing out,” Sharp says. “It’s cool to see a different side of things.” In other words, perspective comes in positive forms too. 

Still, it can be difficult to avoid gazing into the immediate future, where an unfortunate irony looms: Because Sharp put off operation until now, he will enter unrestricted free agency on July 1, at most three months post-operation. Curran expressed confidence that this wouldn't affect Sharp's ability to score a new deal. According to Nill, Sharp showed interest in returning to Dallas. “We said, let’s get the surgery done, then we can move forward,” the GM says.

And moving forward, really, is what Sharps seem to do best. “I’m not excited now about what lies ahead,” Patrick says. “But once the process starts, and the road to recovery begins, I think sitting there watching the playoff games, I’m going to find that spark. I think it’s going to be a good experience for me to get back on track, get focused and come back strong next year.”

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