The words had blindsided him like a body check and now Ryan Kesler was melting down, struggling to digest what he had heard. Realistic expectations … long-term conversation … life after hockey ... Silence filled the surgeon’s office. Tears rushed from his eyes. “Wait, what?” Kesler finally croaked in disbelief. “You just want me to stop playing?”
No one would have blamed the veteran Anaheim Ducks center for walking away. After all, his body often couldn’t even manage that. It had been eight whole months since Dr. Marc Philippon performed an arthroscopic procedure on Kesler’s ailing right hip, yet each step still caused agony. Exiting the team bus took extra effort. Running around the beach with his children was a non-starter. Earlier that afternoon at The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., Philippon had asked Kesler to describe where it hurt. “I’ll show you,” Kesler said, proceeding to limp along the hall until, inevitably, the joint bit and his leg buckled.
But stop altogether? Quit? This had been the furthest thing from Kesler’s mind when he flew to meet Philippon—accompanied by his wife Andrea, team physical therapist Kevin Taylor, and personal physical therapist David Bradley—during a schedule break in late February 2018. He wanted solutions. Or, at least, possible treatment options to help survive the rest of the season, his 13th in the NHL.
Instead, sitting there at Philippon’s desk, taunted by the glow of an MRI scan on a monitor, Kesler had been stabbed with a dose of reality: The hip was failing him. Fast.
More time passed. More tears flowed. Then, from a nearby couch, Andrea spoke up.
“Well,” she said firmly, “that’s not an option. He’s already this close to 1,000 games. So what can we do to get him there?”
One year later, Kesler is there. On Tuesday night he will become the seventh active American-born player to reach the milestone, celebrating alongside teammates in Arizona before returning home for a pregame ceremony prior to Wednesday’s game vs. St. Louis. But even then fellow Ducks won’t understand how far Kesler has come—all the hours, dollars, and mental and physical tolls spent in pursuit of recovery. Few in the locker room, for instance, know that Kesler spent last summer learning to walk again.
“It’s the journey of a warrior,” says Damien Maroney, Kesler’s offseason physical therapist in Vancouver. A journey filled with inspirational highs and wrenching lows for the five-time Selke Trophy finalist, not to mention for the virtual village of family, friends and outside medical staff—Team Kesler, they call themselves—charged with keeping him on track. And it came to a career-defining crossroads in Vail.
At the time, 77 games remained until 1K. “Okay, if we have a goal set,” said Philippon, expressing confidence that Kessler’s hip would hold steady for that long, "that’s what we’re going to do.” So Team Kesler sprung into action. Taylor and Bradley sketched out a modified conditioning program. Philippon injected Kesler with 40mg of hyaluronic acid, an anti-inflammatory process called supplementation, and recommended outfitting him for a customized hip brace, which Kesler describes as “for 70-year-olds.”
The next morning, Kesler hit the ice at Vail’s Dobson Arena wearing borrowed skates, having left his pair behind in Anaheim. “They stunk so bad,” Kesler says. While the brace didn’t provide quite the miracle fix like he had hoped, it helped Kesler feel supported in certain positions, such as bending to take faceoffs. Twenty-four hours later, Kesler flew home and returned to Ducks practice. Few who know him well were surprised.
“Unless his hip shattered in a million pieces and was never able to walk again,” says Andrea, “he was never, ever going to give up.”
It started with a staircase.
This was early December 2016. One day, with his parents visiting in Anaheim, Kesler suddenly found himself unable to walk up a flight of stairs at his house. He couldn’t recall suffering any noticeable on-ice blows, save for perhaps colliding with a Ducks teammate in a recent game. But now Kesler could only handle one step at a time, forced to plant his left foot and swing the right leg from behind before moving onto the next.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” he recalls his parents wondering.
It would be months before Kesler knew the answer, agreeing to receive an MRI once the ‘16–17 season ended. In the meantime, soldiering forward required a hefty dose of grit, manual therapy and Tylenol. Simple movements, such as rotating his feet when errant pucks were passed at his skates, became arduous tasks. His back regularly flared up. Even so, Kesler helped Anaheim to the conference final while averaging 21:21 minutes per playoff game, second-most among team forwards behind captain Ryan Getzlaf.
After the Ducks were eliminated by Nashville in six games, the MRI indicated serious hip inflammation and bone spurs, justifying surgery. But the true extent of the damage wasn’t revealed until Kesler went under that June. For starters, Philippon discovered that Kesler had developed a Grade 4 cartilage lesion, the result of repetitive on-ice trauma. Picture a car tire, Philippon explains, deteriorated so bad that its frame is exposed.
Philippon also found an unwelcome surprise that hadn’t shown up on the MRI: more than a dozen loose bone fragments, some as big as baby teeth, floating around Kesler’s hip socket. While recovering in the hospital, Kesler was handed a binder containing snapshots of the extracted pieces scaled next to a centimeter ruler. “It was like, ‘Okay, I had shrapnel in my hip,’” Kesler says today. “Hearing that gave me peace of mind. It actually made sense, an answer to why I was feeling the way I was feeling.”
Coming out of surgery, Kesler planned to rejoin the Ducks by early November 2017, thinking back to the previous two hip procedures that Philippon had performed on him—both labral repairs that required just nine and 16 weeks on the shelf, respectively. (For inventory’s sake, Kesler has also undergone operations for a left finger fracture, a left shoulder labral issue, and a triangular fibrocartilage repair in his left wrist.) “I was kind of naïve that way,” he says. The reality became clear during post-op, when Kesler struggled to achieve three rotations of a stationary bike over 10 seconds.
Early on Kesler was little more functional than a mannequin, requiring assistance simply to eat meals, climb into the car and get off the toilet. In late June he attended the 2017 NHL awards, finishing second to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron while barely able to stand on crutches. In July he made two trips to Barcelona and received stem cell treatment from Dr. Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, whose other athlete patients include Rafafel Nadal. “I was at a point,” says Kesler, “where it was, ‘This can’t hurt, right? Let’s try it, let’s see.’” A few weeks later, Andrea gave birth to the couple’s fourth child, a daughter named Keegan; thinking about his hip, Kesler didn’t trust himself to hold her while standing up.
Not that Kesler had much time for family activities, dedicating six to eight hours each day for rehab. At first he could only perform cardio exercises in the pool, flailing his arms with a flotation device squeezed between his legs. He eventually progressed to body-weight drills, but the relative lack of physical exertion proved frustrating. “Just let me sweat,” he would tell Team Kesler. “I want to sweat.” Even when he returned to the ice in September, his first session featured 10 minutes of nothing more than gliding.
Kesler finally debuted with the Ducks on Dec. 27, Andrea’s birthday, but suffered a setback in his sixth game and missed another week. “Is this going to be the rest of my career?” he wondered. He quit practicing altogether, plodding through bike workouts with Ducks strength coach Mark Fitzgerald while the team was on the ice, only taking morning skates if he absolutely felt good enough. “Survival mode,” Kesler says.
The overarching problem revealed itself whenever Kesler looked in the mirror. “You could physically tell,” he says. “I didn’t have an ass on my right cheek. There was nothing there.” Indeed, like a popped piece of bubble wrap, that side of his buttocks had all but collapsed due to atrophying muscle. The hip’s range of mobility remained solid, but Kesler was missing the required strength to handle weight on the load-bearing joint.
Rather than shut down, Kesler did what he has always done and pressed forward. He finished the ’17–18 season while wearing Philippon’s brace, though 14 points over 44 games marked the lowest offensive output of his career to date. He reports twice receiving pregame oral doses of Toradol during the Ducks’ first-round series against San Jose, which mercifully ended in a Sharks sweep. In May he was administered a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection, another try-anything approach similar to the stem cell treatment. Two weeks of recovery later, during a meeting with Anaheim GM Bob Murray and team medical staff, Kesler laid out the stakes of the summer ahead.
“I can’t do this again next year if I don’t get better,” he said.
And so he built a gym.
Desperate to maximize time with his family, Kesler sunk $60,000 into a state-of-the-art facility at their offseason home in Bloomfield, Mich., last summer. He ordered a belt squat machine and functional trainer, stationary bikes and kettlebells, “everything I needed to build my hip up. Just so whatever happens, I had no regrets.” He also installed glass mirror walls, onto which a single word was soon scribbled in liquid chalk:/p>
“I usually don’t need anything written down to motivate me,” Kesler says. “But I needed patience.” Even more than the summer after his surgery, Kesler was forced to begin at ground zero. “We came up with a game plan,” he says. “And the game plan was build me an ass.” An underwater treadmill helped retrain his body to walk, then run, without a limp. Only then did he progress to dry land, practicing pain-free movements like half-range squats and striding in front of a mirror. “Back to basics,” Kesler says.
Roadblocks surfaced every two or so weeks, like when jogging up a set of stairs left Kesler barely able to move the next morning. Or when he intended to spend an entire week skating in Vancouver and got pulled off the ice after one session. But that was Team Kesler’s intention: Push hard until his body hit a wall, back off, build to a new max, rinse and repeat. For a relentless competitor like Kesler, this didn’t always sit well.
“What the f--- are we doing here?” he once complained to Howard. “I don’t even feel like an athlete. I feel like I should be getting ready to retire in Florida.”
“Remember,” replied Howard, “you’ve come this far.”
Step by step, the tire regrew its tread. It was a big deal when Kesler went for his first hike of the summer in Vancouver, a 30-minute trek along mostly flat terrain. In July he jumped and landed on two legs. Then he was hopping on the right leg alone. Drills that used to make him buckle were mastered. At the start of the summer Kesler could barely perform a trap-bar deadlift. By the end he was able to heft nearly 300 pounds.
Perhaps the biggest achievement was realized near the end of August, right as Ducks training camp was rounding into view. The day kicked off with a bit of gallows humor when 8-year-old Ryker grabbed a golf club, hunched over and hobbled down a small hill outside their Michigan home, making fun of his father’s limp. But pretty soon there was Kesler, sprinting up that same incline, powerful stride after powerful stride.
“You can run?” Ryker quipped. “I’ve never seen you run before.”
At the summit, Kesler was all smiles.
“Didn’t think it was possible,” he says now. “Then I tried it again a week later and I could barely do it. So it’s like, okay, we’re back to this again.”
On Feb. 19, with Anaheim nursing a 2–0 lead over Minnesota in the third period, Kesler carried the puck down the left wing, leading an odd-man rush. As Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin stayed home to protect against a seam pass, Kesler pushed off his right leg and lasered a wrister past goalie Devan Dubnyk’s glove, at once securing the victory and snapping a personal 37-game goal drought.
“I feel like I’m 18 [years old] again,” Kesler said when he returned to the Ducks bench.
“You’re flying,” Getzlaf gushed in response.
“The body teases me once in a while.”
In moments like these the hip is an afterthought. No pain, just promise. But those are rare. It has been a brutal season for the Ducks, between coach Randy Carlyle’s recent firing and their current position near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Understandably Kesler has struggled too, posting the lowest per-game point average (0.14) of his career and averaging less ice time (16:26) than he has since ’06–07. “It’s tough when things are bad with the team,” he says. “Dealing with what I’m dealing with, my biggest thing is being positive every day. Don’t want to have that be a distraction.”
Behind the scenes, the work never stops. Last month Kesler received a cortisone injection to ease the inflammation; he also takes regular doses of Celebrex, an arthritis medication, to manage the pain. “I still enjoy going to the rink,” he says. “I love my teammates. But mentally it’s hard.” For this reason Kesler also speaks regularly with Diana McNab, a sports psychologist who helped Kesler earlier in his career but fell out of touch before his cold-call last summer. “I explained what I was dealing with, the mental challenges, not being the player that you once were and learning how to be a player who’s still effective,” he says. “It’s a process. And it’s still a process.”
Consider, for instance, a portion of the conditioning program that Kesler must follow before simply getting on the ice: Five minutes on the elliptical, jump rope, body squats, lateral slides, lateral shuffles, front squats (or banded trap squats), weighted lunges, weighted step-ups, sled pushes and, finally, 5–10 minutes of stationary biking. “That’s every day,” he says. “Sometimes twice a day if we have a game, trying to get the hip moving as best as possible. That’s what it takes right now.”
It has also required tremendous understanding from his family, whose quality time with Kesler usually comes in the context of training in the garage of their Anaheim home, where Kesler built another gym this year. Five-year-old daughter Kinsley loves swinging from the pullup bar. Ryker provides a percussive drumbeat by slamming medicine balls. Recently Kesler was sprawled across a training table, receiving treatment from Bradley while conducting an interview with 10-year-old daughter Makalya, who was working on school report and chose Dad as her “modern person from Michigan.”
All of this leads to a simple question, one that Kesler is posed at the end of a lengthy conversation with SI.com. Why? Why keep going? Why not hop onto long-term injured reserve like plenty other NHL players, collect a $6.875 million annual salary for the remaining three years of his contract, and coast into retirement? Kesler answers without hesitation. “Because I’m not ready to give it up yet,” he says. “It would’ve been really easy for me to call it quits two years ago. But I wanted to see where I could take it.”
The journey is far from finished. He still cannot run on flat ground, cannot play basketball with his children, cannot put on a sock while standing up. Even now Kesler must focus on the details of every step—heel … toe … short stride … push—lest his body lapse into its old limping pattern. “I know I’m going to need a hip replacement at some point,” he says. “Whether it’s five years or 10 years or 20 years, that's all unknown. Right now I want to see how far I can take this and focus on the next part of my life when that comes.”
Of course, none of this will matter Tuesday night in Arizona. Instead he will be thinking about the collective efforts of Team Kesler, and the diligence of Anaheim’s training staff, and all the sacrifices made by his wife and children. “Without them, I probably wouldn’t be there and I probably wouldn’t have hit it,” he says. Time will pass. Tears will flow. Only then will Kesler take his first stride, officially entering an exclusive club, rebuilt hip and new ass and all.