Youth and impatience are often twinned, and in sports, the story of rookies grinding their teeth and holding their tongues while waiting on their opportunity is often told, sometimes even scripted for the movies.
Eric O’Dell had to wait to find a place in the St. John’s IceCaps’ lineup this season. He held his tongue and although we can’t speak with certainty about the teeth-grinding, there’s a good chance his molars and bicuspids are OK. That’s because the forbearance the 21-year-old forward from Ottawa had to display this fall was nothing like that which he had to summon up around this time last year.
Because last November, O’Dell was still in what would be a six-month recovery from surgery to repair a hole in his heart, a hole that had been there since birth, but one that wasn’t discovered until the spring of 2010.
“There are cases where people can go through their whole lives and not even know about it,” said O’Dell. “Other people find out at different ages and I happened to find out last year.”
He had just come off a second straight solid season with Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League and his first taste of the pros, a three-game stint with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. But he began getting palpitations in his chest and knew something was wrong.
“They were getting worse and I didn’t know what they were and knowing they were on the left side of my chest, I was nervous,” said O’Dell.
“I got even more nervous after seeing doctors (in Ottawa) because they weren’t exactly sure what it was at first. If it had been something else, there was the chance I might not have been playing hockey again.” It turned out O’Dell had been born with a small hole in his heart. In some cases, the heart will repair the defect. In O’Dell’s, the hole grew large, to a diameter somewhere between that of a nickel and a quarter. It was in the heart’s middle chamber and was affecting the flow of blood from one side of the heart to the other.
But surgeons in Ottawa were able to to a repair by inserting a small piece of mesh through an artery in his leg all the way up to his heart, where it was placed over the hole, the idea being that tissue would grow over the mesh and provide a permanent patch,.
The surgery was so successful that O’Dell was permitted to resume normal activities, including running, almost immediately. However, hockey was out ... for a while. Quite a while.
“I couldn’t get hit, because I was on blood thinners for six months,” said O’Dell.
“But I could notice the difference ... the improvement in my health right away. My breathing was a lot better and my conditioning is better.”
O’Dell, who had twice played in OHL all-star games and was a member of Canada’s gold-medal world under-18 team in 2008, returned to the Sudbury lineup in mid-December of 2010. He scored 20 goals and 44 points 39 games, adding seven goals and 12 points in eight playoff games. In all, he had 100 goals and 107 assists in 198 games during his three-plus years in the OHL.
A second-round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2008, O’Dell was dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers a year later for Erik Christiansen.
He’s already been to three NHL training camps — with Anaheim, Atlanta and Winnipeg — but it’s taken him a few weeks to get his foot in the door with the IceCaps. He played just one game with St. John’s in October, but has suited up in five straight contests this month, scoring two goals — both game-winners against the Connecticut Whale — and posting a plus-two rating.
And things can only get better, especially for a young man who has been given the equivalent of a turbo boost.
“They say before my surgery, I was operating at only about 80 per cent,” said O’Dell. “Now, I’m at 100 per cent.
“And I feel even better than that.”