Nearly six months after season-ending neck surgery, captain Jason Jaffray is eager to rejoin teammates
St. John’s IceCaps captain Jason Jaffray missed the last nine games and the team’s run to the AHL Eastern Conference final after undergoing spinal fusion surgery to repair damaged vertebrae in his neck. Following a summer of rehabilitation, the 31-year-old AHL veteran will be cleared for full contact one day before the team’s season opener against the Adirondack Phantoms. — Telegram file photo
If going through the worry and torment of spinal fusion surgery wasn’t hard enough, and the subsequent pain and discomfort resulting from rehab, imagine the anxiety of losing feeling in your right arm?
It’s been one tough summer for Jason Jaffray, but it seems the worst is over for the St. John’s IceCaps captain, who was officially cleared for contact last week after neck surgery April 18.
This wasn’t just any routine operation. Jaffray, the popular 31-year-old veteran, had spinal fusion surgery on his C5 and C6 vertebrae in Winnipeg, a piece of bone harvested from his hip and moved to his neck. To solidify the procedure, surgeons screwed a plate over the affected area.
It was all the result of a hit by Norfolk Admirals defenceman Radko Gudas during a March 28 games in Norfolk, Va.
Jaffray missed the IceCaps’ nine remaining regular season games and the entire playoffs.
After returning to his Alberta home for the summer, Jaffray religiously followed a rehab program prescribed by doctors and physiotherapists.
Family vacation was put on hold as the husband and father of one worked to get back in shape, and perhaps more importantly, land a contract this season.
“I was determined I wasn’t going to miss a day,” he said of the rehab.
So imagine how he felt one day in Montreal, where he was attending the wedding of a former Manitoba Moose teammate.
“I had been cleared to do shoulder exercises, and I was working on that when I started losing feeling down my right arm,” he recalled Wednesday at the IceCaps’ training camp.
“It was almost like a shock that went down my arm and right into my fingers when put my chin down to my chest.”
When he returned home, Jaffray immediately visited his family doctor, who ordered x-rays.
Nothing out of the ordinary turned up, but the problem persisted.
“Right away, I’m thinking something’s gone wrong,” he said. “I might have to go back into surgery and do this all this over again.”
For a 31-year-old unrestricted free agent, that’s not good news.
“I finally called the surgeon and told him I’m having issues, and that I don’t mean to put him in a bad spot,” he said. “I told him I knew a Winnipeg doctor and I didn’t really want the Jets to know, but my next phone call would be to the Jets trainer.
“I said it’s more about my health than my contract situation. I needed to get this figured out.
“It’s funny, the surgeon goes, ‘Oh, doubt worry about it.’ He called my physio guy, got him to do a few different stretches and it was gone within four days.
“Then I saw a chiropractor for my lower back, and he did a couple of different stretches with my neck. It was gone just like that.
“All that worry for nothing.”
Jaffray can now relate the story with a smile, but it was no laughing matter last spring and summer.
After the injury in Norfolk, Jaffray was shuttling back and forth between Winnipeg and L.A. seeking expert opinions. When the decision to operate was made, and he was opened up, Jaffray spent two-plus weeks in a neck brace.
The most pain, ironically enough, was felt in his hip where doctors chipped away a piece of bone.
He rejoined the IceCaps for the playoffs, joining coach Keith McCambridge and his assistant, Mark Morrison, on the St. John’s bench.
“I was pretty uncomfortable for a long time,” he said, “and not being able to sleep a whole lot.”
Initially, doctors said it would be a six-month period before Jaffray would play again. And despite the fact he feels perfectly fine, and has been participating in light contact, the experts are not wavering from the initial time frame.
“There are not a whole lot of doctors who are going to pull off that date,” he said. “The date of return is Oct. 18.”
Good timing, considering the IceCaps’ home-opener is Friday, Oct. 19 against the Adirondack Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers) at Mile One Centre.
“It’s a date I have circled on my calendar,” he said.
It’s been a trying couple of years for the 11-year pro, owner of 49 career NHL games.
Two years ago, he missed all but six games of the season after ripping apart his ACL while toiling for the Manitoba Moose.
So he knows all about rehab, and not pushing it too much.
While he’s been cleared for contact, he has yet to play in an intrasquad scrimmage, and won’t suit up against the Syracuse Crunch in three exhibitions beginning tonight at the Pepsi Centre.
Rather, he is still two and half weeks away from full recovery.
“When you’re talking about a neck injury, it’s probably best to be safe than sorry,” he said.
“A setback could mean a couple of months. I don’t want to go there.”
Funny, but there’s a part of Jaffray that wants to be hit, that wants to be taken out in the corner.
“It would be nice to be able to get hit again and not be babying around the rink,” he said. “I’ve been cleared for contact and first couple of skates, Corms (Patrice Cormier) and Mach (Spencer Machacek) got me and everything seemed to feel good.
“They’re all apologetic in the corner. I told them, ‘I’m out there, and I’m not wearing a red jersey because I want you guys to hit me.’
“I want to feel normal. I want to get back as soon as possible. The more I’m hit in practice, the more comfortable I’ll feel in games.”