Two years after spinal fusion surgery, St. John's captain is enjoying one of his best seasons as a pro
It was an interview that required some grained surface to be in close proximity for an occasional knuckle rap.
After all, things have been going so well for St. John’s IceCaps captain Jason Jaffray that any talk about his recovery from spinal fusion surgery in 2012 definitely falls into the “knock on wood” category, even for those less superstitious than hockey players.
Friday marked the two-year anniversary of a game between the Norfolk Admirals and the IceCaps in southern Virginia, one that saw Jaffray crunched by Admirals’ defenceman Radko Gudas.
It was a hit that ended Jaffray’s hockey season. It could have ended his hockey career and the 32-year-old realizes that it could have been even worse than that.
“I feel lucky. Actually, I know I’m lucky,” said Jaffray, when asked if believed it was good fortune or good decision-making that allowed him to successfully resume playing for the IceCaps just about six months after undergoing the spinal fusion.
“Obviously, I feel the decision to have the surgery was the right one because things have turned out so well. But mostly I know I’m lucky because I know if that hit in Norfolk had been just a little different, I might have been more worried about walking again, not just skating.”
Jaffray underwent the surgery about three weeks after that March 28, 2012 game against the Admirals.
At first, he thought he would not only be able to avoid an operation, but to return to action rather quickly.
“A week after that game, I had pretty much full feeling back in my arms and fingers. I was walking around fine and I figured I could be back in the lineup if I wanted to,” he recalled. “For how good a team we were that year, I really wanted to get back in there and get into that playoff run.”
But it wasn’t to be. After soliciting the opinion of a number of specialists, he came to believe that the only way he could continue as a hockey player was to go under the knife.
“I saw three different doctors and the final one was Peyton Manning’s doctor in Los Angeles (Dr. Robert Watkins).
He said, ‘You know what, if you don’t do anything and if you get hit one more time, you could lose all feeling in upper extremities.’
“So obviously, I made the decision to have the surgery. And it wasn’t about hockey at the time. It was about family and kids more than hockey,” said Jaffray, husband to Michelle and dad to daughter Kennedy and son Jaxon.
“And even then, the doctors told me they didn’t know what kind of recovery I would have. Some guys return from it. Some guys don’t.”
He had the surgery April 18, 2012 in Winnipeg. It involved going through the front of his neck to replace a herniated disc with a piece of bone harvested from his hip, then covering the area of repair with a screwed-on metal plate.
He underwent “a few hiccups” that summer with the reoccurrence of numbness. He was also without a contract, his deal with the Winnipeg Jets having expired.
“So I didn’t know how things were going to come down, not only with rehab, but with the team I wanted to re-sign with.”
Some physio took care of the returned symptoms and in August, he and the Jets agreed to a contract that would have him return to St. John’s.
“I think missed first six games that season, making sure everything was 100 percent and I haven’t looked back since,” said Jaffray.
“I haven’t had an issue with the neck. I haven’t had a time when I was in the trainers room getting a neck rub where there was a problem. Not once have I had an ice bag on my neck after games.
“I’ve flown back to Winnipeg a couple of times to have X-rays to make sure the plate is still fine and everything has been great.”
That’s not an overstatement.
Jaffray did miss five games more in December of 2012 with an unrelated injury, but after recovering from that one, appeared in every one of the remaining 49 games of the 2012-13 campaign for St. John’s.
And the streak has continued this season. Entering Friday’s road game against the Binghamton Senators, Jaffray was one of just three IceCaps (Andrew Gordon and Brenden Kichton are the others) to have dressed for all 66 of the IceCaps’ games this season.
That’s a 115 consecutive-game streak.
What’s more, he’s having one of the best seasons of his pro career, with 17 goals and 32 assists, his 49 points just one fewer than Gordon’s team-leading 50 heading into a weekend that sees the IceCaps finishing up a six-game road trip with tonight in Hershey against the Bears.
The story of Jaffray’s rebound after the neck injury and subsequent surgery has gotten around. Former Washington Capitals defenceman Tyler Sloan, a fellow Albertan, “called out of the blue to say he was contemplating the surgery — that he was having issues with his neck and hands and wanting to know my story.
“Obviously, it’s a very personal decision. It’s an extremely dangerous surgery whenever you get your neck cut open and they’re working on your vertebrae. But I can tell people that’s it’s not only me. If you look at what Peyton Manning has done, where he’s back playing football at 100 percent and getting hit by 300-pound guys, while doing it, then you can definitely have the surgery and play hockey.
“I think I’ve managed pretty well. In fact, it’s not something to think about on a day-to-day basis, unless I’m looking in the mirror and see the big scar across my neck.
“In fact, I haven’t even thought about it being two years since that game in Norfolk until you mentioned it to me.”
That’s understandable. March 28, 2012 was a day to forget for Jaffray.
But it’s also meant that just about every one since then has been the red-letter kind.