If St. John’s hockey fans were discouraged this winter watching the IceCaps stumble their way through the 2012-13 American Hockey League season, Jason King can feel their pain, no pun intended.
It was a lost season for the veteran IceCaps pivot, who was sick and tired of being sick and tired.
“Frustration is definitely an understatement,” King said this week, as he and other IceCaps cleared out their lockers at Mile One Centre. “The way the year went, to be out of the lineup and not contributing ... it was painful, actually.”
There are lots of reasons why the IceCaps finished on the outside looking in at the post-season dance, and King is one of them, through no fault of his own, however.
St. John’s was ravaged with injuries this season as the IceCaps lost over 400 man-games through an assortment of ailments.
Perhaps the biggest loss was King, who suited up for nine games in October and early November, but did not play a single minute since, the assistant captain’s season lost in the cloudy haze of a concussion.
King wasn’t the only IceCap concussed this season. Rookie Ivan Telegin saw his season reduced to 34 games due to concussion, and newcomer Hunter Tremblay suited up for only 17 games. Rugged Patrice Cormier, who missed 36 games earlier in the knee following knee surgery, finished the year on injured reserve with a concussion.
With all due respect to those three, King was different. The 31-year-old from Corner Brook was looked upon — together with captain Jason Jaffray — to provide veteran leadership, not to mention scoring punch. In their inaugural 2011-12 season, King topped the IceCaps with 22 goals.
It’s not King’s first concussion, which made — and continues to make — the injury even more disconcerting. In 2005-06, while toiling for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, King missed parts of two seasons after he was clocked in an open-ice hit by Rochester Americans defenceman Doug Janik.
Ironically enough, the most recent concussion came about after colliding with a teammate — a player King refuses to name — during a pre-game warmup, of all things.
“A complete accident, and not even a bad hit,” he recalls. “But as time went on, I wasn’t feeling good. It was one of those things where I just felt off ... not right, and I couldn’t get back to feeling normal, whatever that is.
“Things are still continuing, but put it this way, I’m more back to normal now. I feel great. Everything is back to normal life-wise, but hockey-wise, it’s not where I want to be, which is pretty frustrating.
“But we have time over the summer to regroup. Keeping positive is a big thing.”
King was in the Vancouver Canucks’ mix eight years ago when he was hurt — he had scored 12 goals and 21 points in 47 NHL games the previous season — and missed the entire AHL playoffs that season. In fact, it wasn’t until the midway point in 2005-06 that he returned to the ice with the Moose.
So when he went down this season, King couldn’t help but envision the worst.
When you suffer headaches and a feeling of giddiness every day, you can’t help but think that way.
“You just don’t feel good ... headaches, nausea, all of the above. You try not to over-analyse things, but when you don’t feel good, you don’t feel good.
“It’s hard to explain. It’s not a broken limb where you know that in three or four or six weeks you’ve got the green light to get back (on the ice). And the type of person I am, it just kills me to be out of the lineup. It’s a complete frustrating injury, mentally.”
If there was an upside, King knew there was help available, albeit on the other side of the country.
When he suffered his first concussion, King worked with chiropractor and well-known concussion specialist Dr. Don Grant of Vancouver, who has treated a number of NHLers, including David Perron of the St. Louis Blues, who missed nearly the entire 2010-11 season because of a concussion.
King made two trips to Vancouver while he was shelved this season, working with Grant, who doesn’t necessarily subscribe to merely resting and relaxing while waiting to resume workouts.
“His techniques are so different, they’re actually pretty strange to explain,” King says. “He’s actually one of those guys who really knows the body and how everything reacts muscular-wise. The neck and upper back can have a factor in that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of massage, a lot of work on spinal fluid circulation. I came back here and tried explain it to the (IceCaps) and they looked at me like I had 10 heads.
“It’s all pretty weird, but he got me back in the game and that was seven years ago. I hope to get back again.”
King actually came close this season to returning to the IceCaps’ lineup, but each time he pushed it in practice, he’d suffer a setback. Finally the decision was made to shut it down for the year.
“That was just me wanting to get back so bad, hoping that some of the issues I was having would resolve themselves,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I have a young family and you have to consider your health, which is most important.
“My game felt great, my conditioning was there. It was only a practice and I was excited to get back. But it didn’t make sense because my head wasn’t quite there.”
‘Unlike most of his teammates who will be restricted or unrestricted free agents this summer, King has one more season left on his contract.
Even though he will be 32 when training camp rolls around next fall, King doesn’t even want to think about retirement. And given his history of a concussion and the fact he’s in the American league, and not the NHL where the average salary is nearly $2.5 million, there is no fat insurance settlement to collect should he opt to retire.
“Some guys do (have insurance policies), and some don’t,” he said. “I’m in a difficult situation because I had this history. So without saying, it’s kind of tough to get that type of insurance when you have had a previous injury.
“We do have stuff in our union, but at this level it’s a lot different than the guys up top who have the big contracts, the big money to cover big insurance policies. That stuff is not cheap.
“It’s hard for guys to look after that side of things with the incomes down here.”
So King will continue to recover over the summer, and plans to skate in a summer hockey league at Jack Byrne Arena, which features several Newfoundland-born pros and junior hockey players.
He has a lot to prove, both personally and from a team perspective as the IceCaps hope to get back on the winning side of the ledger next season.
Ultimately, though, King just wants to play.
“When you go through a tough injury at this point in your career, you never know what tomorrow brings,” he said, “and saying that, my health is going to be the No. 1 factor.
“But let’s put it this way: there’s no way I want to leave the game this way.”
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org