For five seasons beginning in the fall of 2007, Brooks Laich was there virtually every night for the Capitals, missing just four games. But a right groin that wouldn’t heal limited Washington’s most versatile player to just nine games last season, none in the gut-wrenching seven-game playoff loss to the New York Rangers.
“Physical pain [in your] daily living, rolling over in bed, getting out of a chair, getting in and out of your vehicle, [takes] a huge toll on you,” Laich said Thursday as the Caps opened training camp at Kettler Iceplex. “The other part is [mental]. I love to play hockey. It’s the most fun thing I have in my life. When you take that out of it, it really puts you into a dark spot in your life. It was a tough, tough year all the way around.”
So Laich was thrilled to be able to text general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates last month in the midst of his skating regimen in his native Saskatchewan with this report: 100 percent.
However, when Laich began skating at Kettler last Thursday, he tweaked his left hip flexor. He stayed off the ice the next four days, skated without incident on Tuesday and passed the fitness test Wednesday. But early during Thursday’s practice, the flexor flared up again and he had to leave the ice. His return is uncertain.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Laich said. “My favorite part about playing hockey is skating. [But] this isn’t anywhere near what I went through last year. Yesterday I had a really aggressive acupuncture session and then today I had a little inflammation, a little soreness from that. It could have contributed to some of the pain [I felt] out there. It was completely unrelated to what I went through last year and on the other side of my body … I was feeling great as of one week ago. To have this come on, it’s better now I guess than [at] the start of the season. Hopefully, I’ll get over it very quickly. I’ve had this day and [the season opener on] Oct. 1 circled on my calendar.”
Fingers are crossed throughout the Caps’ organization that Laich will be back in the lineup no later than that.
MVP Alex Ovechkin wears the captain’s C, but he called the 29-year-old Laich “our leader on the ice, off the ice.”
Top line center Nicklas Backstrom, a teammate for six years, noted Laich’s importance because he kills penalties and skates on the power play in addition to his ice time in 5-on-5 situations at different spots.
No Cap can relate to Laich’s frustration more than defenseman Mike Green, who missed major chunks of 2010-11 and 2011-12 with injuries.
“I feel for Brooks,” said Green, who returned with a flourish last winter. “I know what he’s going through. He’s a strong guy mentally. He’ll push through this. He loves to be out there. It eats him up inside, but at the same time, you’ve gotta do the right things and make sure you take care of yourself so that when you do come back, you’re at 100 percent.”
When Laich returns, he figures to be the left wing on the third line since Washington signed free agent Mikhail Grabovski last month to fill the second line center void caused by Mike Ribeiro’s departure.
“I see him on left wing, but he’s one of the more versatile guys,” Oates said of Laich, who has even filled in on defense when the Caps have been short on the blue line. “I think his skating and strength are his [best] attributes so you want to put him in a position where we can use that as much as possible.”
While Laich would’ve enjoyed a shot at center, he’s excited about getting to play on the left side in Oates’ scheme.
“I really do like how the system sets up as a left winger,” Laich explained. “You can attack the puck with speed. It really [fits] well with my game. At the same time, I really like the responsibility of the center ice position. As a skater, you always want to skate and in this system, no matter what position you play, you are allowed to do that. I think I can bring a lot to the team, some areas where I really could’ve helped us last year. I’ve kinda learned that my role is to play 20 minutes a night. It might be on the left side. It might be on the right side. Some nights it’s on defense. So I don’t really put too much stock in titles.”
As long as Laich is on the ice for the Caps this season, he’ll be happy after what he called a “completely miserable” experience in 2012-13. And after the scare he suffered Thursday morning.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.