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CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF

Chris Minard has been soaring since he started his comeback from post-concussion symptoms.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Since returning to the Griffins’ lineup on Jan. 15, Chris Minard’s scoring prowess has been giving opponents plenty of headaches.

He can certainly relate.

Minard missed the first 36 games of the season, struggling with post-concussion symptoms from a blindside hit that he suffered while playing for the AHL’s Springfield Falcons two seasons ago.

He tallied 12 goals in his first 16 games this year, including two hat tricks, as he regained the scoring touch that had led the Detroit Red Wings to sign him to a two-year contract before last season. And after registering eight goals, 13 points and a plus-seven rating in 10 games during February, he was named the Griffins’ first-ever Reebok/AHL Player of the Month.

Minard has rediscovered the love of the game that he shared with his older brother Mike, a former pro goaltender and current assistant coach for the Portland Pirates, while growing up in Owen Sound, Ontario.

“When you’re away from the game, you miss the fun of being around 25-30 guys and being able to still act like a little kid,” Minard said. “You can’t do that in the real world, and that’s what makes it fun. You just want to come to the rink and play, and you miss it when you can’t.”

So it was especially frustrating for Minard when he wasn’t allowed to skate, let alone play, this fall as a result of the headaches and dizziness he had been experiencing for longer than he cares to remember.

He has no trouble recalling the “gutless act” – a blow that knocked him off his feet as he was completing a slapshot – which first cost him half of the 2009-10 season.

“It sits in my mind every day,” he said. “I have it on my computer and I’ve watched it numerous times. There was no penalty or suspension, but to me, it was a bad hit, one that doesn’t need to be in the game.”

The hit certainly knocked him for a loop.

“There were symptoms right away, but I thought I could keep playing,” he said, recalling the immediate aftermath of the hit. “I practiced the whole week, then played the next game. But going out onto the ice, I didn’t feel right. I felt like I was getting dizzy. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I didn’t want to get hit again. I think I was more scared than anything else.”

In Springfield, he was forced to sit in the stands, a situation that was supposed to last a couple of weeks but soon stretched into months. Although he managed to eventually return to the ice later that season, the effects lingered.

He signed with the Red Wings, who were his favorite team when he was growing up. He came to Grand Rapids with great expectations but never quite felt like himself last season, which he admits was easily his worst as a pro, even though he steadfastly refuses to blame his performance on the concussion.

He is willing to admit that he was still experiencing some of the aftereffects of the concussion.

“Obviously, I didn’t play the way I should, so I can’t put the blame on anybody else,” he said. “The symptoms never got bad enough to the point where I couldn’t play.”

His condition, however, took a turn for the worse last summer. “As the workouts got harder and the time got closer to training camp, the headaches were getting stronger and stronger,” he said.

Minard was all set to attend a conditioning camp near the home of his friend and teammate Jamie Johnson when Piet Van Zant, the head athletic trainer for the Red Wings, recommended that he see some specialists in the medical field.

And so began Minard’s sojourn into the surprisingly sticky situation of searching for someone who could correctly diagnose his condition.

It’s hard to hide the hopelessness he felt.

“I don’t know how many doctors I’ve seen,” he said. “It felt like every day I was seeing a new specialist about something. It was weird because every doctor seemed to have his own opinion. ‘It’s this, it’s that.’ Every time I saw somebody, there was a sliver of hope – I’d get excited because I thought they found something and I’d think, well, maybe this is it.

“And so I would work and work, and I’d see a little bit of progress but not enough. That was part of the frustration. There were times when I was feeling better and other times where I felt like, ‘Nope, something’s still not right.’ So I’d go see someone else and they would have a totally different opinion.

“People think they have the answer, but in the back of your mind you can feel them guessing. At what point do you trust them? Eventually, I was totally against a few of the doctors I was seeing. It was like there’s no way this is what’s wrong because it’s been 8-10 weeks of doing certain things and nothing. On paper you can see progress, but you just know in your head that things aren’t right.

“After a while, you begin to wonder if it’s just in your head, that it’s just a mental thing. If you wake up and tell yourself that you’re not feeling well, you’re not going to feel well. So you try to stay as positive as you can, but some days it’s tough. I’m thankful for my wife, Stacey, for being supportive. It’s tough not knowing how you’re going to support your family if the symptoms kept going. It was hard on my whole family.”

But Minard never quit. He still had a passion to play. So he kept seeing doctors. He finally connected with Dr. Jeffrey S. Kutcher, a University of Michigan sports neurologist who had been recommended by the NHL Players Association. Dr. Kutcher works with athletes in the areas of concussions, migraine headaches and sleep disorders.

“He finally gave me the confidence that we were on the right track,” said Minard, who at long last felt like he was turning the corner, thanks to a combination of medication, rest and exercise.

Minard was still experiencing some symptoms when he began skating again. “They said, you’re not getting any better with rest, let’s try some exercise.’ It finally got to the point where it wasn’t making things worse. Sure, there were some days that were more difficult than others, but I wasn’t experiencing the extremes like I had before, so that was a positive. I kept skating, hoping that things would improve.”

It was a long road to recovery and redemption for Minard. He got bored with all of the skating, and even more bored with the questions. He knew people meant well, but he grew weary of being asked about his status.

“When you come to the rink every day, people ask, ‘How you feeling? Are you getting any better?’ You hear it 30 times a day, and it gets old,” he said, longing for the day that he could say, ‘I feel great. I’m ready to go.’

Throughout the ordeal, Johnson was the perfect friend. He was supportive without saying too much. “He would ask maybe once a week because he knew it was frustrating,” Minard said. “He had been through this stuff with another friend who had to retire, so he was great, just being there for me.”

Minard also found strength in his two-year-old son, Chace.

“All he does is play hockey – it’s mini sticks, hockey helmet, hockey gloves, hockey skates, daddy has to go to work, hockey, hockey, hockey,” Minard said. “Judging from the way he acts round the house and when he’s around the rink, I would imagine he’s going to want to play. He obviously loves the game.”

Being able to spend extra time with Chace was the silver lining to his ordeal. “It’s awesome when you can spend time with him every day and watch him grow and develop,” Minard said.

Before he was cleared to play, Minard remembers having his doubts. He wondered whether he could still excel at the game that he had played so long, or if his career would be finished at the age of 30.

“Obviously, you’re rusty and it takes time for things to come back,” he said. “There were a couple of weeks where I wasn’t sure I could even shoot. Where’d my shot go? That was the one thing I could always do. You start to worry.”

Minard made his 2011-12 season debut on Jan. 15. He was held scoreless, but that wasn’t the point.

“The first game back I felt a lot of emotions. Caution was one. I wanted to play the same style that I had always played, but I didn’t really know how a hit was going to affect me. It was in my mind but I tried not to think about it. I just wanted to go out and play.”

In his second game, he scored two goals. Now he knew he was back. Last season, it had taken him 21 games to get his second goal.

“Last year was obviously my worst year as a pro. It was definitely frustrating,” he said. “When I scored the two goals, it was a big boost for my confidence. When you miss the amount of time that I did and you can impact a game, it really gives you a positive outlook going forward.”

He started to shake off the rust. He recorded a hat trick in his 12th game and scored a second hat trick four games later. “I still feel rusty at times but every day I’m just trying to work hard and get better,” he said.

Now that the goals are coming with regularity, it’s renewed not only his confidence, but also his hope of getting another opportunity in the NHL.

“Getting to the NHL is the main reason you play the game,” he said. “I didn’t get a chance to get there last year, so I’d like another crack at the NHL. I always felt like I could play there. When I was there and had my confidence, I thought, ‘Man, I belong here.’

“Once you get to the NHL, it’s more of a mental challenge to stay there. You have to believe that you belong there and continue to play the same way that got you there.

“If I can keep improving and get my game back to where it was a couple of years ago, that would be good. I’d like to get another shot.”



THREE TIMES LUCKY

Minard’s two hat tricks in a span of five games (13 days) marked the second-fastest pair in Griffins history behind Donald MacLean, who notched tricks in consecutive games on Jan. 14-18, 2006.

Minard is the sixth Griffin to log two or more hat tricks in a single season. Donald MacLean had five in 2005-06, while four others had two: Francis Lemieux (2008-09), Matt Ellis (2006-07), Kevin Miller (1999-00) and Pavol Demitra (1996-97).

Minard’s three career hat tricks tie him for second all time on the Griffins, matching Kevin Miller and standing two behind Donald MacLean.



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