Evgeny Svechnikov seemed primed to take his place in the Red Wings’ lineup, then a catastrophic knee injury knocked him out for a full season.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
It was the final preseason game before the 2018-19 NHL campaign and the Detroit Red Wings were facing the Toronto Maple Leafs. As the last tuneup before the regular season, it should have been a rather uneventful contest, but for those who were playing for roster spots, it was the last opportunity to make an impression.
Evgeny Svechnikov wasn’t leaving anything to chance. So when Wings teammate Luke Glendening dumped the puck into the zone during the first period of the game, the former first-round pick went full-bore on the forecheck.
“I was battling, racing with the other guy to get there, and I lost my balance and started falling,” Svechnikov recalled. “I was going full-speed and he pushed me a little bit too, and I crashed the boards with my right knee. With the other player falling on me as well, I had no chance to stop.”
As he rose to his feet after the collision, Svechnikov feared the worst.
“When I got up, I felt crazy pain,” he said. “I knew it was bad. I barely got to the bench because I felt so much pain. I told myself to keep going because I just wanted to make the team. I finished the game, but it was really hard because my knee was so painful.”
He tried to look on the bright side. Initially, his knee appeared not to be that swollen. “They told me to come to the rink and see how I felt,” he said. “But my knee swelled up on the plane ride home and the next day, it wasn’t good. My knee felt unstable. They said I could try to rehab my knee, so they put me on IR (Injured Reserve).”
Svechnikov skated a few times but it was becoming increasingly evident that rehab wasn’t the answer. “I told them I couldn’t do it. There was something wrong inside,” he said.
An MRI provided a heartbreaking diagnosis. He would require anterior cruciate ligament surgery and be out a minimum of six to nine months – in essence, he would have to miss an entire season.
“When they told me it was a torn ACL, I can’t explain the emotion I felt,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. I was bawling. It doesn’t matter how old you are, when you see your dream, like, stop, it’s the hardest news to receive.”
The next day he underwent successful surgery in Detroit. His knee required ACL reconstruction, which meant that he would have to sit out the balance of the 2018-19 season. He would be able to play hockey again, but it would be a long road back.
“Unfortunately, you never know what to expect with injuries,” he said. “I hate saying that word – unfortunately. It doesn’t mean anything. When you go out on the ice for a shift, you try to play hard every single second – every single race to the puck, every single battle.
“That’s what I did – and it’s what I will always keep doing. So there’s nothing unfortunate about it. It’s just fate. It’s what God gave to me. It’s tough, but God checks to see who’s the strongest.”
Svechnikov admits that the first few days and weeks after surgery were the hardest.
Within three days, he was bending and stretching his knee. After three weeks, he was back on a bike, working to strengthen his knee. “My leg felt so heavy that it felt like I had no strength,” he said. “I had lost so much muscle.”
His parents did what they could to help him maintain his spirits.
“My mom was there in the hospital after surgery. She spent the first month with me,” he said. “She stayed in the hotel. Even though she doesn’t know English, she ordered and picked up food. She helped me walk. She helped me shower. She’s an angel, for sure.”
His father joined him a month later from Russia.
“I was worried about my dad because he was so far away,” he said. “It was tough on him because he saw that his oldest son couldn’t be doing what he should. But he spent two months with me in Detroit. Like my mom, he loved me and supported me as much as he could.”
His surgery took place on Oct. 16. Slowly but surely he made progress. For someone who loved being on the ice, it was still painfully slow. “It was a crazy, long process – one month after another. You eventually realize how long it’s going to take.
“My whole motivation was to come back and play,” he continued. “My target date was May. I was thinking about it every single day.”
Eventually, he was given clearance by the doctors to skate again.
“When I got back on the ice for the first time again in December, I was the happiest man in the world,“ he said. “I kept strengthening the knee and skating a little more and a little more until I felt ready to practice.”
Being able to practice, Svechnikov believed, would be a big step toward his ultimate return. Initially, it didn’t go as well as he had hoped.
“When I felt strong enough and tried to practice, it was just way too much pain,” he said. “I could tell it hadn’t healed yet. I had so much tendinitis in the knee that I couldn’t do anything. The only way that it would get better was with time, and they were telling me that it would be 6-9 months.”
Svechnikov did what he could to keep from going stir crazy. He visited his old teammates in Grand Rapids. He went on road trips with the Red Wings. He watched some hockey but found it was almost painful to watch because he couldn’t play.
“It’s not easy because you feel all alone,” he said. “But the guys were unreal. They knew what I was going through and they did their best to cheer me up as much as they could.
“I became very close to the team. I became close friends, friends for life, with many of them, guys like Madison Bowey, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha. Mantha was injured for a month while I was hurt, so we spent a lot of time together.”
In addition, Svechnikov received encouragement from Niklas Kronwall, who missed more than half of the 2005-06 season with a serious knee injury suffered in an exhibition game. Kronwall would eventually play more than 900 NHL games before retiring last summer. “He helped me big time because he went through ACL surgery, too,” Svechnikov said.
When the Wings were on the road, he started going to a gym in Madison Heights. He also benefited from the guidance of the trainers in Detroit as well as the people from BARWIS Methods.
“I’m so grateful for their patience and all the work they did,” he said. “Their help and support, both mentally and physically, meant so much to me. They were there from day one of rehab. I’d get up early every day and be the first there in the morning.”
There was no way that Svechnikov was going to be denied. He was going to work as hard as he could to get back as quick as he could.
“It was tough to manage my time because I was sore a lot,” he said. “I had to manage how much time I spent in the gym and how much time I spent on the ice. I would be in the gym every day but in the beginning, I could be out on the ice only 2-3 times a week.”
As tough as his rehab was physically, it was even more difficult mentally. When he assesses the work that he put into his comeback, Svechnikov puts the percentage at 65 percent mental, 35 percent physical.
“You can’t look back, so you just put yourself on the right path,” he said. “There comes a point (in rehab) where it will kick you because the process is so long and so hard. There will be some hesitation as far as how you’re going to go. There were nights where I couldn’t sleep. When you’re watching the other guys still playing, it’s hard. That’s when it kicks you mentally.
“So you have to get up every day and keep going. You do the same thing over and over again. It’s for three months, then five months, then six months and so on. It’s hard physically, but it’s even harder mentally when you’re doing it all by yourself.
“You keep dreaming about that day when you’ll be back in the lineup and playing the game that you love.”
When last season ended, Svechnikov went home for a month, then returned to Detroit where he stayed with Larkin and trained with the help of the Barwis staff. “We pushed each other all summer,” he said. “The team at Barwis helped me regain strength and the progress that I made over the summer was just crazy.”
After a good summer, Svechnikov felt he was prepared for training camp last fall.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that I was going to do everything I could,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, but I felt like it was triple-hard for me because I had been out so long. I felt like I wasn’t in the best shape because I couldn’t train as much as I wanted.
“But I stuck with it and did what I could. It was a tough camp, physically and mentally, but I felt like I did really good. Despite the pain, I felt like I battled every single shift. My knee was sore, but I gutted it out.”
In preseason play, Svechnikov felt like he gave himself a good chance to make the team. He was anxious to get back to the NHL. He had tallied two goals and two assists in 14 games with the Wings during the 2017-18 season after a 20-goal campaign with the Griffins during his rookie pro season.
He was disappointed but not surprised when the Wings wanted him to start this season in Grand Rapids.
“I didn’t play all last year, so it’s good for me to come to Grand Rapids and play some games,” he said. “I want to be in Detroit. I still believe that I should be there. That’s my dream and I’m willing to do everything necessary to get back there, so I will work hard every single day.”
The Red Wings recognized his efforts by recalling him earlier this season. He saw sporadic action before being sent back to the Griffins. While he appreciates that Detroit showed they were rewarding him with a recall, he is eager to return. “It doesn’t matter what they want to show. You want to play,” he said. “You want to be on the ice.”
Svechnikov admits that he is still struggling with lingering pain.
“It’s been 14-15 months and it still hurts like crazy,” he said. “After the second period, I’m already hurting. I’m not 100 percent, but at this point, I’m back in the game. I’m doing what I can every day, which is something I couldn’t say last year, so I couldn’t be more happy.
“My knee is still sore and it bothers me, but it’s good enough to play. So you just try to go on the ice and think about the game. Actually, you don’t think about anything. You just play hockey. The knee is still in the back of my head. You don’t think about it, but it’s still there. They tell me that’s normal.”
Dealing with residual pain is something that Svechnikov is just learning to live with. He said his injury and the rehabilitation process has had a profound effect on him, not only as a player but also as a person.
“When I look back now, I feel like I’m now a different person. I feel like a totally new man after how much I went through and how much work I put in. Obviously, the dream is still there, but it’s different now.
“I’m still a good player. I want to show people that I’m still a good player. I want to be an example and be the kind of player who can inspire and motivate other people. So I’m here. I’m focused on playing hard. I’m here to help the Griffins win and to have fun.”
The injury may have robbed Svechnikov of a whole season, but one thing it didn’t take from him was his passion for the game.
“As tough as it is to realize what I had to go through, last year was just a bigger bump in my road. I just have to let it pass and keep going on that road with the same target.
“The passion will never leave me. I think back to when I was a kid and what motivated me and I can say that I will never lose that desire, that fire in my eyes in terms of how much I want it. That’s why I will keep putting in the work that I need to do to become the best player I can be.
“I’m going to battle and battle for it every single day. I will grind and grind and find a way.”