Trying to sort out Henrik Zetterberg’s situation

Henrik Zetterberg’s broke his silence regarding his back issues while I was away from the blog, and while time has passed, I’d like to review what Zetterberg had to say in Swedish and English, if only to try and sort things out for myself.

Zetterberg first spoke with Aftonbladet’s Pet Bjurman, the New York-based correspondent for Sportbladet, and here’s a rough translation of what Zetterberg had to say:

“Did not train properly all summer”

Zetterberg confirms–he will miss the season’s start

NEW YORK: Henrik Zetterberg does not know if he will be able to play hockey anymore.

Right now, the pain in his back is too large.

“I haven’t managed to train properly throughout the summer. So I will miss training camp and, thus, also the start of the season. Then we will have to wait and see. I’ll continue with rehab here in Detroit now, the soon-to-be-38-year-old star tells Sportbladet in an exclusive interview.

The bleak report from Detroit have become more and more frequent during the summer month.

“Henrik Zetterberg has back problems again, and it’s unclear if he’s playing this season, his career could be over,” it’s repeatedly reported.

“Zata” himself has chosen to lay low, but now he breaks his silence to Sportbladet–and unfortunately confirms that the situation is not particularly bright.

“No, there’s nothing left for my back. The damage I was operated upon for after the 2014 Olympics haunts me again,” he says on the phone from Detroit, where Henrik and his family just returned after a long summer break in Skane, in Medelpad.

“Something wasn’t right”

He continues: “It actually already started in the previous season. I felt in February that something wasn’t right, and then we decided that I would stop practicing and just play in games. That way, I could still complete the season.”

But during the summer, at his home in Sweden, it became apparent that he couldn’t continue in the same way.

“I’ve only been able to go to rehab, not train properly. As soon as I press toward and try to go, the symptoms become too difficult. And the tricks I used to dampen them in the previous summers haven’t helped this time.”

In short:

The Detroit Red Wings’ captain, one of Sweden’s biggest hockey stars, who’s won Olympic gold, World Championship gold, a Stanley Cup title and a Conn Smythe trophy on his merit list–is nowhere near the shape he usually is at this time of the year.

“No, I haven’t been able to train and I can’t play in NHL games without being well-prepared, especially at my age,” he says. “So I will miss training camp, which begins in just a few weeks.”

And so, certainly the season’s start.

Awaiting a definitive message

After that? No definitive decisions have been made.

“No, I’ll go to rehab here in Detroit now. Then we simply have to wait and see.”

“Zata” describes the situation as difficult.

“I’m doing well every day, it’s only when I get in and work out that I feel pain during exercise. But it’s clear that it’s boring and frustrating to not be able to press as usual,” he says.

After the Aftonbladet interview hit the web, Zetterberg received a call from Expressen’s Gunnar Nordstrom, and he spoke with the Los Angeles-based columnist. What follows is solidly translated:

“Zata’s” own words about the nightmare

LOS ANGELES. Henrik Zetterberg, 37, is back in Detroit and is in the process of rehabilitation training, which will decide whether he can play hockey with the Detroit Red Wings this fall.

“It would be bitter to stop now,” says Zata to Sport Expressen.

He returned to the United States with his family on Monday, after a summer in Sweden, spent mostly in Molle and Alnon, outside Sundsvall.

But the planned summer training did not go as Zata had planned and hoped.

“I haven’t been able to train to a strong extent. I’ve had this problem since February, and hoped that rest and rehab would make the bad back better, but that’s not how it’s gone,” says Zata.

His back was operated upon in New York in February of 2014, when he was forced to cancel the Olympic Games with the Tre Kronor in Sochi because of the pain he felt.

“Then it was good for a couple of seasons, but in February of this year I felt there was something troubling again. I underwent a series of tests and MRI’s on the back and the answer we received was that there’s not a lot of disc left between the vertebrae. So the dampening that’s supposed to be there isn’t there. There were two options for me: to stop playing and complete the season, or to rest from all practices to minimize my time on ice. We chose to stop the exercises.”

Wants to play in the playoffs again

Zata played in all of Detroit’s 82 games in the regular season, and despite the back problems, he was the team’s best player.

But it was not enough to help the Red Wings into the playoffs.

Now he hopes to rest and rehab in Detroit, which might give him the chance to play for at least another season, to take the team into the playoffs for the first time in the new giant arena, Little Caesars Arena.

“It would be great to play in the playoffs there. That’s our goal and something I really want to do.”

And Zata will let that dream continue to live on for a while, even if he misses the preseason and the start of the season this autumn.

“Right now we don’t focus on any timeline. I’ll take it very calmly and don’t want to put on a time frame that gives pressure.”

Doesn’t want another operation

Do you feel stressed by all the writing and guessing about your hockey holiday?

“No, I’ve lived in this reality longer than people knew about. The Red Wings’ team management has been aware of the problems since February, but I haven’t given up.”

Can’t you fix the problem?

“No, then it’s a spinal fusion operation in any case. I don’t have too many choices, and I want to be able to exercise and move as I would like to still have a good time. Such operations are considered at 55 years of age.

So can you live a normal daily life with your family right now, don’t you feel pain?

The soreness comes when I put stress on my back, so otherwise it’s no problem.”

But you want to play hockey for at least one more season?

“Yes, I feel I have more to give. But it’s a very bad thread right now, for me to keep going on in my career. I’ve been playing for 15 years here in Detroit, and I’ve done a lot with it. And I’d love to continue for a while,” says Zata.

So the biggest difference between what the Red Wings’ company line has been and Zetterberg’s opinions regarding his options is simple:

Coach Blashill has stated that Zetterberg’s career is probably over if he can’t start the season on time, while Zetterberg himself wants to continue playing, even if he has to miss the start of the season.

On Tuesday night, Zetterberg spoke with the Free Press’s Helene St. James about his issues, addressing them in English for the first time…

Zetterberg told the Free Press on Tuesday he “will not be able to play from the start” of the 2018-19 season because of pain stemming from a history of back issues.

“I will need more answers from doctors before I say I have played my last game,” Zetterberg said. “In my mind, I am hoping it can get solved.

“I don’t want to think I have played my last game. To me, it’s still early to say that. But obviously, I’ve been through this for the last few years, and I know it’s a thin line.”

Zetterberg’s comments come days after Wings coach Jeff Blashill said the captain’s status this season would be determined based on how he feels when he reports to  camp on Sept. 14 in Traverse City.

“If he comes into camp and is in a spot where he’s not cleared, I wouldn’t plan on him for the rest of the year,” Blashill said Sunday in Plymouth, according to ESPN. “That would be my take because I don’t know how you go from not being able to train and then not cleared to all of a sudden being cleared.”

Zetterberg says he will keep trying to play until a medical professional tells him he cannot play another game.

“Every time I try to amp up my workouts, I get symptoms again,” Zetterberg said. “Surgery is not an option. Since February, it has slowly gotten worse — things like nerve pain down your legs, disc-related issues. I was able to find a way to get through it, but it has slowly gotten worse.  I need someone to tell me I can’t play hockey anymore.”

St. James continues, and Zetterberg tells her the same thing he told Nordstrom–that the next step for him is spinal fusion surgery, and that he wants to put that off for as long as possible.

A few days later, the Free Press’s Chris Thomas posted a Zetterberg retrospective, as well as a 63-image gallery of Zetterberg’s biggest moments as a Wing…

And the next morning, MLive’s Ansar Khan spoke with Red Wings GM Ken Holland regarding Zetterberg’s issues:

General manager Ken Holland said Zetterberg will undergo a physical with team doctors on Sept. 8, one he is not expected to pass. He will have another MRI taken on his back and then see a specialist, possibly Dr. Frank Cammisa, who performed his 2014 back surgery in New York.

“All appearances are he’s going to miss training camp and we’re going into the unknown,” Holland said.

Holland stopped short of saying Zetterberg’s career is over. And it while it appears highly unlikely that a player with back issues who turns 38 on Oct. 9 and hasn’t been able to train properly all summer could join the team mid-season, Holland didn’t rule it out.

“He hasn’t been able to train off ice consistently since early in 2018,” Holland said. “Do (doctors) say he needs rehab, more rest? I don’t know if further back surgery is an option. We got to wait for all the information.

“As we’re planning for an opening day roster, the reality is he’s not going to be healthy enough to play on opening day. Is he ready to play in November, December, January? I don’t know. He needs to see one of the best back specialists in the world and get further opinions.”

Holland said they’re not scheduled to bring in anyone to camp on a pro tryout but that could change next week.

“We’re going to give lots of kids an opportunity,” Holland said. “On the back end, there’s an opportunity for sure for one young defenseman to make our team. If a second one can make it, then we’ll assess what we’ll do with our roster.”

As Khan noted, the Wings’ cap issues will be at least temporarily solved when (and it’s looking like “when”) Zetterberg is placed on the long-term IR:

Zetterberg has three years remaining on his contract at a salary cap hit of $6.083 million. His actually salary is $3.35 million for 2018-19 and $1 million in each of the following two seasons.

The Red Wings can place him on long-term injured reserve at the start of the season.

Zetterberg is not likely to officially retire until his contract is up, otherwise the Red Wings would face a cap recapture penalty of roughly $4.3 million each season.

Also on Tuesday night, The Athletic’s Craig Custance discussed Zetterberg’s back issues on the NHL Network…

Custance also included some new comments in his Tuesday-night article and interview with Zetterberg…

From the outside it seems easy to connect the dots. Zetterberg’s injured back hasn’t responded to training. “Every time I try to ramp it up, I get symptoms and have to scale back,” he says. That comes with the reality that injured backs tend to get worse with age rather than better.

This could be it for the Red Wings captain, but he’s not ready to make that conclusion at this point.

“I don’t think I’m ready for that yet,” Zetterberg said of his playing career being over. “I need to make that decision. I have to get it black and white from somewhere.”

Entering the 16th year of his career, Zetterberg just returned to Detroit and has plans to see more doctors and get more opinions. He said he plans to continue to rehab his back, even if he’s a realist.

“You can’t do much surgically on it. It is what it is,” he said. “They took away part of my disc in my back. You can’t add another disc.”

And today, Hockeybuzz’s Bob Duff weighed in regarding Zetterberg’s problems, speaking with Ken Holland regarding Zetterberg’s fate:

“I think Sept. 8 is the day we worked it out for whatever veterans want to get their physicals done in advance,” Holland said. “The sooner the better with Zetterberg.

“He’s got to see our team doctors, specifically Dr. (Doug) Plagens, to determine where he’s at, and then possibly at some point in time do we get him to see the doctor that performed the surgery on him in 2014 in New York (Dr. Frank Cammisa at the Hospital for Special Surgery).”

“If he’s not able to pass the physical, and I don’t see how he could pass the physical – he hasn’t been able to train – then we’re going to have to send him to a back specialist.”

If it comes to that – and all signs at this stage point to that being the case – Zetterberg will get an updated MRI to take with him to back specialist.

“Then we’ve got to see what the back specialist says,” Holland said. “If he says he just needs more time.”

According to Holland, the Wings haven’t ruled out the concept of Zetterberg playing later this year:

“I think he can play later in the season, if the back specialists deem he needs more time, or he needs minor surgery,” Holland said. “Obviously, if it’s a major surgery, then he’s going to have to determine at this stage of his life does he want to take the risk of a major surgery?

Duff continues, and Holland’s bottom line is simple:

“I don’t expect to see him on the ice in Traverse City or playing preseason games. It’s a massive concern where Z is at with his career. He’s very discouraged.”

Finally, TSN discussed Zetterberg’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy, describing him as a “compelling decision” for the Hall:

When it comes to offensive numbers, Zetterberg ranks fifth all-time in Red Wings history in goals (337), assists (623), game-winning goals (64) and points (960). He is sixth all-time in their history in games played with 1,082. His best individual season came in 2007-08, when he had a career-high in goals (43) and points (92). He has spent his entire 15-year NHL career with the Red Wings. In 2008, he won his first and only Stanley Cup.

From 2002-03 to 2010-11, Zetterberg had 555 points in 586 games, 15th in the span. From 2007-08 to 2010-11, he had 405 points in 496 games, 23rd most in that time. He twice finished in the top 10 in scoring – in 2007-08 and 2010-11 – and finished fifth in goals in 2007-08. Zetterberg currently sits 94th in all-time NHL scoring. He is the sixth-highest scoring Swede of all time.

Internationally, he participated in four Olympics, scoring nine points in 17 games. He also played in six world championships, tallying 44 points in 52 games. He is a member of the Triple Gold club with Olympic and world championship gold medals in 2006 and a Stanley Cup in 2008.

For individual awards, Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP in 2008 and the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2014-15. He managed to accomplish all of this despite being a seventh-round draft pick.

In comparison to current Hall of Famers when it comes to points, Zetterberg’s 960 points compare favourably to Maurice Richard (966), Andy Bathgate (973) and Dave Keon (986). He also has more points and games played than Ted Lindsay (851 points and 1,068 GP).

So the bottom line to a complicated situation is fairly simple: Zetterberg is going to take his physical on the 8th, fail it, and then he’s going to consult with doctors, including the New York-based specialist who performed the discectomy in 2014, to determine whether he can continue playing without forcing the timeline for that spinal fusion up from 55 to 40 years of age.

If he’s cleared to rehab, that’s what he’s going to do, and while the Red Wings’ coach can’t count on Zetterberg’s presence from a planning standpoint, stranger things have happened.

I wouldn’t put Zetterberg’s chances of continuing his career as high as double-digit numbers, but I wouldn’t completely rule out a comeback.

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George Malik

My name is George Malik, and I'm the Malik Report's editor/blogger/poster. I have been blogging about the Red Wings since 2006, when MLive hired me to work their SlapShots blog, and I joined Kukla's Korner in 2011 as The Malik Report. I'm starting The Malik Report as a stand-alone site, hoping that having my readers fund the website is indeed the way to go to build a better community and create better content.