Joffrey Lupul went from little old man to The Man for the Toronto Maple Leafs, which is why he is their nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy.
The Masterton Trophy, as just about every hockey fan knows by rote, is awarded to the player who most exemplifies "perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey." Lupul, 28, needed all of those qualities in abundance (well, maybe not the sportsmanship part) over the past 2 1/2 years as he overcame two back operations and a blood infection to get his career back on the rails.
In December, 2009, when he was playing for the Anaheim Ducks, who took him seventh overall in the 2002 NHL entry draft, Lupul developed a herniated disk in his back. He underwent surgery but his recovery did not go well. A second operation was needed and then Lupul developed a serious blood infection that eventually returned twice before he recovered enough to play again on Dec. 5, 2010.
By then, Lupul had lost 40 pounds and at one point he could barely stand up straight. Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle was coaching the Ducks at the time and he said Lupul "was a mess, a real mess."
Carlyle said Lupul was so thin from the infection and hunched over from his back problem "you would have thought he was an elderly man. To see him now, healthy and how far back he is from where he was, is amazing."
Lupul admitted Thursday there were many days when he was "past looking at hockey and more hoping I could just make a full recovery and be able to do day-to-day stuff. For a couple of months, it was not looking very good."
By the time Lupul was able to play for the Ducks again, there was no room for him on the team's top two lines. His game regressed greatly and it was a struggle for him to hold a spot on the third or fourth lines.
Three months after he came back, the Ducks forced the Maple Leafs to take Lupul and his contract in a trade that included rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner in February, 2011. By the end of the 2010-11 season, Lupul was fully recovered and was able to concentrate on training hard over the summer.
But there were still doubts about him because of an inconsistent career before his back problems. After making him a first-round draft pick, the Ducks traded Lupul to the Edmonton Oilers. From there, Lupul went to the Philadelphia Flyers, back to the Ducks and then to the Maple Leafs essentially as a throw-in.
No one saw this season's renaissance coming, although Lupul says the reason he is finally living up to the potential of a high first-round pick is he was finally healthy enough to prepare for a season. Until he was lost to a separated shoulder on March 6, Lupul had 67 points in 66 games, a career high even if he is unable to play again this season.
Lupul is the main reason why linemate Phil Kessel is also among the NHL's leading scorers this season. Lupul's loss to injury was also a key factor in the Maple Leafs' collapse in the playoff race this month.
While Lupul is flattered the Toronto chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association nominated him for the Masterton award, he admitted its status as the unofficial comeback-player-of-the-year means it's not one many players dream about.
"It's an honour but it's one of those awards you don't picture yourself winning," he said. "It means getting put in a tough spot or a tough situation and persevering."
It is hoped Lupul will start skating with the team in about a week, although he didn't sound optimistic about playing before the end of the regular season. He stayed behind Thursday while the Leafs flew to New Jersey for Friday's game with the Devils.
"We're taking it day-by-day," Lupul said. "I haven't skated yet. It'll be a bit of a stretch."