NOT LONG AFTER TUESDAY NIGHT'S first game of the Turner Cup quarterfinal playoffs between Salt Lake and Denver, Mark Janssens breathed a sigh of relief. His return to the scene of the crime had been accomplished and now all was well with the world again. He had gotten back on the horse.
He smiled, anticipating the second game of the playoffs, Tuesday in the Salt Palace."Now I can get back to being my normal hacking, checking self," he said.
Tuesday was Janssens' first visit to the Salt Palace since he left the rink in an ambulance last Dec. 10, en route for LDS Hospital. After a rough check by the Eagles' Stu Grimson and an ensuing fight with the Eagles' Martin Simard, Janssens had accidentally lost his helmet while falling backward onto the ice. He suffered a severe head concussion. That night, doctors at the hospital feared that the intense pressure on Janssens' skull might necessitate drilling a hole in his head. They said they'd wait till morning to decide.
A rock-hard, 6-foot-3, 200-pound hockey disciple from British Columbia, Janssens was used to adversity; to seeing defensemen flying at him from all angles; to having hockey sticks trip his skates in full flight; to having guys taunt him and call him names. But this was different. This was real cause for concern. "I had never been so frightened as that night," said Janssens, "Never even close."
Growing up in junior hockey, Janssens always told his mother that she shouldn't worry about the fighting. "Nobody ever gets hurt in a fight, mom," he'd say. "Maybe a few bruised knuckles, that's all."
Now all he wanted was to get out of the hospital intact, so his mother could tell him she'd told him so.
The next morning the doctors approached Janssens with some great news and some not-so-great news.
The great news: The pressure hadn't intensified, and surgery wouldn't be necessary.
The not-so-great news: He wouldn't be playing hockey for quite awhile.
Janssens went home to British Columbia, took his medicine from his mom, and went to work at rehabilitation. He forced himself to look at a film clip of the crash. "It was an accident, that's all," he said. "I hold no grudges. No one is to blame. It just happened. I hope to God it never happens again - to anyone."
His experience in the hospital opened his eyes to the frailty of the human body - a concept that contrasts greatly with the way hockey treats it - and heightened his appreciation for good health.
"I'm appreciating life to the fullest, now," he said. "I appreciate the little things more. I appreciate being able to play hockey."
Even in Salt Lake.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say I was apprehensive about Tuesday night," he said. "Not that I was looking over my shoulder. But I was a little tentative. I needed one night to calm my nerves. Now I'm going to be fine."
It wasn't Janssens' first hockey game since the ac cident. His rehabilitation lasted nearly three months and dozens of CAT scans and medical examinations, not to mention hundreds of hours in front of the TV watching hockey games. "I came to the realization I'd rather play it than watch it" he said.
He was finally back playing it for Denver on Feb. 28.
He did not return timidly. Taking advantage of linemate Marcelle Dionne, who had been sent down by the parent New York Rangers, he scored six points in his first two IHL games. After eight more games he was promoted full-time to New York.
It had been some season. One night he's lying flat on his back in a Salt Lake hospital bed, wondering if he's going to have to have his head drilled, then three months later he's playing in the NHL in Madison Square Garden.
Janssens saw limited playing time as a rookie Ranger, but he lasted to the end of the first-round of the NHL playoffs, which was as long as the Rangers lasted. This past week he was returned to Denver, who promptly put him in their IHL playoff lineup.
Which was fine with Janssens, who scored Denver's only goal in Tuesday's 5-1 Eagles win. "I just want to keep playing," he said. "I've got a lot of time to make up for. I had a three-month rest."
He has no desire to be ousted from the IHL playoffs in the first round. For that reason, and that reason alone, he has no particular affection for the Eagles.
"The worst part of any hockey season is when you have to lineup and shake hands with a team that's just beaten you," said Janssens. "And they're saying to you, `Have a good summer."'
Well, make that the second worst part of any hockey season.
The worst is when you can't play. At 20, Mark Janssens already knows that. He learned it the hard way, on the Salt Palace ice three months ago. But he also learned the flipside: How good it feels to come back. It's that memory from the accident that he wants to never forget.