'I just want to play again': Red Wings' Danny DeKeyser on the way back after lost season
Detroit – A less than ideal season continued for Red Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser into this coronavirus pandemic.
DeKeyser and his wife Melissa welcomed their second daughter, Claire, into the world Monday night – and that part of it was completely wonderful.
But the birth happening amid the virus concerns at hospitals made it a bit unnerving.
“This week was the peak at hospitals (virus patients), so that was not the ideal for sure,” DeKeyser said Friday. “But everybody did such a good job at the hospital (Grosse Pointe Beaumont). Once we got there, I actually felt more comfortable being there than when I was thinking about how it was going to be.
“It was a little chaotic but they did everything to minimize the spread of things and were as careful as they could be.”
Claire has provided utter joy after a winter marred by back pain, and eventually surgery, for DeKeyser.
And very little hockey.
In fact, DeKeyser was limited to eight games this suspended season because of a herniated disc, contributing to as frustrating a hockey season as the veteran defenseman has ever gone through.
“The start of 2020 has been crazy, but hockey-wise, it’s been a frustrating year,” DeKeyser said. “I came into training camp feeling good and I had a good start to the season, and we won three of our first four games.
“I was feeling good about things.”
But there was one nagging thing in the back of DeKeyser’s mind.
“I started to get a little bit of back pain in training camp, lower-back pain,” said DeKeyser, and that would prove to be a much larger issue.
Still, DeKeyser never missed a practice during training camp and played all his scheduled exhibition games.
But it was during the Oct. 10 game in Montreal – the Wings’ third victory in four games to begin the season – that DeKeyser felt something more.
“I was lining up for a faceoff and being in that hockey position, slightly hunched over at the faceoff, and wondering, ‘What is going on, why am I so tight?,’” DeKeyser said.
A few days later the Wings traveled to western Canada and things began to go downhill.
“Obviously it’s a long flight, and with the lower-back pain, it wasn’t great,” DeKeyser said. “I missed the Vancouver game because that morning I got on the ice and my back was just seizing up on me.
“I had terrible back pain. I couldn’t move.”
DeKeyser returned to practice and would play the next two games in Calgary and Edmonton, “and actually felt real good,” he said.
But after being in the lineup Oct. 22 at Little Caesars Arena against Vancouver, DeKeyser played less than 19 minutes and realized something was wrong. He did not finish the game.
“I started to feel it and kind of felt it the whole game,” DeKeyser said.
Medical tests revealed a disc protruding and pushing into the nerves, causing back spasms. DeKeyser received three injections, two weeks apart, and the inflammation improved.
DeKeyser began gradually working out and in early December was working out on his own with the intention of returning to the lineup later in the month.
But during a pre-practice skate in mid-December, DeKeyser’s season essentially ended.
“I was skating and doing routine drills, I went back to get a puck and I twisted one way and another, made a hockey move and made a pass, and all of a sudden, oh man,” DeKeyser said.
DeKeyser said the pain felt like an intense shock in his lower back.
“And it went right down my legs and into my foot,” DeKeyser said. “Right then I said, ‘This is not good.’ I got off the ice immediately and went to see the doctors. They had me push my foot into a (doctor’s) hand and I literally couldn’t push.
“Four days later (Dec. 17) I ended up having surgery.”
DeKeyser had been in the midst of rehabilitating when the virus pandemic hit.
Trips to Little Caesars Arena to work with the Wings' training staff ended, but DeKeyser has a good enough gym at home, where he’s been able to continue working out.
DeKeyser thinks he’s about 90 percent to where he needs to be and is eager to get back on the ice.
“Though I don’t know when that’ll be,” DeKeyser said. “Maybe over the next six weeks or so things will slowly start to open up.
“I just want to start skating again and get back out there and play again.”
Any sort of back surgery is always a concern for a pro athlete. But DeKeyser said he received complete assurances from doctors his hockey ability won’t be compromised going forward.
DeKeyser turned 30 on March 7, suddenly evolving into an elder statesman on a roster that is getting progressively younger.
“My first two or three years I was the youngest guy, by far,” DeKeyser said. “Guys like (Todd) Bertuzzi and (Mikael) Samuelsson were on the team, guys in the mid-30s, and I was just 22 or 23. But it changes fast and now I don’t know what the roster will look like, but I’ll be one of the older guys.”
Watching his teammates go through such a difficult season – the Wings will have the NHL's worst record, regardless of whether season resumes or not – made it that much tougher for DeKeyser. Not being around teammates was difficult, as well.
"As a hockey player you never want to miss time," DeKeyser said. "The last few years I've had some bad luck with injuries and it was tough sitting and watching. Not being with the team and helping out, it was tough, because I feel I can help the team when I'm healthy."
Missing nearly the entire season made DeKeyser feel disconnected from the rest of the roster.
"Not being on the road and doing all the stuff that brings you closer together, that was the hardest part," DeKeyser said. "Anytime you're hurt, you’re just on a different schedule all the time, so you feel a little different for sure."
Despite all the defeats, DeKeyser believes the Wings did salvage positives that will benefit them in the future.
DeKeyser will be ready for the start of training camp in September – if it starts on time – and thinks better days are ahead for the organization.
"A lot of young guys got a chance to play this year and get a sniff of what NHL hockey is really like," DeKeyser said. "It was one of those years where it was growing pains, and it's tough when you're losing a lot, and team morale is low. You can kind of sense it at times through the year, when we were on a losing streak, there wasn't a ton of energy around the rink, guys got a little down. But it's hard when you go out there and play hard and lose, and mentally it can be a grind.
"But when you go through a year like this it makes those winning years that much better."