Last month we caught up with Masterton nominee and Vancouver Canucks fan-favorite Manny Malhotra at the 2014 NHL Awards to discuss his gruesome eye injury, return to the NHL and brother-in-law Los Angeles Laker Steve Nash. These are his stories.
Q: How many operations have you had on your eye since the injury on March 16, 2011?
A: That's not something I get into.
Q: Are you continuing to have operations or is that behind you?
A: No, I've been healed for a couple of years now. It is what it is. I'm just moving forward.
Q: Are there any exercises you do to help maintain or improve your vision?
A: There are things you can do. Things that are often undervalued in training are eye-hand coordination type of exercises. It is something that can be improved.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in your comeback to the NHL after being shutdown by GM Mike Gillis of the Vancouver Canucks?
A: I think the biggest thing was having to prove to teams that I was healthy and I was able to contribute. A lot of things were said in the media, as far as my health was concerned, that were inaccurate or didn't reflect the way that I felt. So, I think just getting over a lot of those hurdles was probably the biggest part of it.
Q: Do you think a visor would have prevented the injury given the deflection of the puck and angle it approached your face?
A: It's hard to say.
Q: Do you live with the thought that it could have been prevented if you were wearing a visor?
A: No, I don't live with that. It's gone.
Q: You returned from a potentially career-ending injury to play in the Stanley Cup Final in just three months. Describe the experience of returning to the ice and skating in a Stanley Cup Final.
A: It was an incredible experience that season, from being told that the season was over for me to working my way back into the lineup to get to the Cup Finals. Every boy dreams of playing in the Stanley Cup Final so to have that opportunity ... I can't speak enough about the city [Vancouver] and how passionate the fans were. It's a feeling you can't describe playing in front of rabid fans like that during the Stanley Cup. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career.
Q: Your former coach Alain Vigneault recently remarked that the New York Rangers were closer to winning the Cup in the 2014 than the Vancouver Canucks were in the 2011, noting "we had so many injuries and there wasn’t much left in our tank". When you returned to the lineup, did you see a depleted and exhausted team compared to when you last played with them in March?
A: Obviously we had our fair share of injuries and suspensions, and what not. Obviously it didn't allow us to function as the team that we did in the regular season, but that's just the war of attrition that every team goes through in the playoffs.
As far as what that team was, I think we were still an incredible team even though we had all of those injuries and suspensions. It was the team concept, the team focus that we had. We didn't focus on individuals ever, in or out of that series. It was a real team effort. That concept never went away.
Q: Talk about the feeling after the Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins.
A: It's not something you can really put into words. It's just utter disappointment that you didn't achieve the goal that we set out at the beginning of the year ... to build and get better on a daily basis, to build our team concept, to get better systems and to get better team-wise. We felt that we got to that point and we reached the pinnacle, but we just weren't able to make that last step to win a Cup.
Q: You played the entire 2011-2012 regular season but were shut down by Vancouver Canucks management just 9 games into the 2012-2013 season. Tell me about conversation with management that resulted in that decision.
A: At the end of the prior season [2011-2012], Mike [Gillis] had voiced his concerns about my health and safety out on the ice. He said that I would be given a chance the following year to prove that I was healthy and safe out there. I felt that I did that. I was feeling much better on the ice after a summer of training more on the ice and doing some more vision training stuff. I felt like I was trending towards being more like myself and being "normal" out there, but he didn't see it the same way.
Again, you can't really describe the feeling when someone tells you that you are not allowed to do what you've done since you were seven years old ... "that's the end of the line" kind of thing. In my head, I knew I still had the ability to play and I knew that I had the ability to contribute while being healthy and safe on the ice. Waiting for that opportunity was a long time coming that summer.
Q: Did you skate with the Vancouver Canucks during the 2012-2013 season? Did you hang out with the team that year?
A: I was around the team a little bit. In and out. I continued to train. I continued to skate. Like I said, I didn't feel like it was time for me to hang them up. I felt good on the ice. So for me it was lonely being away from the team and from that team atmosphere. Seeing the guys on a daily basis, training with them, traveling with them. It was a tough year to be away, to be so close to the team but not a part of it whatsoever.
Q: How many teams approached you for your services at the end of the 2012-2013 season?
A: We had a few talks with a couple of teams. Obviously nothing came of it. Nothing to in-depth or serious. Carolina was the one team that was willing to give me that opportunity to be on the ice and to prove myself. I keep telling everybody that I was very grateful for the opportunity that they gave me.
Q: Talk about the day you were called up from the Charlotte Checkers to the Carolina Hurricanes.
A: We were on the road, we had a game that night. I went to the rink in the morning. My agent was trying to get through to me. I finally picked up the phone and he gave me the news. He said that Jimmy [Ruthford] wants to talk to you, you 're being brought up. It was such a happy time because there were really no guarantees going to Charlotte.
It was a 25 game contract with no guarantees that I was going to go to Carolina, so to get that call to say that I was going to be given a shot to go back to the NHL, I was so happy. I went back to the hotel, packed up my bags and I was off on a flight for a game the next night. It was just such a happy feeling. I made the call to my wife and my parents to let everyone know that I was going back up. It was a great time.
Q: And in your third game back in the NHL, you scored the game winning OT goal against the Philadelphia Flyers.
A: Yeah, the first couple of games just being back and being in the league playing games was just a fun experience. I was just so hoped up on adrenaline. But in game 3 when I scored that OT winner, it was such a great feeling for a couple of reasons. As a team we were on a bit of a slide. We were talking about playing the right way. We went down a goal late in the game and stayed resilient, stuck to our game plan, got a tying goal late and then to win it in OT we were rewarded for playing the right way, which is great as a team. Personally, everybody always loves to score so it was fun to be able to contribute on the offensive side of things. It was a good crowd in Carolina that night and it was a big game for us. It was just such a good feeling to be able to contribute and have that feeling that you're back in the league.
Q: Do you keep in touch with anyone on the Canucks?
A: Quite a few of the guys. Dan Hamhuis lived a few blocks from us, our wives got along and we had similar aged kids, so we hung out quite a bit. Daniel and Henrik [Sedin]. Kevin Bieksa. Chris Higgins is skating this summer with us. Periodically I check in with certain guys but for the most part those are the guys I keep in touch with most often.
Q: Are there is any coaches that you keep in touch with?
A: Not really, not on a regular basis. Playing with Kirk [Muller] in Dallas and then having him as a coach is a different kind of relationship than I've had with other coaches. But it's more so keeping in touch with trainers and players than coaches.
Q: Who are some of your favorite linemates thus far in your NHL career? I remember you had a good thing going with Jannik Hansen and Raffi Torres in Vancouver in 2011.
A: Yeah, I really enjoyed playing with those two guys. I played with Jason Chimera in Columbus. He was fun to play with. Again, we were very good friends and our wives got along, so it was fun playing with him. And we played together for a couple of years. It's nice when you have that chemistry with someone on an ongoing basis. But yeah, coming back to Raffi and Jannik, that was a really fun line to play with. Both guys contributed.
Q: Who are some of the more influential coaches you've had in the NHL?
A: My experience with Hitch [Ken Hitchcock] in Columbus was a real career defining experience for me. I learned a lot from him. We had some great conversations about the game and what's expected from me personally in my own game. He's such a tactical coach that you learn alot about the game of hockey. Then moving on to San Jose, Todd McLellan was an incredible communicator and very good tactically. You always knew where you stood with him. So, I really enjoyed playing for Todd and his staff. You pick up little things from every coach that you play for, but those guys really helped me along.
Q: Proudest hockey accomplishment? Is it the comeback?
A: Yeah, that would be up there. Personally, I never refer to it as a comeback in my head I was never gone. I was always being told I wasn't playing any more, that I wasn't going to play for this organization. But, in my head, I was continuing to train as though I was playing the next year. The more I look at it, making it in the NHL is such a big accomplishment. To do it twice? You look how hard it is and how you have to make the most of every situation. I think just being here is an accomplishment in itself.
Q: Where is home for you
A: Vancouver. We live in Vancouver. My wife's from the west coast.
Q: What's your favorite hockey road city?
A: So many unique experiences everywhere. Montreal is fun to play. Toronto, friends and family. New York, the most famous arena. You know, the list goes on. Chicago, the noise. San Jose, the noise. There's so many things you like about each city it's tough to say which city is the best, aside from your favorite restaurant here and there.
Q: What's your record on the Grouse Grind?
A: 37 or 38 minutes.
Q: Your brother in-law is a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash. Who's better at soccer, you or Steve Nash?
A: I'll say Steve, out of respect, because he plays more. But I play the physical game with him and he couldn't keep up.
Q: Are you playing in Steve's charity soccer Showdown this year?
A: Not this year. It's too far to travel.
Q: Have you watch Steve Nash's ESPN production "The Finish Line"?
Q: Did that series documenting Steve's injury and struggle to return to the Lakers resonate with your plight to continue your career in the NHL?
A: There were a few episodes that he had that kind of detailed what I went through. Not this past season but the year before [2012-2013] when I was pushed aside and told they were shutting me down. So I could definitely relate to a lot of things that he touched on.
Q: Did you speak with Steve about that connection?
A: A little bit. When we were in LA, I had the chance to go to lunch. We both had practice days so we went for a lunch and discussed it a little bit. We keep in touch sending texts here and there, but we both kind of bounced ideas off each other and what it was like to go through. I can pick his brain when it comes to training. He's obviously found the fountain of youth. To be playing at 40 years old at the level he is, is pretty impressive.
Q: What is your training regime in the summer?
A: I don't lift weights and I don't ride the bike.
Q: What's left, skating?
A: A lot of on-ice work. A lot of body weight circuits, core expands, that kind of stuff. I've found that the older you get, the more that speed, quickness and agility comes into play as opposed to hitting the gym and lifting weights.
Q: Who do you train with?
A: Myself quite often. I skate quite often with Jeff Tambellini. He runs a hockey program in Vancouver called Factory Hockey. I'll go to his gym to work out with them once in a while and skate with them twice a week. I'll also rent the ice for myself twice a week with my skating coach. Being on the ice four times a week and hitting the gym from time to time to do body weight circuits is what I found works best for me.
Q: Given the recent changes with the Canucks organization, including the departure of GM Mike Gillis, would Vancouver be at the top of your wish-list of teams to play for next season?
A: You never know. The fit has to be right with both parties. I did really enjoy my time in Vancouver. It's fun to play where you live. But you never rule out any possibilities. There's positives and negatives to every team. Once the time rolls around when we're UFAs, and this time we can talk ahead of time, we'll see where the best fit is for us, hockey and family wise.
Q: Will your family move with you?
A: Oh yeah. It's tough being away from them for too long.
Q: What training tips do you have for adult beer-leaguers who hit the ice once or twice a week?
A: Have fun. If you're playing rec hockey, you're having fun. Just go enjoy yourself.
Manny signed a one-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens on July 1, 2014. The 34 year old center will earn $850,000 next season.
Many thanks to Manny for speaking with us. Best of luck next season.