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Leafs defenceman Jamie Heward holding out slim hope of return from concussion

TORONTO - This is the human side to a trade that most people wrote off as a paper transaction.

It plays out an hour before the Toronto Maple Leafs are even scheduled to start practice, with a single player skating laps on his own and firing pucks at an empty net.

Others in the same situation may have already called it a career, but giving up simply isn't in Jamie Heward's nature.

Just days before his 38th birthday and still recovering from his latest concussion, Heward is hoping to get in the Maple Leafs lineup before the end of the season. He suffered his injury while playing for Tampa Bay on Jan. 1 and was dealt to Toronto at the trade deadline earlier this month.

"I know I was hurt when I got traded here," Heward said Thursday. "But just to be in Toronto and be in a hockey city has kind of rekindled the juices a little bit."

The trade that brought him here was seen as a salary dump by the Lightning, who received a prospect from the Maple Leafs in exchange for Heward, injured goalie Olaf Kolzig, a minor-leaguer and a fourth-round pick.

It turns out that Heward had other plans.

He's suffered four or five concussions during a career that has seen him bounce between almost 20 different pro teams. Even with mounting evidence about the long-term affects of head injuries, he's determined to carry on.

"I've weighed the options," said Heward. "At my age and this stage of my career, yeah, I feel it's worth it to go out and try and play again. ...

"I don't want the last vision of me as being carried off the ice on a stretcher. I'd like to be able to play my last game taking a jersey off instead of having it cut off."

That occurred in Washington on New Year's Day when Heward's head smacked the glass awkwardly after a hit by Alex Ovechkin.

He was knocked out cold and spent a night in hospital, where he woke up with concerns that he might have suffered some kind of long-term neurological damage.

Even though he was in a vulnerable position when he was hit, Heward holds no grudges against Ovechkin. The former teammates actually spoke about the incident earlier this week when the Capitals were in town.

"It's a physical game, a man's game," said Heward. "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"The fact that he even acknowledged that he had feelings about it and was emotional about it is enough for me. I know how he feels and what kind of player he is."

The road back to the NHL will still be difficult for Heward.

He's scheduled to undergo a test on Monday that will determine whether he can start practising with his teammates again. Even if he passes it, the Leafs certainly don't expect to have him in uniform over the next three weeks.

"Personally I can't see him playing in a game," said coach Ron Wilson. "We only have eight games left, (Tomas) Kaberle's going to be back ...

"He's been out with a concussion for two and a half or three months. You just can't get yourself in shape."

Having the chance to get back in shape already represents a monumental improvement.

Heward was unable to engage in physical activity immediately after sustaining the injury. It was a rough period.

"You go through about the first two and half to three weeks, maybe even the first month of not being a normal person," he said. "Your life just isn't regular. Yeah, depression is part of it.

"You're upset that you're not playing, you're upset that you have to be in the press box watching games, you're upset that you can't deal with your family on a regular basis."

At least he's back into a familiar routine now.

The 37-year-old will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and would love nothing more than to get into one game with the Maple Leafs before then.

He'll continue skating on his own and working towards that goal, no matter how long the odds seem. You see, his comeback bid comes with an extra little bit of motivation.

"For me, I want to be able to play a couple more games and have my little guy come down to Toronto and see what it's like to be in the (Air Canada Centre)," said Heward.

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