VANCOUVER - Sami Salo has always been a survivor.
If the Vancouver Canucks defenceman were a cat he'd have used up all of his lives long ago. But when Salo ruptured his Achilles tendon last summer he worried his NHL career was finally over.
"This one has been the toughest, not necessarily physically but for sure mentally,'' Salo said after the Canucks practised Monday. "It was so serious I was worried I wouldn't be able to function properly.''
Salo will be in the lineup when Vancouver faces the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place Tuesday night. The NHL-leading Canucks will be looking for a little revenge after losing 4-1 to the cellar-dwelling Oilers on Saturday night in Vancouver.
It's been a long, slow road back for the 36-year-old native of Turku, Finland. He missed training camp and the first 52 games of the season recovering from surgery, then slowly regaining his strength.
As the fall progressed, the doubts lingered. It was December before Salo was finally convinced he'd be able to play hockey again.
"Ever since Christmas I had a strong feeling I could come back and come back strong,'' he said. "I could see the leg didn't bother me at all.
"I knew it would take a little bit of time to get back practising with the team.''
In early February Salo was sent to the Manitoba Moose, Vancouver's AHL farm team, for a conditioning stint. He responded by scoring two goals in his first game.
He returned to the Canucks lineup Feb. 12.
In the 24 games since, the six-foot-three, 215-pound Salo has three goals and four assists. He is a minus-5 while averaging 20 minutes 43 second of icetime a game.
Numbers don't tell Salo's full contribution to the team.
The steady defenceman brings a veteran presence to the Canucks blue-line. He has a vicious shot that can make goaltenders cringe and a dry sense of humour that can lighten a dressing room.
"He brings a stabilizing component to our back end,'' said fellow defenceman Kevin Bieksa. "He plays the same way each and every night.
"He's very consistent. He's a great guy to be around.''
One of the biggest challenges for Salo was getting back to game speed. He was like a car trying to enter the fast lane of a freeway.
"The first month was really tough,'' he said. "Anybody can say the same thing if they have missed a long time with an injury.
"You can't just turn a switch and say you will be back at the same level you were before. There was a long time adjusting.''
Bieksa, who twice has battled back from serious leg injuries himself, appreciates what Salo experienced.
"It's very difficult and very underrated how well he's done," said Bieksa. "Missing training camp and all that stuff, that's where you get all the cobwebs out and get your preparation.
"To step in mid season, when guys are in mid-season form, is extra difficult.''
Canuck coach Alain Vigneault has been impressed with how quickly Salo's game has come back.
"He's not a young player,'' said Vigneault. "There's all the dedication and time and effort he had to put in to come back.
"Sami knows there might not be too many more kicks at the can for him as far as having a chance to play for the big prize. I think that was extra motivation for him.''
A frustrated Vigneault stopped the Canucks practise Monday because he didn't like the effort from his players.
"This is brutal,'' Vigneault yelled at his players.
He later shrugged off the incident.
"If a coach only has to stop practice one time during the year because he's not happy with execution or total involvement, it's been a pretty good year," he said.
The Canucks are enjoying the best season in their 40-year history.
Vancouver has set franchise records for points (113), wins (52) and road victories (26). The team has earned the Presidents' Trophy for finishing with the best regular-season record in the NHL.
"We have achieved that goal, but it doesn't mean anything at this point,'' said Salo. "The real games will be starting in a couple of weeks.''
Salo said he appreciates the support shown by Canuck management.
"There was never pressure of coming back quicker or slowing it down,'' he said.
A rough count shows Salo has suffered around 36 injuries, costing him over 250 games in his 12-year NHL career with Ottawa and Vancouver.
His list of wounds have run the usual gauntlet of knee, shoulder and ankle injuries. He's broken his ribs and nose while missing games with the flu.
During last spring's playoffs Salo has hit in the groin by a shot from Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks. At first it was reported he had a ruptured testicle but that was later denied. He returned to play the next game.
His luck isn't much better off the ice.
Salo once was bitten by a snake on a Finnish golf course. He hurt his Achilles during a ball hockey game.
Salo is in the final year of a contract that pays him US$3.5 million this season.
Retirement isn't in his plans, but he isn't sure he will remain a Canuck.
"I have made up my mind I will keep playing,'' he said. "Time will tell where that will be.
"Me and my family have always liked this city.''