ST. PAUL, Minn. - Pierre-Marc Bouchard was supposed to be centring the Minnesota Wild's second line this season.
Instead, he's been watching helplessly and without expression from a perch in the press box while the team plays without him. His pads, jersey and helmet have been replaced by a black wool coat and a scarf.
This is what recovering from a concussion can look like. Bouchard must wait and watch until his headaches go away. No skating. No shooting. No running. No real exercise, except for regular walks around the neighbourhood.
"Get some fresh air. Get my legs going a little bit," Bouchard said. "Besides that, I watch TV or read or just sleep."
The 25-year-old has missed all but the first game of this season because of a head injury he first suffered last March. He missed the final eight games of last season, and after believing he was all right took an elbow to the jaw in a September exhibition game that brought the symptoms back.
He was fighting a flu-like illness at the time, but after a weak effort in the Wild's season opener and the persistence of headaches he was pulled off the ice once it was became clear it was by more than just the virus.
"I took two months off and worked out all summer and felt good," Bouchard said during a recent home game. "The thing is during the summer, you don't have any contact.
"I came back here, and in that first exhibition game I got hit."
The eighth overall pick in the 2002 draft, Bouchard had a career-high 20 goals in the 2006-07 season and a career-high 50 assists in the 2007-08 season. He's in the second year of a five-year contract worth US$20.4 million.
"It's just frustrating to not be able to play," he said. "You cannot look back and say, 'I should've done this."'
The Wild aren't counting on getting Bouchard back this season.
"The important thing for me is that he gets healthy and gets back to being the Pierre-Marc Bouchard of old," general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "If we can get a happy, healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard back for next season that's great. To me it's not a rush."
That's the view these days around the NHL, which like the NFL has become more concussion-conscious in recent years amid growing concerns about the longterm risk of the injuries in these hard-contact sports. The competition committee formed by the league and the players' union last year discussed a rule designed to curtail hits to the head, but a consensus was not reached.
The NHL has assigned a group of general managers to study the issue, and a formal proposal for a rule change at next month's GM meetings is possible. NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said Wednesday the competition committee's agenda for this summer has not yet been set.
"I think it is safe to say that hits to the head will be a topic that the committee will be discussing further," Weatherdon said.
The Wild are more conservative than ever in treating concussions.
"I think we're all smarter about it, but it's a physical game and we're never going to be able to take the risk of injury out of our game," Fletcher said. "The physical part of the game is one of the reasons it is such a great game, and all the players that play recognize that."
Bouchard saw a specialist in Montreal recently, with test results expected soon. He gets treatment on his neck, which has helped. But it's mostly a matter of waiting out the headaches, and occasional fatigue. Even if he's cleared to resume strenuous physical activity this winter, he'll probably be too out of shape to come back this season.
"Guys are bigger, stronger and faster, so it's not like a broken wrist or a bad shoulder. It's your head. You don't want to have any longterm effects after your career," Bouchard said. "This is something they still need to focus on. It's not fun, and you don't want anybody else to have to go through it."
He can find hope in teammate Brent Burns, who missed big chunks of last season and this season before returning at full strength last month. He can also look to Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, who sat out for a year because of a concussion but is back now and on Canada's Olympic team.
"It's just good for me to see those guys back on the ice. It's a good sign," Bouchard said.