It was a day of remembrance in the Sullivan household. Not with a moment of silence, but with words between a husband and wife who understood the significance.It happened a little more than two weeks ago, Jan. 10, 2010, the one-year anniversary of Steve Sullivan's return to the National Hockey League after nearly two full years of pain and frustration due to a back injury.
"My wife and I talked about it," Sullivan said recently. "... It's been a good year for us after two years of roller coaster rides. It's been the kind of year we've been used to in the past. It's just back to normal."
Profoundly normal. So normal, in fact, that for Sullivan's teammates and coaches on the Nashville Predators, that was just another Sunday.
It was the day before a game. And the day after a game. Rather than kick up their heels in celebration, those outside of Sullivan's immediate family simply stayed in step with the rhythm of the season, one in which the team has — thus far — exceeded most, if not all, expectations.
"We were just too busy playing games," coach Barry Trotz said. "It probably is a good thing that it is a non-event. It means he's shown durability and longevity in terms of coming back from the injury. And he's playing at a good level."
Sullivan entered this week as one of three Predators who have appeared in every game this season. He also was one of three tied for the team lead in scoring with 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists). Coincidentally, that was the same number of points (11 goals, 21 assists) he had in the 41 games he played in 2008-09 after he returned from the injury.
Not since 2002-03, when he was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, has he played every game in an entire season. Even in his best days with the Predators, he never played more than 69 in a single campaign or got through more than 13 at the start of the season before he had to sit out at least one or two for some reason.
"I came into training camp feeling fine," he said. "To be able to make it through the season and not miss a game after I returned — I played the last 41 games. With it not being an issue at that time, I felt no reason to think it was going to be a problem in the future.
"I don't go into games thinking about it. It's not an issue at all. Definitely a non-issue."
Also a non-issue is the two-year, $7.5 million contract the team gave Sullivan last July, hours after he became an unrestricted free agent.
Cynics might have suggested that Sullivan's return to action 12 months ago was motivated by money, given that he was in the final months of his previous contract. After all, there was an extended period of time when multiple surgeries and intense rehabilitation had not produced the desired results or enabled him to get back on the ice.
With his name signed to the bottom line and two years of payment guaranteed, there had to be those in the Predators' front office who wondered whether the back problem would flare up again early this season.
It has not. In fact, Trotz suggests that the recent anniversary coincides with a noticeable improvement in Sullivan's performance.
"Now that you mention it, since about that time he's really kicked it up a bit," Trotz said. "I thought Sully really kicked up his game and really got his speed back, for whatever reason. I mean, he was fast, but he wasn't fast. There was a little bit of a governor on. ... He's been more dangerous the last couple of weeks."
Anniversaries are celebrated with a nod to the past, the idea that something that happened is worth celebrating year after year after year. For Sullivan, it's not that he got on the ice and played 12:30 against Chicago on Jan. 10 last year that is noteworthy. It is not even the games that have followed. It is the ones to come.
At 35 years old, he looks forward to whatever time he has remaining in his playing career and has little interest in the time he lost. He welcomes the idea that Jan. 10 was just another day.
"I don't really think it's that big of a deal," Sullivan said. "It shouldn't be, I don't think, to anybody else. I think the back issues are in the past, and I haven't had any problems with it whatsoever. I'm hoping everyone forgets about it."
Maybe someday he will too.
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