ARLINGTON, V.A. — As Washington Capitals forward Carl Hagelin takes the ice on Thursday, he appears to be a different player. The 34-year-old is no longer in the non-contact powder blue sweater, but in a regular practice jersey. And, as the scrimmages start, he goes all-in when it comes to contact, embracing the battle, throwing his teammates into the boards and fighting his way into scoring positions.
It looks like the Hagelin that Capitals fans have come to love over the years, the speedy, hard-nosed winger who likes to get to those dangerous areas. And ultimately, seeing that side of No. 62 return is a major step forward, and his teammates love it as he pursues an NHL comeback following a devastating, career-threatening eye injury.
During a March 1 practice, Hagelin caught a stick up high during competition drills. The blade went underneath his controversial tilted visor and through his left eye, rupturing his choroid. That part of the eye sits between the sclera and retina and plays an important role in vision and depth perception. Hagelin underwent surgery that same night and had a follow up procedure, but he would ultimately lose part of the vision in his left eye and depth perception.
“When I heard about the injury at first, I was like, ‘Oh my God…’ And then you kind of read the articles and stuff in the newspaper and you see, ‘Okay, he’s feeling a little bit better, but they’re still concerned.’ So seeing him out there, shoot some pucks, get some goals, skating very well as usual, it’s awesome,” teammate Hendrix Lapierre said of Hagelin.
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Still, Hagelin didn’t give up. Instead, he focused on eye training and skating again, and he also changed his visor. The Swede is now in a safer face shield: a tinted, oversized aviator that goes past his nose. Combine those changes and hard work with his positive mentality, and Washington sees a player that is defying the odds and could very well return at some point. And, for his teammates, it means the world to see him back.
“It’s the most pain I’ve ever been through because the stick hit me right in the eyeball,” Hagelin explained in May. “It wasn’t any bones around it that really took any of the impact. It was scary. Those first two weeks were some of the toughest in my life, especially earn on when you can’t see anything with the eye. It’s just total darkness. But now you’re over the hump. And I’ve always said to myself, ‘I’ve been a positive person, an optimistic person. And I need to stay that way and keep pushing for next season.'”
“He has a very, very positive attitude. I think it would be easy in a situation to maybe get down on himself a little bit and stuff. But he’s been there for a while, he knows the game. It’s very, very good for me as a young player to see this,” Lapierre added. “This guy just battles through it and hopes to recover. And same thing with all the injured guys right now like Tom Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom. They’re all working super hard to get back at it, which is something I don’t take for granted.”
Backstrom also added before the offseason that he was happy to see him back on the ice and cited that Hagelin’s contagious optimism is something that makes him stand out and turns the odds in his favor.
“What he’s going through is probably so tough for him mentally… but he’s such a positive guy,” Backstrom said. “He’s going to get through this and he’s going to get stronger.”
Hagelin is currently on the long-term injured reserve and has one year left on his contract at $2.75 million. Training camp kicks off with physicals on Sept. 21 and on-ice sessions on Sept. 22. Whether or not Hagelin will be ready to get back into game action remains to be seen. However, seeing him engage physically is a positive sign. He had three goals and 11 assists in 53 games last season.