Sabres fans are painfully aware of the uncertainty that accompanies concussions. Pat LaFontaine, Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly suffered major ones. As their recovery time stretched from weeks to months to an entire season, folks in Buffalo realized how delicate and unpredictable the brain can be.
Tyler Ennis understands it, too. The 26-year-old has been riding through the dark concussion tunnel for much of the past five months.
He finally sees daylight.
As fans bid farewell to the Sabres with the home finale against Columbus on Friday night, Ennis is saying hello to normalcy. He skated with his teammates Thursday for the first time since December, ending a long bout of solitude that had him wondering if he’d ever take the ice again.
“I went through a lot of different emotions, a lot of ups and downs, so yeah, there’s really bad days,” Ennis said in First Niagara Center. “There’s days where you feel great, and there’s days where it’s tough. To say I wasn’t scared at some point would probably be a lie, but I feel so good right now. I feel great. I feel 100 percent.
“I wish we could play 82 more games.”
Alas, only two remain, none for Ennis. He won’t play Friday or in Saturday’s season finale in New York against the Islanders, bringing the total of concussion-related absences to 57 games. He has played only four times since Nov. 23 and not at all since absorbing a hit from Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin on Dec. 30.
“The timing, you could look at it as a positive and a negative,” Ennis said of his recovery. “It’s negative because the season’s basically over, but it’s a positive that I feel great. There’s stories of guys that obviously never feel better. I feel fantastic.”
The return to health, which took its major steps only in the past couple of weeks, has given Ennis a new outlook on life and his profession.
“I had a frustrating few months there,” he said. “You go through a lot of different emotions, for sure, but it gave me a lot of time to kind of reflect, appreciate what I have and gave me that much more motivation and excitement for whenever I get back.
“It was so fun to be out there. It was good to joke around with the guys. This is what we all are born to do. Not playing hockey is strange. When I’m on the ice, it’s the greatest feeling. I had a lot of time to reflect and be grateful for what I have, so I’m excited when I get back to take preparation, take every facet of the game to another level. I’m so excited about the future.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma had a behind-the-scenes look at the troubles that accompanied Ennis’ concussion. The forward suffered seizures, according to the Associated Press, and needed to be shuttled to doctor’s offices and the arena because he wasn’t cleared to drive.
“It’s been a long road,” Bylsma said. “We’ve asked questions about the rest of the season and if he was going to play, and really it’s been just a big factor getting back to full health.
“Today was a big step to that direction. It’s not going to mean him playing in a game, but it does give you the confidence and the knowledge that he is back to full health and is going to go into the summer with that.”
While skating in a noncontact role Thursday, Ennis showed the speed, agility and nifty moves that made him the Sabres’ leading scorer last season.
“I can still skate,” he said with a beaming smile. “Everything else is a little rusty.”
Even on the days when Ennis skated a few laps in the arena by himself, he tried to avoid his teammates. He didn’t want to interfere with their game preparations or daily routines.
He watched the games, though. He likes what he sees. The rookies are developing. The goaltenders are playing well. The core is coming together and bonding for what the team hopes is a bright future.
Ennis wants to be part of it when the puck drops next season.
“I would be optimistic as a fan base, and I am as a player,” Ennis said. “I’m looking forward. When I watch the games, there’s a lot to be excited about. I would love to be playing, and I can’t wait for the future.”