Steve Sullivan has a new appreciation for the game of hockey these days.
The Nashville Predators winger nearly had to pull the plug on his NHL career due to a back injury, and since his return, the native of Timmins, Ont., is seeing things in a different light.
"Without a doubt, absolutely, you do appreciate it more," Sullivan said. "Before, you would get into the middle of the season, sometime in January and February, and you just wanted to get through the year and get to the playoffs.
"Now I'm looking at every day as being a bonus, and I'm thankful that I'm able to play. You don't realize how much you love it until it's taken away from you."
A former ninth-round pick of the New Jersey Devils back when there were nine rounds in the draft, Sullivan is approaching 800 career NHL games.
However, it's the 190 or so that he's missed over the previous three seasons that are of more concern to the 12-year NHL veteran. There was a time when it looked as though he would have to call it a career.
"That's definitely not the way you want to go out," Sullivan said. "I never gave up hope. I couldn't think that because I wanted to come and play. I was lucky the way my contract fell down here in Nashville. I was still under contract with the team and they were so great with me giving me every opportunity to come back."
Sullivan, 35, had to undergo a pair of surgeries and countless hours of therapy to get back on the ice. He missed the entire 2007-08 season and half of the next one.
"Before I went in for surgery we tried everything," Sullivan said. "We went to chiropractors, we did acupuncture, we did trigger-point injections, we tried everything and nothing worked."
Even after his first surgery, Sullivan's back did not get any better. Eventually doctors had to go back in to try and remedy the problem again.
"You don't feel good right away after back surgery," Sullivan said. "Backs are tricky. With a back you just have to wait and give it some time."
Sullivan credits Detroit Red Wings winger Todd Bertuzzi for helping him get through his injury.
"Todd Bertuzzi is a guy that I looked at and saw that he was able to come back," Sullivan said. "He was nice enough to come talk to me when he came down to play in Nashville."
Now healthy again, Sullivan is one of the reasons for the Predators' success this season. Heading into their game last night against the Edmonton Oilers, the Predators were battling with the Chicago Blackhawks for first place in the Central Division.
Sullivan went in as the team's leading scorer with 23 points in 34 games.
"It's still a work in progress. It's hard to monitor where he was at the top of his game before he got hurt," said Predators head coach Barry Trotz. "The game is a lot quicker than it was four years ago. I remember Steve was the fastest guy on the ice all the time, and he's still quick, but there is a lot more quickness in the league now.
"But confidence-wise, it's starting to come. Traditionally, he's a guy that doesn't always get off to a good start and he's streaky a little bit. But when he's on and starts to build some momentum, he's dynamic and he still can do some of the things that he used to be able to do before."