With Allison, you just don't know

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

At first, they didn't lie about Jason Allison, they just didn't know.

That was the beginning of 33 months of confusion and misinformation, almost three years away from the ice of the National Hockey League.

The Los Angeles Kings called it a hip flexor injury. That was in January 2003. Eleven days later, they announced it had spread to his groin. A week later, it was knee, hip and groin.

In March, it became a concussion. Then it was post-concussion syndrome. Then it was post-traumatic migraine symptoms. Then it was vision problems. Then it was a cervical strain.

Whatever it was, Jason Allison says none of this would have happened if he hadn't played hurt. He is standing in the hallway on the first day of Maple Leafs training camp, bigger than I remembered him being, trying to make sense of three years that make almost none.

It was a good old-fashioned whiplash, he said. He tried to hit someone and doesn't remember who, which may not be a good thing. Then he was brave and stupid enough -- the way hockey players are taught to be -- and said he was well enough to play, even though he knew his neck was hurting.

He played one game and hurt it again and played another, the last NHL game he played for Los Angeles. "I had three whiplashes in a 10-day period," Allison said.

And now here he is, the biggest question of the many Maple Leaf questions: Will Jason Allison, the hockey player, ever be Jason Allison again?

The answer brings more questions with it. How can we know? How can he know? How can anyone?

"I'm not worried about it," Allison said, and what else is he supposed to say? He is, after all, a professional athlete. They are by nature a dishonest breed when it comes to their own well being. Boxers will plead to fight long after their reflexes are shot. Hockey players are no different.

"This is the best I've felt in years," Allison said. He is almost young by Leafs standards, he turned 30 in May. A kid trying to recapture what once seemed so natural. "My goal is to have a great year."

Everyone's goal is to have a great year, but this is the season of the great unknown. Never mind that Allison is trying to accomplish what few before him have managed. Around him there are all kinds of players with issues all their own: Who will come back strongly after a year away and who won't? "You'll know that in December about all kinds of players," said Cliff Fletcher, the former general manager of the Leafs. "Until then, all you're doing is guessing."

This entire Leafs season is predicated on guessing but no player is more dicey or enticing than Allison. When he played for the conservative Pat Burns, who thinks 2-1 should be the score of every game played, he was a top-10 scorer. When he played for Andy Murray in Los Angeles, who has never met a system he didn't like, he was a top-10 scorer. Now he's playing for Pat Quinn, a coach who gives more freedom to his forwards than most, and he doesn't see why he can't do it again.

Because he won't allow to think otherwise. He can't. All he asks for now is ice time and patience.

"It's ridiculous if you judge what I look like in camp," Allison said. "How I do in the pre-season games doesn't count. Look at the end of the year. Then judge my season. Don't put my head on the butcher block if I don't score in the (intrasquad) games.

"Veteran guys don't care about the exhibition games. You're not going to go out there and be intense. You're just getting yourself ready for the season."

Meanwhile, the Leafs hold their breath and hope. They don't know what's going to happen the first time he gets hit, first time he falls, first time he tries to hit somebody.

They don't know. They can't know.


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