Bryan McCabe collided with a body in front of the net. He wheeled sharply on his skates. He sent a pass crisply skimming across the ice. Turned, and if that was a slight smile as he skidded to a stop in the corner at Lakeshore Lions Arena to await the next drill, it would be an understandable reaction.
McCabe is back in the one place most professional hockey players find is their refuge, an ice rink. Sidelined since Dec 15 with three broken bones in his left hand, he's expected to return to the Leafs' defence this week.
"It's tough not being around the guys, not taking the road trips or being able to contribute. You're used to the camaraderie, the joking. I felt a bit ostracized," McCabe said with a laugh.
He hasn't had much to laugh about this season. First came his gaffe seen round the hockey world when he scored on his own net on Oct. 15 in Buffalo.
Then, came nine losses in 12 games in November when the team couldn't hold leads and, to complete the misery, Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn ran him into the boards and the next thing McCabe knew he wasn't able to put his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. That night, his teammates helped him get dressed and two days later he underwent surgery.
He has been criticized for the money he makes and the plays he doesn't but the hard truth is that this is a very sad team without his nightly contributions.
"It's great to be out there with the guys again. I've been working out by myself every day but it's nice to compete, throw some checks and get going again," said McCabe, who spent his off-time around his home on Long Island with his wife, Roberta, and their 21/2-month-old daughter. "It was Daddy Day for seven straight weeks. I'm up for father of the year right now," McCabe said jokingly.
When he went in for surgery he couldn't even change his daughter's diapers the pain was so severe. Today, he hopes to be letting go with some slapshots and there's a chance he could play Thursday against Montreal.
"It was nice to spend the time with my daughter but this is the longest I've ever been out and it has been tough."
His daughter's loss will be the Leafs' gain. While McCabe is often the scapegoat for the Leafs' shortcomings he has been coach Paul Maurice's go-to defender. The team has missed his 25-plus minutes each game. Since his departure the team lost 14 of 21 games, the general manager got fired, and the playoffs have turned into a rumour.
"It sucks to watch especially when the team is struggling," McCabe said. "I want to be out there. There's not too much pain but strength is an issue. I made some passes and put some pucks to the net. I'm going take some (slapshots) in the next couple days. I hope in the next week, for sure by the weekend, I'll be playing. As long as it doesn't swell up."
He says his shot is at "about 80%" and he's wearing a pad inside of his glove. "It's awkward but it takes away the vibration," he said.
Maurice said the final decision will be up "to the doctors and Bryan ... he's passing and moving the puck comfortably but he has got to be able to get his shot off."
Good news, finally, for a team that found a way to beat Ottawa 4-2 Saturday while missing six regulars. But, the reality is that it still left them eight points out of the final playoff spot now held by the Boston Bruins. To put the Leafs' predicament in perspective, if the Bruins carry just a 15-15 record in their remaining games, Toronto -- which has been unable to show it can play even .500 hockey -- would have to win 20 of its final 28 to pass them. And, that doesn't take into account there are five other clubs between them and Boston.
So, as much as McCabe's return is a feel-good story, it is on the futility scale a bit like looking up at the iceberg and rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.