Commentary

Ed Jovanovski really is man of steel

Updated: February 2, 2014, 9:39 PM ET
By Craig Custance | ESPN The Magazine

Ed JovanovskiScott Audette/Getty Images"For somebody like Ed, his livelihood is hockey and he loves it. He's truly a pioneer," Dr. Edwin Su said.

The video clip showed The Undertaker, a WWE wrestler, picking up his opponent, Triple H, and throwing him. What followed next was the moment of interest to both doctor and patient in a New York office watching.

The Undertaker left both feet and slammed into Triple H, leading with the hip that Dr. Edwin Su resurfaced, a crashing moment of impact in which the hip showed no signs of weakness.

Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski watched with interest because The Undertaker had the same hip resurfacing surgery Jovanovski was considering to continue an NHL career sidelined by severe arthritis in the hip.

Dr. Su would have shown clips of an NFL, NHL, MLB or NBA player reviving his athletic career following the surgery, but that person doesn't exist. As far as he knew, Jovanovski was the first professional athlete to give this a shot. Well, besides The Undertaker.

"I'm usually the career-ender," said Dr. Su, the associate professor of clinical orthopedics at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery. "Ed is a first."

When you watch the 37-year-old Jovanovski play now, there's little sign of the long road he's cleared and new trail he's creating with every shift he takes in an NHL game. He looks like the same Jovo. Clearing bodies in front of the net, pitching in with 15 or 16 minutes of quality defense -- even scoring a goal and assist like he did against the Sabres on Jan. 21.

Then you hear him describe the lengths he went to to put in those shifts and they become a little more impressive.

Last year, the pain he had in his hip was so intense he could no longer tie his shoe without excruciating pain. Mike Sillinger knows the feeling. The now-retired forward has been there. He's winced in pain as he laced up his skates. He's shifted his body constantly during long nights in bed to try to find the one position where pain isn't shooting up his body. It can be a miserable experience.

[+] EnlargeEd Jovanovski
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsEd Jovanovski is thought to be the first professional athlete to resume his career after hip resurfacing surgery.

Sillinger got his hip resurfaced not to play in the NHL again, but to live a life in retirement that wasn't accompanied by constant pain. When Jovanovski heard that Sillinger was playing in a recreation hockey league with a resurfaced hip, Jovanovski called for more details.

"He told me, 'I want to do this, and I'm going to try and play [in the NHL]. I was like, 'Hey man, maybe things have changed,'" Sillinger said on Tuesday morning. "I know when I had the surgery, the doctor wasn't even thinking about me playing."
 Sillinger was able to relay that his hip felt great after the surgery. Good enough that he got both of them done. Would it hold up in an NHL game? Would it survive crashing into the boards? Sillinger had no idea. His rec league is noncontact.

To hear that Sillinger was skating without pain was enough encouragement to move forward with the process.

The surgery itself is newer than total hip replacement and has become more common in the United States over the past decade or so. Knowing the biomechanics of the hip and joint and seeing what other athletes have been able to do at different levels after undergoing hip resurfacing, Dr. Su was confident that a return to the NHL was possible if Jovanovski wanted to do it.

The average age for hip resurfacing is about 51, since most people can modify their lifestyle through the years once they start experiencing pain. For an NHL player who wants to keep playing, there's no modification.

The surgery takes a little more than an hour to perform, and we'll let Jovanovski explain the process: "They dislocate your joint. Pull it out of your leg. Then shave the femoral head down to a certain size and cap it with titanium. Then do the same for your socket -- shaving out the socket and hammering in a new socket where everything kind of joins together."

So, yeah, the guy they call JovoCop has a titanium hip. [Editor's note: Dr. Su said it is actually a cobalt and chromium metal, not titanium.]

Even with an incision in his glute that he estimated was eight or nine inches long, rehab started the next day. Surgery was done last April, so there was no time to waste if he wanted to return at a reasonable date this season.

"I remember it like it was yesterday. The next morning, they're like, 'All right, let's go. I'm like, 'Go where?'" Jovanovski told ESPN The Magazine. "They had me up and moving."

It takes a good six months for the body to fully attach itself to the implant, so there was no returning to the ice before then. While it healed, Jovanovski was relentless in his training to get the rest of his body ready for an NHL return. There was constant skating and practicing, waiting for the body to get ready for contact.

The drive and desire to return as the Panthers' captain was inspiring.

"He continued to work hard, work hard every day," said Panthers coach Peter Horachek. "That's hard. That's like Groundhog Day when you know there's no light at the end of the tunnel. That's not an easy feat for an athlete that wants to play and didn't think it was ever going to get close."

And now those seemingly endless practice days have passed. He's back.

"He gives us so much trust and physicality," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon told ESPN The Magazine. "He's there with his teammates. He takes the body. He's physical. He competes. He made a move and scored the other night that was the Jovo of old."

Dr. Su didn't start this process a hockey fan, but he is one now. How could he not be when he witnessed firsthand the passion of one player to return to the ice? Jovanovski was a guy who wanted to make sure he ended his career on his own terms, not his hip's.

But mostly, he's just a guy who wanted to keep playing hockey.

"For somebody like Ed, his livelihood is hockey and he loves it," Dr. Su said. "He's truly a pioneer."

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