Stalock unbowed after adversity

Sharks goalie prospect battling for backup job after overcoming severe injury

Updated: September 18, 2013, 9:00 PM ET
By Devon Heinen | ESPN.com

Alex StalockJason O. Watson/USA TODAY SportsAlex Stalock's perseverance has paid off with another shot at an NHL job.
Nobody knew what they had just witnessed on the ice, but they knew something was wrong. The plan, so simple on its surface, had gone wrong.

Fresh off earning his first win in the NHL on Feb. 1, 2011, Alex Stalock found himself back in the minors three nights later with the San Jose Sharks' AHL affiliate in Worcester, Mass. The plan was straightforward: have Stalock -- arguably one of the organization's top prospects -- backstop one game for Worcester before rejoining the Sharks the next night for their game in Boston to resume filling in for San Jose's injured backup, Antero Niittymaki.

"I don't think we probably would have seen [Stalock] the rest of the year," Worcester head coach Roy Sommer said.

The 6-foot, 180-pound Stalock started that night for Worcester against the Manchester Monarchs.

The score was knotted at 3-3 with about three and a half minutes left in the third period when traffic forced Stalock down on his stomach to try to cover up the puck. However, the puck squirted out from under him, and Monarchs forward Dwight King had to jump over the goalie. But King didn't clear Stalock and landed with one skate on top of the back of Stalock's left knee.

Stalock tried to get up, but instead he tumbled and floundered on the ice.

"Everyone kind of thought he pulled something," Worcester teammate John McCarthy said, recalling watching from the bench. "There was no blood on the ice or anything."

From his bench, Monarchs head coach Mark Morris remembered his gut telling him it must have been worse than what the home team was thinking.

"You could tell he was hurt and hurt in a big way," Morris recalled somberly. "It was very much one of those moments in time where you're almost sickened by it."

After being helped off the ice, Stalock made his way straight to the trainers' room, where the team's medical staff found a cut. At first, Stalock was relieved. Further examination, though, showed his peroneal nerve -- the nerve that controls movement and feeling in the lower leg, foot and toes -- and tendon had been severed. He was taken away in an ambulance for surgery.

Said Sharks coach Sommer: "I thought his career was done."

****

After two surgeries, Stalock was back in his hometown of St. Paul, Minn., plunked down on the leather couch in the long, open living room that doubled as a computer room in his girlfriend's brother's house.

Despite having his peroneal nerve successfully reconnected at the Mayo Clinic 10 days after the night he spent in the hospital, it was essentially dead. A new nerve would have to grow up through the old one at a rate of a millimeter per day. To help this, Stalock was strapped into a lightweight locking brace that started just above his ankle and went up to his thigh. Initially locked at around 90 degrees, the angle of the brace would gradually decrease every 15 days.

[+] EnlargeStalock
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesAlex Stalock's first NHL win was a thrill, but things unraveled from there.
For Stalock, life had become a very frustrating waiting game.

"You couldn't do anything to make it get better," Stalock said. "It's like not zero to 60; it's 60 to zero in a split second."

As minutes crawled by and stretched into months without Stalock being able to start training again, he tried to pass the time by watching TV. A lot of TV. After the Stanley Cup playoffs were over, he settled on DVDs of "Lost." He made it through the first four seasons, "but then I really actually was lost because nothing really changed after that season."

Being stuck with little entertainment wasn't the only drawback Stalock now faced. With the peroneal nerve basically dead, he suffered from a condition called drop foot. Unable to control it, his left foot hung motionless. Because of this, he had to relearn how to go about doing everyday tasks. Essentially everything -- from walking to taking a shower -- proved to be a new adventure.

Walking regularly with his right leg and foot meant the top of the left foot dragged across the ground. Flip-flops were a no-go and tennis shoes were the mainstay. To avoid dragging his foot, Stalock had to exaggerate how high he lifted his leg when he moved around on crutches; however, even then his foot would slam back down while he walked.

"It was very goofy to walk," Stalock said. "It feels like your foot isn't even really connected to your leg."

While Stalock's nerve was slowly improving, the muscles in his leg and foot were quickly wasting away. This meant trying to lift the weakened leg high in and out of the shower became an arduous chore. Once in the shower, he would have to sit on a stool and balance himself while keeping his leg bent at the required angle -- without the brace -- so he could wash up.

Nights were rough, too.

After climbing the stairs and getting to his bedroom using crutches, Stalock often laid awake. His leg, still in the brace, was propped up by a bunch of pillows. This forced him onto his back, something the stomach sleeper wasn't used to. Instead of resting, he would sometimes catch himself replaying the night of his injury in his mind. While he did this, he went from wondering if there was anything he could have done to prevent the injury to being thankful that it hadn't been worse.

"Sleeping was impossible," Stalock said. "It just didn't work."

Then there was all the paperwork.

His agent seemed to be constantly sending him insurance and worker's compensation forms. Another part of the routine was to periodically chronicle how he felt. All of this was for just in case the goaltender wouldn't be able to make a comeback.

Stalock did want to come back, though, and was confident that a return was possible.

***

The first step to making that belief a reality came after 16 weeks of wearing the locking brace. Near the beginning of the summer of 2011, Stalock was at the Mayo Clinic with his parents for a checkup when he received good news: it was time for his brace to finally come off.

After the "extra luggage," as Stalock called it, was taken off, what he saw grossed him out. His left quadriceps was so atrophied that the muscle group had become smaller than his kneecap.

"I was embarrassed to wear shorts, pretty much," Stalock said, chuckling. "I wanted to wear pants."

In place of the brace, Stalock was given an orthotic called an Ankle-Foot Orthosis (AFO). Designed to stabilize the foot and ankle, the AFO gave him the ability to start walking and begin down the long road of physical therapy.

This part of his recovery started in the Twin Cities. Trips consisted of massages to break up the scar tissue that had formed as well as exercises such as step-ups designed to start waking up the muscles after several months of dormancy. The more advanced, strenuous phases of his physical therapy wouldn't begin until the fall.

The process was slow, which frustrated Stalock; looking back on it now, though, he sees things differently.

"I needed every single step that they put me through."

****

Standing in the tunnel on Jan. 21, 2012, Stalock heard his name echo through Stockton Arena while that night's starting lineup was read off by the public address announcer of San Jose's ECHL affiliate, the Stockton Thunder.

It had been a little less than 12 months since the injury.

"You're back," Stalock thought.

His progress, though, would soon be put in perspective.

The nerve hadn't fully regenerated, meaning he couldn't feel the outside of his left foot. He also didn't have all his strength back. So when Stalock -- known for his unorthodox style of moving around a lot and executing long stretch passes -- left the crease to play the puck that night against the visiting Las Vegas Wranglers, he toppled to the ice.

On the other side of the country, after a game against Providence, Sommer and the Worcester training staff were watching their former netminder in action via webcast.

"He was just trying to do too much, but that's him," Sommer said, chuckling.

In addition to the spills, the night wasn't one of Stalock's prettiest in the stats column, either, giving up five goals on 29 shots. However, he walked away with the victory as Stockton downed Las Vegas 7-5.

After that first night back, Stalock would soon learn his newfound limitations but regain his flair for the dramatic. One of the first real examples of that flair came eight days later when Stalock and the Thunder hosted the Alaska Aces.

A little more than eight and a half minutes remained in the first period of a scoreless game. Stalock was perched atop the left front corner of the crease and a shot came in from the point. The rebound found Alaska's Wes Goldie staring at a wide-open shot at the right side of the net. Without a moment's hesitation, Stalock was airborne, throwing himself toward the right post just in time to snatch the puck out of the air. He nonchalantly dropped it to the ice once the play was whistled dead.

He was back.

****

Following a six-game stint with Stockton during which he went 5-1-0-0, Stalock was called up to Worcester.

His return wasn't easy, though. The team already had two quality goalies in AHL All-Star Tyson Sexsmith and youngster Harri Sateri.

"It was hard getting everybody in," Sommer said of the crowded crease.

The solution? You win, you stay in. You lose and you wait.

"It just wasn't a good situation," Stalock said. "With three goalies, I mean, what do you really do?"

Working with the cards he was dealt, Stalock played twice before being shipped out on loan March 4 to the St. Louis Blues' AHL affiliate in Peoria, Ill. There, he would fill a void recently created by St. Louis trading goalie Ben Bishop to the Ottawa Senators.

Stalock started off strong for his new team. He went 2-0-0-0 with one shutout in three games and recorded a .964 save percentage and a 1.13 goals-against average.

His luck and season, though, would soon come to a screeching halt.

On April 5, Peoria was set to host Texas, with Stalock slated to get the start. With Peoria's pregame skate winding down, the defensemen were getting in a little shooting work. After waiting his turn, a teammate fired away, the final shot from the point. Because no one else was behind him, the defenseman skated in, collected his rebound and fired a snap shot for fun. Stalock reached over with his blocker to attempt the save, exposing the unprotected part of his hand. The puck hit Stalock's right ring finger flat against his stick, breaking his fingertip.

"I was like, 'You gotta be kidding me. What next?'" Stalock said.

Stalock tried to work through the new injury, but it was no use. Holding his stick proved to be too difficult a task to master.

It was his second injury in as many seasons and, just like the previous season, it was an injury that not only ended his season, but also his chance at a contract renewal.

****

[+] EnlargeAlex Stalock
AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Darryl DyckStalock has earned a chance to prove himself in the preseason.
For the 2012-13 season, the Sharks re-signed Stalock to a one-year deal and sent him to Worcester, where he split time with the organization's other top goalie prospect, Harri Sateri.

Stalock played 38 games for Worcester and two more for San Jose. The 38 were a far cry from his first season at the AHL level in 2009-10, when he played in 61 games and set a league record for wins by a rookie with 39, but this past season the veteran recorded career bests at the pro level in save percentage, .912, and GAA, 2.60.

"I think the organization was just going to see: Can this guy play a 35-, 40-game season and ... be able to get through it?" Sommer said. "I think he's answered the question."

One of Stalock's brightest moments for Worcester came on Jan. 6, 2013, a day many hockey fans around North America spent celebrating. It was the day the NHL lockout ended, and the last time Stalock would face Hershey Bears goalie Braden Holtby before Holtby would leave for a shortened Washington Capitals training camp.

Sommer remembered the Sunday late-afternoon game with ease. It was one that saw Stalock rob potential goal after potential goal and make big saves late in the contest to preserve a 2-1 victory.

"We weren't very good," Sommer said. "That was a game that [Stalock] won on his own."

****

Two months ago, San Jose backup goalie Thomas Greiss signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes. The Sharks responded by locking in Stalock and Sateri each to one-year, two-way deals. For a third straight season, the two are battling each other -- this year in San Jose's training camp. The winner will get to stay with the Sharks and play as Niemi's understudy while the loser appears to be in line for the starting job back in Worcester.

The netminders offer the Sharks different options. If San Jose wants athleticism, the choice is the shorter, smaller 26-year-old Stalock.

"He's not like the typical goalie you see -- 7 feet tall," Sommer said sarcastically. "He's not one of those guys, that's for sure, but he'll come out and challenge you."

Sharks star Logan Couture said he is absolutely rooting for Stalock to win the backup job and equated him to Jonathan Quick, but with probably a better knack for moving the puck.

"[Stalock's] feet are so quick and he's so quick side to side," said Couture, a roommate of Stalock's during the 2009-10 season in Worcester. "He's tough to score on, even in practice."

Outside the organization, there's belief that Stalock has what it takes to have a shot at making a mark at the NHL level.

"He was very active in the net, played the puck very well and he would come up with the big save when [Worcester] needed it," said Mark Morris, head coach of the AHL's Manchester Monarchs. "I think that he was always a topic of conversation any time we played [Worcester]."

The other choice is the 23-year-old Sateri.

"Harri's more of a bigger, square goalie, butterfly kind of -- more of a blocker," Worcester teammate John McCarthy said of the 6-1, 205-pound backstop.

Stalock spent the offseason preparing at home in St. Paul. Needless to say, it's been roughly two and a half years since he went from being on top of the world -- coming off the bench to play in his first NHL game and earning a comeback victory in front of his parents -- to nearly having his career cut short because of a severed nerve and tendon.

The strength is back in his leg and foot, but sensation hasn't fully returned, and Stalock doesn't know if it ever will come back. Yet, with so much on the line, he's not thinking about that.

"That's the least of my worries."

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