SAN JOSE, Calif. – Just making it back to the NHL after a freakish accident nearly ended his career was accomplishment enough for San Jose Sharks goaltender Alex Stalock.
Setting a franchise record for longest scoreless streak and thriving on hockey's big stage has made the long, grueling rehabilitation worthwhile.
Stalock's promising career nearly ended three years ago this month when Dwight King stepped on the back of his left leg with a sharp skate, severing his nerve.
But after being forced to learn how to walk and skate again, Stalock is playing even better than he did before the injury and is a big part of San Jose's success this season.
"This has always been my goal," Stalock said. "It's what I wanted to do from a young age. I didn't want the injury to prevent me from getting back. It was a goal for me to get back to this level. There were a lot of people involved in the situation, a lot of people who put in a lot of work and time to help me. I got lucky and everything kind of healed."
The injury came just days after Stalock made his NHL debut when Sharks backup goalie Antero Niitymaki was sidelined by a groin injury. Stalock relieved starter Antti Niemi midway through a game against Phoenix on Feb. 1, 2011, and earned the win when the Sharks rallied from three goals down to win 5-3.
Stalock was sent back to Worcester of the AHL after that game to get some action before he was supposed to rejoin the Sharks in Boston. But fate intervened late in the third period while Stalock was on his stomach covering a loose puck.
King tried to jump over the goalie but landed with one skate on the back of his leg instead. Stalock was taken out of the game and the team's medical staff determined that the nerve that controls movement and feeling in the lower leg, foot and toes had been severed, putting Stalock's career in doubt.
"I don't think anybody was putting a percentage on him coming back," said Sharks assistant general manager Wayne Thomas, who oversees the coaching of goalies in the organization. "The feeling was more negative from doctors and people in the know with that type of nerve injury. It was severed. He had no feeling in his calf and foot."
After two operations back home in Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic, Stalock had to wait until the nerve grew back. He needed to wear a brace on his leg for nearly four months and had to learn how to walk all over again.
It was about eight months until he could wear skates again and finally got back out on the ice.
"That's when I realized that I was actually recovered and I was seeing positive growth," he said. "That was big."
Stalock finally got back into a game Jan. 21, 2012, for the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL and spent the rest of that season and most of last season in the minors.
He still carries around evidence of what he has overcome in the form of a six-inch scar on his leg and he struggles to keep his balance on uneven surfaces.
Luckily for Stalock, the ice is flat and he looks even better there than he did before the injury thanks to extensive off-ice work with Sharks goaltender development coach Corey Schwab and Thomas.
"It was a lot of movement and we worked on a lot of leg stuff and tried to get stronger and better balance and all that," Stalock said. "It wasn't the most fun, but I can say today it was the most beneficial work that I put in."
Stalock began this year as the backup in San Jose to Niemi and has slowly earned his teammates' and coaches' trust and more playing time with his performance before the Olympic break.
"Guys know his story, they understand where he's been, and they get excited about playing for him," coach Todd McLellan said.
His deft stickhandling and aggressiveness playing the puck gives a different element to the Sharks and takes pressure off the defensemen as they try to advance out of the defensive zone.
The 26-year-old Stalock is 9-4 with a 1.77 goals against average in 17 games and was at his best during a stretch late last month when he posted consecutive shutouts against Florida and Winnipeg. That was part of a record-setting stretch of playing 178:55 without allowing a goal, 7:37 longer than the previous franchise record set by Evgeni Nabokov in 2009.
Stalock's stellar play has allowed McLellan to sit Niemi more often as he has already missed more than twice as many games this season as he did a year ago.
McLellan has said Stalock will continue to get playing time down the stretch of the season as he has become an integral part of the organization.
"It could have been a catastrophic injury," Thomas said. "It turned into a really good story."