Tom Poti walked into the locker room at Kettler Iceplex on Thursday and immediately felt at home again. After all, teammate Jason Chimera was screaming at him.
“They were excited to see me,” a beaming Poti said after an on-ice skate with teammates in preparation for Sunday’s Capitals’ training camp. “It’s so much fun to be around the guys and hanging out. It’s something that you really do miss when you don’t have that.”
Poti hasn’t played for the Caps since Jan. 12, 2011. A groin injury and pelvic fracture threatened to end his career. In fact, Washington general manager George McPhee often spoke of Poti as if his career was finished. But he also made sure the 35-year-old defenseman knew he was welcome back if his health returned.
“It definitely helped to know that I had their backing, that they said ‘If you could get ready and come back and play, we’ll make room for you if you can do it,’” Poti said. “It was huge. And I never closed the book on myself, either. I could have sat at home and collected a paycheck and been happy. But hockey is what I love to do, it’s in my blood and I want to play for as long as I can.”
Poti’s woes started just weeks after he signed a two-year contract extension worth $5.750 million during training camp in 2010. He was paid all last season despite staying away from the team. It was nice to know his family was secure financially. But money doesn’t fill the void of a sport he’d played his entire life. To get better Poti made the painful decision to stay away from his teammates and continue his rehab in his hometown of Boston. Showing up at Kettler last season invited a return of his stubborn streak – the one that helped prolong his injury in the first place in the hopes of being part of a possible Stanley Cup run.
“I knew I had to separate myself from the team to kind of work on the next phase,” Poti said. “I know if I was here around the guys – ‘Maybe, let’s try it out today, let’s see how I can do on the ice today.’ And I knew if I separated myself from the team I could kind of focus and do what I needed to do. So far it’s worked out well.”
There are no guarantees here. McPhee himself deemed it “a bit of a long shot” earlier in the week. But Poti is just happy to have the chance to skate in front of the team’s new coaching staff. He noted he first met head coach Adam Oates once before – almost 20 years ago when the future Hall-of-Fame center, then a member of the Boston Bruins, was rehabbing an injury at Poti’s high school in Worcester, Mass. The two also played against each other early in his career. Poti has skated hard and without pain for two weeks now. He’s been able to do everything he’s wanted on the ice. But will that hold up at NHL speed and with contact from teammates during practice?
With lots of rest and a wide variety of treatments over the last two years, including acupuncture – let’s just say he was a skeptic on that one – Poti has made it this far. Surgery was never an option. The fracture had to heal on its own first and then the groin injury had to be rehabbed.
Caps forward Brooks Laich, just in town on Thursday for the first time since the lockout ended, did a double take when he saw Poti. Teammates had seen him in Boston during the playoffs last spring when the Caps played the Bruins. But while he was feeling better then, they wondered if continued rest would get him past that pesky sticking point. It finally happened this summer and continued into the fall.
Poti was the steady veteran while the Caps groomed young defensemen like Karl Alzner and John Carlson. Even Mike Green was a relative neophyte compared to Poti, who has played in 808 career games over 12 seasons. The old Poti would provide another counterbalance between those players, all established now, and second-year defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who played 60 games as a rookie last season and is still finding his way.
Alzner said Poti’s skating stride looked good on Thursday. He and Laich both lauded Poti’s calm, cool demeanor on the ice and noted how much Washington had missed him the last two seasons. Maybe he wasn’t a top-pair defenseman on a championship-caliber squad. But he was capable and unflappable and a valuable part of their past success. That had value then. It still does today if he can recapture it.
“That guy adds a ton to this team if he’s healthy and playing,” Alzner said. “We’re all really excited that he’s here. Keep our fingers crossed that it is all done now.”