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Ducks' Joffrey Lupul has had a long road back

The 27-year-old Anaheim winger was sidelined for a year as he dealt with back surgeries and a lethal blood infection that took away his strength. Lupul could be recalled as early as Sunday.

December 02, 2010|By Mike DiGiovanna

The man in the mirror didn't notice how much Joffrey Lupul had withered away — a pair of back surgeries and a lethal blood infection zapping the strength and, at times, spirit of the 27-year-old Ducks winger.

It wasn't until Lupul's first postoperative visit to the rink last spring that he realized how much injury and illness had ravaged his body, which went from 206 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame to 170.

"I could see it in the faces of people looking at me. They said I looked like Mr. Burns," Lupul said, referring to "The Simpsons" character. "My back was all bent over. I was so skinny."

Lupul can laugh at the comparison now.

After a yearlong absence, he is days away from returning to the Ducks.

"I don't feel a step behind — I feel I'm right there," said Lupul, who is 212 pounds now and has no back pain. "I feel like my normal self."

He's been with the Syracuse Crunch, the Ducks' American Hockey League affiliate, for a week and could be recalled as early as Sunday. It may take a bit to regain his scoring touch, though, since his last Ducks game was Dec. 8.

Losing him for a few months to back surgery was one thing. No one expected he'd be out a year.

"A lot of people were asking if my career was over, and that's going to make it even better to come back now," said Lupul, who in 2008-09 had 25 goals and 50 points in 79 games.

"I was a high pick [in 2002] and got a big contract. I figured I'd play until I was 35 and everything would go smooth. Then something like this happens, and you see how close you can be to your career being over. When I come back, it will be with a greater appreciation for how lucky we are to play in the NHL."

Lupul's problems started in training camp last year, when back spasms sidelined him for four days. His condition only worsened, the pain and numbness in his legs sapping his explosiveness.

He was diagnosed with a herniated disk, and a microdiscectomy, in which a small portion of the bone is removed to relieve pressure on the nerve, was performed on Dec. 17. He was expected back in eight weeks.

One problem: Lupul was in more pain.

"It didn't go as planned," he said. "So they went in and did it again, taking out a little more of the disk."

Then in February routine blood work revealed an infection in the surgical area. Lupul was treated with intravenous antibiotics for six weeks, and follow-up tests determined the infection had cleared.

Lupul resumed his physical therapy and workouts, but by late May, "I was having the worst lower-back pain," he said.

Tests revealed the infection "was still there, and it was quite bad," Lupul said. He spent most of the next two months in bed, receiving three antibiotics intravenously.

"You saw his posture, he was bent over, and you thought he was a guy who was 75-80 years old with back issues," Coach Randy Carlyle said. "You knew he was a pretty sick young man."

Said veteran forward Teemu Selanne: "He looked scary. He looked so weak. He had no strength at all. I was really worried about him."

Lupul's darkest moment came in June, when he went to the rink to "get a gauge on how things were going," he said. The back spasms returned.

"That was six months post-op," Lupul said, "and I was really beginning to wonder what was going on. You almost stop thinking about hockey and hope you don't have to live the rest of your life with back pain like this."

Friends took Lupul into their homes to care for him. His parents, grandparents and two younger brothers traveled from Canada to Newport Beach, providing care in shifts.

"Being such a strong, healthy individual for his whole life, to see him in pain, suffering and debilitated was devastating," Carmen Weinberger, Lupul's mother, said by phone from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. "You didn't want to leave him, but at the same time, unfortunately, the world keeps revolving, and you hope he's in good hands."

Lupul finally took a turn for the better in August. "I'm sure my first game back will be as special as the first game I played in the NHL," he said. "I definitely know I gave everything I had preparing myself for this. I hope I give the team a shot in the arm."

The Ducks could use him. Even with his back pain, he had 10 goals and four assists in 23 games.

"Lupes is a sniper, a guy who can come in and provide some offense," Carlyle said.

Until his back problems, Lupul's main distinction perhaps was being the guy who was traded for Chris Pronger — twice. First he was dealt by the Ducks to Edmonton for Pronger in 2006. Lupul returned to the Ducks last year as part of the trade that sent Pronger to the Philadelphia Flyers. In between, the Ducks won the 2007 Stanley Cup.

"It was weird and a little upsetting at the time," Lupul said. "But now that I'm older, you realize trades happen. I'm glad those guys won the Cup. I have some great friends who were on that team."

Several are still in Anaheim — Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Selanne among them. Lupul likes his chances at staying this time, as long as the Ducks don't make another run at the 36-year-old Pronger.

"He's getting pretty old now, so hopefully he just retires, and I can stay here and have a successful career."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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