Fehr, center, celebrates his first goal against the Bolts on Thursday. (Photo credit: Scott Audette)
I was sitting in section 112 of Heinz Field as the rain steadily picked up. It was New Year’s Day, night time, and the Capitals were clinging to a 2-1 lead in the third period of the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. As puddles were forming on the temporary ice sheet, Jason Chimera fired a centering pass to a player streaking down the middle of the ice. A couple seconds later, Eric Fehr had his second goal of the game. Washington won 3-1.
Two years later, things are different. Their coach at the time, Bruce Boudreau, is gone. As is his successor Dale Hunter. The Caps are no longer competing for the best record in the National Hockey League. Right now they’re just trying to stay relevant.
But Fehr got out before all that. When he left the team, they just finished their second straight year being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the number one seed. Fehr had a rough last year in Washington. A victim of nagging shoulder issues (which had previously required surgery) the Manitoba native dislocated his shoulder just two weeks after the marquee match in Pittsburgh, tearing a ligament in the joint. He tried to come back after rehab, but former 20 goal scorer wasn’t the same. In May of 2011, he went under the knife to repair the damage. Two months later, Fehr, a fan favorite, was traded in a salary dump to the newly minted Winnipeg Jets. It was the team — albeit in a different incarnation — he grew up loving as a kid.
Fehr, though, didn’t step on the ice much for the Jets in their inaugural season. His shoulder never fully healed. He would play for a few weeks and then be sidelined again. In 35 games, Fehr scored just two goals. Winnipeg showed no interest in resigning him. He couldn’t get a deal before the NHL lockout.
“It was frustrating because knew I wasn’t at my best, I wasn’t at the top of my game,” Fehr said of his time with the Jets. “I feel like I was more in survival mode.”
“At no point did I feel like I was the way I needed to be playing,” he added. “I definitely wish I would have taken more time to heal and feel a little bit better before I started playing. I came back early and never really got my step back.”
With his career possibly in the balance, Fehr signed with HPK. They play in Hameenlinna, Finland, a long way away from Winkler, Manitoba. But if Fehr wanted a NHL deal, he’d have prove he could still play. And he did. In 21 games in the SM-liiga, the 27-year-old scored 13 goals and had 25 points. By the fall, his shoulder finally felt normal. Just days before the season was about to begin, the Capitals signed Fehr to a one-year, $600,000 deal. After a year and a half away, he was back with the franchise that drafted him.
“A lot of teams doubted my health,” Fehr told me Saturday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “I think I did a lot more damage playing when I probably shouldn’t have. It took a good summer of rehab and rehab in Finland for it to feel better. The lockout almost helped me in a way — to give me a chance to get stronger and healthier and to start playing again.”
So on Thursday night, a little less than two years after the last one, Eric Fehr notched a multiple goal game for the Washington Capitals. At the start of the season, he was just a healthy scratch. Then, he became a fourth liner. Now, since being paired with Joel Ward and Mathieu Perreault on the third line, Fehr has five points (including three goals) in three games. He is figuratively on fire.
“I was just excited to be able to contribute,” said Fehr. “It’s been a while since I’ve been able to put up those kind of numbers in a game.”
Now, head coach Adam Oates is trying to find a way for Fehr to get more minutes. After starting the season in the press box, Fehr might start getting time on the power play.
“He was a healthy scratch because he was the last guy signed,” Oates said. “He’s done nothing but be professional. Every second he’s got to play he’s played hard. His minutes have grown, he’s produced and that line’s produced. You know what, good for him.”
While Fehr is getting back to his old ways on the ice, one key part of his game won’t be coming back — at least for now. He abstains from playing catch with his buddy Karl Alzner before games due to his battered shoulder.
“I’ve been watching him play, ” Fehr said. “It pains me.”
“I don’t want to take any chances,” he added. “I do get the odd throw in.”
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