Battling back from an injury is one of the toughest things an athlete can face, both physically and mentally. Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly endured that process this season after suffering a fractured foot on a blocked shot in January. Eight weeks of rehab and physical therapy later, he made his return to the lineup on March 10 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Two days later, the NHL season was paused indefinitely.
"I'm happy I played one, because I think I'd be going crazy if I hadn't played since early January," Rielly said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. "That was truly a long process of trying to heal and trying to keep yourself in shape. Eight weeks go by and you're really working hard to get back and then to play one game, it's certainly not ideal."
Rielly has been social distancing at his home in Vancouver ever since the coronavirus pandemic made the sporting world grind to a halt. He has been using the unexpected free time to reflect on the Leafs' roller-coaster season.
"During a pause like this, you have lots of time to process what happened over the course of the year so far," he said. "You look back and you reflect and you picture things going differently, what you liked, what you didn't like, and this is a really good opportunity for players to do some thinking about that kind of stuff . . . but you're also focused on trying to keep yourself in shape in the event the year resumes. So I think it's a mix of trying to keep yourself focused and also do some reflecting."
There have been plenty of ups and downs for Toronto, which came into the season as a Stanley Cup favorite. Despite a roster loaded with offensive firepower, including Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares, the Leafs were still fighting for their playoff lives when the season was put on hold a few weeks ago. Rielly is well aware of the team's inconsistency, and it's something that he says needs to improve.
"With the bad is always good," he said. "I thought that we answered the bell at times when we had to against some pretty good teams, and then the downs were the games where you're supposed to win or you really expect a good team to be able to win and we weren't able to execute that, but I can't really put my finger on it. I think you have to keep in mind that there were positives over the course of the season, and when hockey does resume I think we know that we have to be better and we have to be more consistent."
Unfortunately, nobody knows when — or if — the 2019-20 season will resume. Rielly is no different but, like all players, he's itching to get back on the ice.
"I think that's what we're all kind of wondering right now," he said. "I can tell you that we do have calls as a team and as players around the league, and we talk about those sorts of things. A point comes where it's not really in our control, but I guess the question is, 'How late is too late?' I don't know. I know as players, we all want to play and have a chance to play in playoffs, but health comes first. There's no question about that."