Tom Poti, seen here in 2010, has not played an NHL game since Jan. 2011.
Over the last several days, members of the Washington Capitals -- no longer locked out by the 113-day labor standoff between the league and its players -- have flocked to their practice facility in Arlington.
Of the 20 players who have stepped through the revolving door at Kettler Capitals Iceplex since Monday, none were more unexpected than Tom Poti.
"They were excited to see me," Poti said at a press conference Thursday, recalling his teammates' reaction upon entering the locker room for the first time. "You guys know how [forward Jason Chimera] is. He was yelling his head off."
"It's been a while," said Brooks Laich, one of just five current Caps who have been on the team longer than Poti. "He walked into the training room and I kind of did a double take."
It'd be easy to forget that Poti is the sixth-longest tenured member of Washington's roster, having signed prior to the 2007-08 season, but to be honest, it'd be easy just to forget Poti.
The 35-year-old defenseman has spent the last two years slowly recovering from a lingering groin injury and fractured pelvis that has kept him out of action since January 2011. Yet, one year after General Manager George McPhee questioned whether Poti would ever be able to play again, Poti is hoping to do just that by trying to participate in next week's training camp.
"The last week and a half to two weeks, I've had no pain at all and kind of been able to do everything I wanted to do on the ice," Poti said. "It's just a matter of me getting comfortable out there on the ice again and getting the rust off."
In order to get to where he is now, Poti went into a self-imposed exile last year, making the conscious decision to separate himself from the Caps "to work on the next phase" and avoid the internal pressure to rush back, which contributed to one of his many setbacks at the end of the 2010-11 season. After being diagnosed with the pelvis fracture -- originally suffered during a 2010 game against the New Jersey Devils -- and not playing since leaving a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 12, 2011, Poti attempted to make a comeback in time for the postseason, where Washington was set to be the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the second year in a row.
Poti, however, pushed himself too hard and, in hindsight, apparently made things worse.
"I thought we had the team to do it all that year," he said. "So I kind of kept skating, kept myself in shape just in case we made a long run or something and they needed me. I did more damage to myself by trying to come back that year than I should have. My stubbornness kind of kept me from maybe playing last year, but you don't have many chances at the Stanley Cup, so it was something I wanted to do. I don't have any regrets from doing it, but it definitely did set me back."
After failing his physical last fall and deciding to sit out the 2011-12 season, Poti "didn't do anything for four months" while recuperating in his home state of Massachusetts. Once tests showed that his pelvis had healed, he began to slowly ramp up his physical therapy and rehabilitation, including acupuncture treatment. On the ice, he went from skating for only a few minutes to participating in informal workouts and scrimmages with locked-out NHLers at Boston University.
At any point, Poti could have simply quit and collected the $2.75 million remaining on the two-year extension that he signed in 2010 on injured reserve, but while he admitted Thursday that thoughts of giving up "[were] always in the back of [his] mind," he continued to push through.
According to Poti, the Caps played a significant role in maintaining that positive outlook. He kept in close contact with head athletic trainer Greg Smith and said the team was nothing but supportive throughout the process.
"They were unbelievable," he said. "George always said all along, 'If you can get back and play and help us, it'd be great for us, it'd be great for you.' They never closed the book on me and I appreciate that a lot. It definitely helped to know that I had their backing."
Still, while Poti is confident that he can once again contribute on the ice, it isn't certain he will have the opportunity. Before he can participate in official on-ice workouts, Poti must pass a team-administered medical exam. McPhee said Tuesday that he believes that Poti passing his physical is "a bit of a long shot," but all Poti wants is a chance.
"That's all I'm asking for," Poti said. "I don't want anything special. No handouts, no nothing. I just want to go out and play. If they think I can play and think I can help the team, then I'm willing to do whatever it takes."
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