For the first time this season, Tuomo Ruutu joined the Carolina Hurricanes on the ice on Thursday.
The 30-year-old forward had been skating alone for the past few days, and though morning skates are typically light on physicality, returning to practice is an important step in Ruutu’s rehab process.
“It’s still early. I’ve just got to get some practice and see how I feel,” he said. “I go day-by-day, week-by-week and see where I’m at. Everything’s has gone pretty well so far, so hopefully it keeps going that way.”
It was expected that the Vantaa, Finland, native would miss the entire regular season, but Ruutu said his recovery process is right on track, though there remains no exact timetable for his return to the lineup.
Having the green light to practice with the team, the next benchmark Ruutu will need to clear is facing contact. Though he wasn’t wearing a non-contact jersey in Thursday’s morning skate, he still is likely a few days away from getting fully physically involved with the team.
“I have to test my hip and my whole body in every situation I can imagine that would happen in a game,” Ruutu said. “First it’s skating, then skating a little bit harder, then the ultimate goal is adding the contact. Once I can do that, I’m probably ready to go.”
Getting the 6-foot, 205-pound bruising forward back in the lineup, especially if it’s prior to the month’s end, would be a huge boost to the Canes’ depth down the stretch.
“He’s a big part of this team. He brings energy a dimension to the team that we always want – another hard-hitting, hard player to play against,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “If you look at our make-up, it’d be a great addition to our group up there. We’re starting to get some healthy bodies back and create some nice competition.”
“I got to work hard in practice and make the lineup first,” Ruutu said when asked where he fits in. “They’re playing great right now.”
Ruutu underwent hip surgery in Colorado in mid-December to correct labrum damage that had been a nagging ailment. Surgery, he said, was a last resort.
“It got to the point where I just couldn’t do it. I tried rehabbing and making it better, and it got a little better but never good enough,” he said. “It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘OK, I should have done it earlier.’ But who knows. It could have gone away just by rehabbing it. It didn’t, and I don’t regret anything. I’ve done everything I could.”
And, better to correct the problem now than have to deal with a more serious problem later.
“Hey, maybe surgery saved me from an artificial hip,” Ruutu said with a smile.
Regardless, it’s been a long, frustrating wait to get back on the ice for Ruutu. Not being able to take part in the pomp and circumstance of opening night, he said, was probably the most maddening.
“I remember the opening nights from previous years. You’re so excited. They call your number and say your name, and you see fans going nuts because they’re waiting for hockey to be back,” he said. “Stepping on the ice, having those first couple of steps and feeling that energy, there’s no better feeling than that.”
Instead, Ruutu, dressed in a suit rather than his familiar No. 15 sweater, was relegated to waving to the crowd from the bench.
“That really hit me hard,” he said.
The feeling Ruutu had today, then, was the exact opposite, as he dressed in his gear with the team with a sense of rookie nerves.
“It’s so much fun,” Ruutu said. “I was talking to my wife last night like, ‘I have practice tomorrow. I’m a little bit nervous.’ It was a good nervous. I was nervous but excited. This is how I should feel every day.”
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