Tomas Kopecky was struggling to score and going through one of the toughest seasons of his 10 years in the NHL with the Panthers last season.
He hoped a trip to the Sochi Olympics to play with his Slovakian national team would help his game when he came back to South Florida.
Kopecky was taken out during an game at the Olympics on an elbow to the head from Slovenia’s Sabahudin Kovacevic; the hit was so brutal, Kovacevic was suspended.
Kopecky eventually returned to Florida, but the symptoms from the severe concussion remained.
Kopecky was unable to do any physical exersion for months, and he lost 20 pounds off an already-slender frame. When he got the all-clear from doctors to start working out, he had only this season in mind.
“It’s always hard coming back from an injury no matter what it is,” Kopecky said Tuesday.
“With a concussion, you never know if it will last a couple weeks or a couple of months. I was still getting headaches and months later, sleeping nine or 10 hours a night and waking up feeling like I just played in a game. It’s tough when you’re doing the right things and can’t recover. It’s not in your hands.”
For his perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game of hockey, Kopecky is the Panthers’ nominee for the annual Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy player — given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance — by the Florida chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
“I just love hockey and it doesn’t matter what injury you have, having the support of family, teammates and trainers was huge,” Kopecky said.
Although Kopecky has struggled at times this season and has been a healthy scratch by coach Gerard Gallant 12 times in the past two months, his play on Florida’s fourth line and penalty-kill units has been counted on.
“He’s been good most of the year, and I’ve been happy with him,’’ Gallant said. “This is well-deserved for him. He’s a good veteran, a good leader on this team. I really like him. He’s had some tough times, and I’ve had to sit him. But he’s a pro. He’s won the [Stanley] Cup a few times and always comes to work.”
A pending free agent, Kopecky said he hopes to return to the Panthers and help the team return to the postseason next year. “It’s fun to be part of this,” he said.
Kopecky, who led Florida in goals during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, was a key piece of the Panthers’ 2012 Southeast Division championship team.
“I came here to help the team win, and I don’t know if I’ve done my job,” said Kopecky, who has six goals in 112 games since scoring a career-high 15 in 47 games during the 2013 season.
“The time has really flown by. It’s been a great four years. There’s a lot of good things going for this organization. You see [Jonathan] Huberdeau and [Sasha] Barkov becoming superstars.”
Jaromir Jagr, 43, told the Czech Sport Daily that
“the chances that I will sign a new contract with Florida are pretty good.”
Tuesday, he expanded on those comments saying he likes the progression of the Panthers.
“The Czech people follow me a lot, so the Panthers have become very popular there,’’ Jagr said. “I love it here and there’s interest on both sides. I think my agent [Petr Svoboda] is going to meet with Dale [Tallon]. I don’t want to push things; we have a lot of time.
“What’s not to like about it here? I’m still pretty confident with my game and think I can get better.”
▪ Al Montoya went through another practice Tuesday and says he would like to play in Florida’s season finale Saturday against the Devils as Gallant said Roberto Luongo would play Thursday against Boston.
“I’m feeling better every day. I just want to give the team a chance to win if I get in there,” said Montoya, who hurt his groin against Toronto last month. “I would like to play, of course, but it’s not up to me.”
Montoya said the game in which both he and Luongo got hurt at the same time was “brutal” and he confirmed that he basically returned to the game skating on one leg.
The other option, at least at the time he initially returned to the game, was for Florida to put center Derek MacKenzie in goal.
“I couldn’t really put weight down on one leg,” Montoya said.
“I knew the circumstances and what was our option, MacKenzie going in the net? At the end of the day I wasn’t going to let that happen.”