One word sums up what it was like to be in Bridgestone Arena (Sommet Center at the time) on Jan. 10, 2009: Special.
Steve Sullivan missed 153 games and nearly two full years of action due to a severe back injury that required two operations. The injury cut short his 2006-07 season where he was on pace for a career-high 86 points. He was playing the best hockey of his life.
He suffered the injury on the night of Feb. 22, 2007. It was initially thought as a short-term, day-to-day injury. It took nearly two years for him to play in another NHL game. His recovery process was extensive and exhausting. But the battle he went through to return all culminated on that January night in 2009 when he stepped on the ice for the first time.
Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz described it as an “emotional night” for all involved.
“When we became a playoff threat he was the first darling of the franchise,” he said. “A lot of things that Steve had, we were. Maybe a little undersized, a lot of try in our game, people didn’t give him a chance to make the NHL or didn’t give us a chance to be successful. He’s not a big guy and to see him come back after that long road and actually play was a pretty cool thing.”
“Everyone was very excited to have him back,” Shea Weber said of Sullivan. “He didn’t know if he would ever play again. We get nervous for the first game of the season after not playing for four or five months. I can’t imagine what he was feeling that day.”
“I think everyone teared up. Not just him, I think everybody did,” said Scott Nichol, who was on the roster but not in the lineup that night. “I think the standing ovation was not just for him but his family and everybody who was a part of it. They went through that process with him. It was a touching moment.”
Sullivan played in 317 games with the Predators and racked up 263 points. As Trotz alluded to, he was in some ways the franchise’s first star player, dating back to when the team acquired him at the 2004 trade deadline. Sullivan, known as Sully or The Timmins Tornado, scored a lot of big goals in his time in Nashville and provided a lot of memorable moments. Nothing was as memorable as the night he came back.
That off-season, Sullivan became the first player in the organization’s history to win a league-wide award. He was voted as the recipient of the 2009 Masterton Trophy, given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.
“One thing Steve always had was a lot of fire, and that flame never extinguished,” Trotz said. “A lot of times it does when you quit playing. It just slowly goes out when you stop playing. It didn’t with him and he was out a long time and he stuck with it.”
“A lot of people wrote him off,” Nichol added. “He was a little guy that right from the start nobody else thought would play in the NHL. He carved out a fantastic career and was a huge part of this organization for a long time. It was something special to watch him come back.”