Warrior Higgins rebounds quickly from June shoulder surgery: star forward played last 17 games with broken collarbone

0-higgins.jpgChris Higgins did little to change his physical game in the latter stages of the 2006-07 season, despite playing with a broken clavicle. Here he bulls through the crease of Buffalo Sabres goalie Ty Conklin at the Bell Centre on March 31.
Allen McInnis, Gazette

As if the ankle injury wasn’t enough for Chris Higgins, the flashy Canadiens forward who missed 18 games last season with what later was described by Graham Rynbend, the team’s head athletic therapist, as “multi-dimensional … bruising, irritated tendons and an irritated ligament – a strain, sprain and a bruise all together.”

On Feb. 20, Higgins left the Canadiens-Capitals game with the time-honoured “upper-body injury,” missing the club’s next contest two nights later with something more precisely defined as a bruised shoulder. Yes, it was that. But it was also a broken clavicle – a fracture of the right collarbone – and it was a terribly painful injury with which Higgins played the final 17 games of the 2006-07 season.

Higgins underwent arthroscopic surgery on the shoulder in Colorado in late June, but already is in tremendous condition as he prepares for the season to come. The 24-year-old’s fitness is legendary, and this summer he’s making huge strides to regaining and building on his superior conditioning, working with Jon DiFlorio, his personal trainer at Institute 3E on Long Island.

I had long conversations with Higgins and DiFlorio this week, and heard again the passion and commitment Higgins brings to the game. He sees the season to come as a great opportunity for himself, and other young members of the club, to step up and take a leadership role. If his dedication to his fitness is any indication, he’ll live up to his end of the bargain.

Read on for the feature on Higgins’s injuries, surgery and recovery, and his view on the offseason moves that have changed the face of the Canadiens. Both stories appear in Saturday’s Montreal Gazette.

PHOTOS BELOW COURTESY OF AND COPYRIGHT THERESA DIAMOND/JERRARD MOORE for INSTITUTE 3E

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Trainer Jon DiFlorio supervises Chris Higgins’s squat workout, with 200 kilograms strapped around his waist to eliminate any strain on his surgically repaired right shoulder. The small incision is still visible just to the right of Higgins’s armpit as you view this photo.

HIGGINS TAKES HIS FITNESS TO THE EXTREME
Canadiens forward rockets to recovery following shoulder surgery in June
He played final 17 games of 2006-07 season with a broken clavicle

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette

Officially, the Canadiens described the February injury suffered by forward Christopher Higgins as a bruised shoulder.

In the margin of the press release, in invisible ink, was Higgins’s broken clavicle, a fractured collarbone with which he would play his final 17 games of the season.

A month ago, the 24-year-old native of Smithtown, N.Y., underwent arthroscopic surgery in Colorado to repair collateral damage in his right shoulder.

And almost surely Higgins is still going to arrive at the Canadiens’ September training camp as the fittest player on the roster, a testament to his training regimen and his almost maniacal approach to working on his body from the inside out.

Higgins scored two first-period goals against the Washington Capitals on Feb. 20, his 15th and 16th of the season. Then he left the Bell Centre game two shifts into the third with what the team first called an “upper-body injury,” after checking Capitals defenceman John Erskine.

He missed his club’s next game two nights later in Nashville, then returned Feb. 22 in Uniondale, N.Y., against the Islanders, scoring No. 17.

“I guess no one (outside the team) knew about the fracture, until now,” he joked this week from Long Island, where he’s training with his typical fiendishness to prepare for the season ahead.
Then he laughed.

“Maybe that’s why I didn’t get the hat trick against Washington.”

Higgins scored 22 goals and added 16 assists in his sophomore year with the Canadiens, scoring eight times and assisting on five more through his first, white-hot 13 games.

And then he went down Nov. 4 in a home game against New Jersey, suffering a crippling left ankle injury which Graham Rynbend, the Canadiens’ head athletic therapist, later described as “multi-dimensional … bruising, irritated tendons and an irritated ligament – a strain, sprain and a bruise all together.”

Higgins missed 18 games with the injury, returning Dec. 16 until he sat out one more with the shoulder/clavicle. Then back for two, out for two with the flu, and back for the club’s final 15 games of the year, troubled in each and every one by the fracture.

“From what I’ve heard, you never fully recover from the (ankle) injury I had, but I’ve not noticed any problems with it,” Higgins said. “After having taken a month and a half off, it’s as good as it’s going to get.

“But the shoulder bothered me a lot toward the end of the year. It was annoying during practice more than anything because I wasn’t as pumped up as I am for games, when you get the adrenaline going and you don’t really feel much of anything. I just didn’t take slap shots in practice and tried to stay off it.

“I don’t think I’ve played through pain more than anyone else. No one knows the full extent of what guys go through. They’re hurting a lot, wearing ice bags after every game on things that have been hurting them every day for months. You just really have no time to recover, that’s the reality of the schedule.”

The decision to have surgery came about quickly, though fully 21/2 months after the Canadiens had zipped their bags.

Higgins took his traditional six weeks off at season’s end. He won’t be back on skates until early next month, enjoying the rest for the groin and hip flexors “because you’re killing them every day you’re on the ice.

“I think it’s good to let your body heal the bumps and bruises,” he said. “I’ve got to push myself to wait, but the month and a half lets me get some partying done, see my family and relax.”

Returning to the gym in mid-May, Higgins was unable to properly do a number of exercises prescribed for him by Jon DiFlorio, his personal trainer at Institute 3E on Long Island.

So he visited the Canadiens medical staff for further evaluation during a trip to Montreal in early June. Ten days later, he was sent to Vail, Colo., for an examination by Dr. Peter Millett, a world-renowned shoulder specialist at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic.

He was on the operating table the next day.

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“The clavicle had healed fine,” Higgins said. “They just wanted to clean up some other things in there, a little scar tissue.

“The doctor told me I could have the surgery then and be ready for the season, or I could get hurt during the year and have it later. It’s a no-brainer when someone as respected as Dr. Millett says that to your face.”

Higgins was riding the stationary bike a day after the operation and lifting with his left arm a day after that, working out in his hotel while wearing a sling.

He travelled back to Montreal for consultation with Rynbend, Canadiens therapist Nick Addey-Jibb and the club’s strength and conditioning co-ordinator, Scott Livingston, then returned to Long Island and immediately got back to work.

“Chris is such a tough kid, he’s never going to complain,” said DiFlorio, who also trains Canadiens defenceman Mike Komisarek, Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro and Calgary Flames farmhand Eric Nystrom.

“He showed up here on May 15, described exactly how he’d hurt his shoulder and just said, ‘I’m fine, I’m good to go.’ He was getting so strong, so fast, he was just dominating down here.

“I thought he was joking when he called from Vail to say he was having an operation. But he’s so focused, he hasn’t missed a beat. He wasn’t going to take two weeks off because he had surgery.”

DiFlorio says that Higgins is “way ahead” of an unspecified rehabilitation schedule, largely because of the player’s proactive lifestyle and attention to the finest details.
“Chris just put in an order for all these types of best-quality organic foods,” he said. “He did a private yoga session a half-hour ago. Yesterday, he did a muscle release therapy (with DiFlorio’s Institute 3E partner, Khokan Fulop, a neuromuscular therapist).

“He’s doing acupunture once a week to increase energy and reduce inflammation to speed up the regeneration process. He’s riding the bike a lot, sleeping at the right times, and he’s working with Gary Parks, our mental conditioning coach. A huge part of Chris’s physical improvement is his belief that, every day in every way, he’s getting better and better.”

If all of this is at the cutting edge of fitness, Higgins has loved the barbell since he was a boy, working out as a pre-teen with his father, Bobby, a New York City firefighter, learning his work ethic with every situp.

He says he’s been blessed with good genes – “Not to toot my own horn, but most 12-year-olds don’t have a six-pack,” he jokes – and adores challenging himself physically and mentally.

Not much has changed, a dozen years later.

“I enjoy working my ass off,” Higgins said. “I enjoy getting ready for the season and being confident from working out as hard as I do.”

DiFlorio speaks of his pupil’s “serious vision” for himself and the Canadiens, and the unwavering demands he puts on himself.

“Chris is not going to be satisfied with anything less than the Stanley Cup for his team, and until he has those 40-40 (goals and assists) seasons,” he said. “He feels responsible not only for himself, but for the guys around him, and he’s showing what it’s like to be a team member all year. His character will enrol other players to live up to his work ethic.”

Come September, DiFlorio said, you’ll need to look for the surgical incision to know that Higgins’s shoulder met the business end of a scalpel.

“Guys will look at him and say, ‘You had surgery? No way,’ ” the trainer said. “It’s going to be totally unbelievable.

“Two days ago, I said to Chris, ‘How’s it going to feel when you turn up at camp the fittest guy in the locker room, and you had surgery midway through your offseason?’ He just laughed and said, ‘It’s going to feel great.’

“He’d be doing more right now if I let him, but it’s only July. I’ve got to hold him back.”

The reins will be loosened soon on the player who has found the silver lining to the dark cloud of the Canadiens’ failure to make the playoffs:

“Taking my skates off for the last time in April, I was thinking, ‘This is much too early to not be playing hockey,” Higgins said. “And then I thought, ‘Wow, I’ll have lots of time to work out. I’m guaranteed to be in good shape next year.’ ”

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HIGGINS LIKES NEW LOOK OF CANADIENS
The time is now for young guys to step up and take leadership role, he says

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette

Not since April 7 has Canadiens forward Christopher Higgins been on a pair of skates. He’d unlaced them that night at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, his team on the short end of a 6-5 score, bounced from the playoffs by the Maple Leafs in a bizarre, rollercoaster game that pretty much summed up the Canadiens’ entire season.

To see Higgins in front of his locker in a nearly empty dressing room was to understand the bitterness of defeat for an athlete who truly cares. His body spoke the sentences his voice left incomplete – shoulders slumped, eyes puffy and red, his season mothballed much too soon.

From his summertime home now on Long Island, where Higgins is preparing with friend and teammate Mike Komisarek for the coming season, he considers the question: When did you finally pull your eyes off a rear-view filled with broken dreams, and focus solely on the landscape ahead?

“I still haven’t,” he replied. “It still sticks with me. If Mike and I could get out there and skate right now, we would. The end of last season is something a lot of (teammates) have talked about, and that’s why I have a good feeling about our team.

“A lot of guys were genuinely upset for a long time after the season about the way things ended up. We have a lot of things we want to show to a lot of people this year.”

Both Higgins, 24, and Komisarek, 25, will arrive at September’s training camp with new two-year contracts, paying each $1.5 million this season and $1.9 million in 2008-09. General manager Bob Gainey refers to both players as “building blocks” in the club’s future, while adding, “Christopher is a complete player with great offensive skills who improved consistently since making his NHL debut” two seasons ago.

Both will see many new faces in the dressing room when they report for duty. Gone are all-star defenceman Sheldon Souray; forwards Sergei Samsonov, Radek Bonk, Mike Johnson, Alexander Perezhogin and Aaron Downey; defenceman Janne Niinimaa; goalie David Aebischer. Incoming are three veterans by way of free-agency – defenceman Roman Hamrlik and forwards Bryan Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos – and who knows what new players from the farm in Hamilton.

Seasoned leadership was lost in the jerseys of Souray and, a few days before the trade deadline, veteran defenceman Craig Rivet. Higgins sees replacing their qualities as not just a challenge, but a responsibility.

“Mike and I have talked a lot about it,” he said. “There’s no time better than now to start a winning attitude and to get us to where the Canadiens should be – on top of the league.

“There’s a lot of hunger in the room now, and with the younger players coming, there are a lot of guys who realize how special it would be to win a Stanley Cup in Montreal.

“I don’t know our new guys personally, but from what I’ve heard they’re great character guys and easy to get along with, so that’s good. You always want your veterans to get along with the younger players.”

Higgins understands what’s expected of him, including himself in the “younger guys” to whom he refers, players who must make a difference by producing game by game, shift by shift.

“We’ve lost a lot of voices in the room who knew what they were talking about,” he said. “Guys this year will have to step up and not only contribute in the room to rally the troops, to talk about how we’re going to beat the team we’re playing that night, but they’re also going to have to show it on the ice.

“And show it consistently. That’s a challenge for a lot of us. We saw flashes of good play from the young guys last year, but they’re now going to have to show their skills every night.”

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Higgins strains through his workout with DiFlorio. The tattoo on his chest is the Higgins family coat of arms.

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Below is Chris Higgins’s biography at the NHLPA. Click on it to visit the NHLPA website.


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