MONTREAL — They were 17 minutes Joel Edmundson had no guarantee of playing this season, and perhaps the happiest 17 minutes he’s experienced since last July.
It had been a torturous eight-month break for the 6-foot-5 defenceman. It started with a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, and it lasted longer than he or anyone around him hoped it would.
Edmundson showed up at Canadiens training camp in September and suffered a back injury on Day 1. He was initially listed as day-to-day, but the days kept going by and he kept regressing.
With his injury not healing imminently, Edmundson left Montreal for Manitoba on Oct. 20 to tend to his father, Bob, who was losing his battle with lung cancer. It was upon his father’s urging, he quickly returned to the Canadiens in the hopes of getting back into a game while his father could still watch him play.
It looked like Edmundson was going to fulfill that wish in November, but he suffered a setback.
He jumped back into practice again in December and suffered another one.
Edmundson went back to his hometown of Brandon for Christmas, and then was sent back by his father with that same wish again.
Upon Edmundson’s return to Montreal, he was placed in COVID protocol.
Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 7, Bob succumbed to his disease. He was just 61 years old.
Joel’s battle continued. First with more off-ice rehabilitation, which went so slowly that his return to game action this season became seriously doubtful.
Then second opinions were sought, different options were considered, and a surgical procedure was placed on the table.
But Edmundson managed to avoid that.
He turned the corner, began practising again regularly, and finally got to a place where stepping into the lineup made sense.
On Saturday, in front of 20,608 fans at the Bell Centre, the 28-year-old paired up with Jeff Petry, got two shots on net, had one blocked, and threw his 225-pound frame into six different members of the Seattle Kraken in what turned out to be a 4-3 shootout loss for the Canadiens. He used his stick for more than just shooting and passing—he caught Morgan Geekie with a punishing crosscheck on his second of 22 shifts in the game—and he put his body to work just as much in front of the net as he did in laying out those hits in the corners and along the boards.
Edmundson had a presence out there. The kind of presence the Canadiens have missed all season—but particularly as they tumbled through their first 45 games down to last place in the NHL, where they still reside despite recently rattling off wins in seven of eight games.
“We used to always say that about (Shea Weber),” said Brendan Gallagher. “(Presence is) a hard thing to describe. I know I’ve played against Eddy going back to juniors—you have no room in the corners, you have no room coming down the wall, you have no room in front of the net, you have to compete everywhere on the ice, and he makes his presence felt, I guess, is what I’m saying. Physicality, and he’s a very smart player. He’ll make good plays. Seems to be able to play with anyone they put him with.
“We’re happy to get him back.”
Edmundson’s Canadiens teammates had been singing his praises for months—to us in the media, but also to management. In an interview we did with Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton recently, he said, “Every time I met with a player, they talked to me about him.”
In anticipation of Edmundson’s return, defenceman Chris Wideman called Edmundson “a tremendous player.
“The guy’s won a Stanley Cup (with the St. Louis Blues in 2019), but his impact on this team—even while he hasn’t been playing—is unbelievable,” Wideman continued. “He’s had a tough year with some personal things (the death of his father) and some injuries. I’ve only been around him for a couple of months, (but) I love the guy. He’s like a brother and he treats everybody like a brother. He’s a huge part of this team and we’re all excited to have him back.”
No one was more pleased about it than the man himself, who admittedly lost his wind a couple of times and also cramped up a bit in the third period.
But Edmundson kept pressing, with his father in his heart and mind.
“It’s been an emotional day, that’s for sure,” Edmundson said. “I think about him every day. And I was really hoping to get a goal tonight for him, but next goal is definitely going to be for him. I know he’s up there looking down on me, and he’s going to be with me the rest of my career and rest of my life. I definitely wouldn’t be here without him.”
He wouldn’t have been in this game at all if not for the Canadiens’ medical staff, who recommended he skip Sunday’s game in Philadelphia against the Flyers before authorizing his return against the Kraken.
But after receiving some treatment in Brossard, Que., to finish the weekend, Edmundson will be back out with his teammates on Tuesday against the Arizona Coyotes at the Bell Centre.
He’s not taking that for granted. He never took playing for granted, and never got down despite all the turmoil he went through leading up to Saturday’s game.
“It’s never fun to be injured,” Edmundson said. “Especially for a long period of time. For me, I was just trying to go to the rink every day and be positive. If you beat yourself up, it just drains you and you don’t have the energy to do the things you need to do at the rink. So, I just went to the rink every day with a positive mindset. Once I got on the ice, I was just trying to work as hard as I could to get back up to game speed because these guys have already played 57 games or whatever it is. It’s tough. It’s been tough, but I’ve enjoyed the hard work.”