WHAT WOULD you do for one more day on the job? Would you suffer ungodly pain? Go under a surgeon’s knife? Take a needle in your private parts? Live on a training machine? Would you sweat, gasp, howl, yowl, lift weights, do ultrasound, stretch your muscles for so many hours, they seemed ready to slide off the bone?

Would you do all this without break, endure an everyday hell for nearly two years, with no promise, no assurance, not even a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, only the belief that maybe, if the gods were so inclined, you could someday get to work one more day?

Welcome to the reconstructed world of Brent Gilchrist. He was not the star of the Wings’ playoff opener Thursday night. Not the fastest man on the ice, or the strongest.

Only the happiest.

“I feel like a world-beater,” Gilchrist said, before skating in his first pain-free playoff game in three years. “There were a lot of moments when I thought I wouldn’t see this day. It always seemed like I was two or three more weeks away.”

The weeks turned to months. The months to years. And the Brent Gilchrist story became one of endurance and courage. Hockey players have their signature moments: a shot, a save, a fight. Around the Detroit locker room, the signature moment for Gilchrist was not a play, it was a noise: a chilling howl of pain when doctors put a needle in his groin before playoff games.

“Never heard anything like it,” players would whisper, shaking their heads.
“Man, he’s got guts.”

He didn’t play, but he didn’t quit

Here is what Gilchrist, a left winger out of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, was facing: a groin/hernia/lower back/abdominal injury as complex as a city map and as misunderstood as Cuban politics. Years ago, it would have been dismissed as a groin pull. Wrong. Or a hernia. Wrong. Or a ripped stomach muscle. Wrong again.

The truth is, the injury, something called “athletic pubalgia,” is still not fully understood. But its effects are identifiable. Spot a player with a groin-area injury who should be getting better but isn’t — and chances are you’ve found it.

Or, just check Gilchrist’s medical file.

“Do you think you set the pain bar for hockey injuries?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “We’ve been taught all our lives as hockey players to do whatever it takes to get out on the ice — especially during the playoffs.

“I think a lot of guys on this team would have done what I did.”

Maybe. But needles to the groin are not your everyday treatment. Gilchrist, 33, said he “got into a zone” with the pain, almost becoming it. “You picture a Stanley Cup in your mind, and somehow you get through it.”

The thing is, even with all those shots, he didn’t get through it right away. When the injury first happened — late in the 1997-98 season — he sat out the last 20 regular-season games. Then came the needles — for 15 playoff nights. Then off-season surgery. Then missed training camp, missed exhibition season, missed 68 games in a row.

He came back briefly — more needles, more painkillers — lasted only three playoff games and was done.

Another off-season surgery. Another missed training camp, another missed exhibition, another missed 56 straight regular-season games.

Few people thought he’d ever come back. His own children asked if he’d ever play another game. The Wings gave his locker to a healthier player. Day in, day out, Gilchrist tried desperately to feel a part of the team, embracing the sweat of his rehab sessions, mingling with his teammates when they came in for practice.

But mingling isn’t playing. Too often, Gilchrist found himself picking his kids up from school, when, in years past, he would have been thinking about that night’s opponent.

Did he worry? Of course. “But I missed the game so much, I quit thinking about saving my career. I just wanted to get back out there, for whatever time I could.”

Yes, he says, it was worth it

And so — because sometimes pain and rehab have a happy ending — there he was, Thursday night, skating against Los Angeles. In the first period, he fired a shot off goalie Stephane Fiset, chased the rebound, and whammed defenseman Mattias Norstrom against the boards. In the second period, two shots on goal. And in the third period, in the final crucial minute, he was out there fighting for the puck, it came loose to Sergei Fedorov, who scored the clincher with 13 seconds left in the Wings’ 2-0 victory. Gilchrist was the first player to hug him.

He was sweating. He was panting.

He was back.

Funny. With Steve Yzerman missing, the headline story Thursday was an absence. A better story was a presence.

“Tell me something,” I asked Gilchrist. “If you had to endure all the pain, all the months putting your body back together, only to play one more game — just one game — would you do it?”

“I would,” he said.

He just did.

Who knew the groin was so connected to the heart?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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