When hockey coaches, some of the coolest customers on the planet, start to get choked up, you know it has to be a highly emotional moment.
And it doesn’t get much more elevated than Sunday morning in Toronto when Flyers left wing Oskar Lindblom stepped onto the ice for his first practice back with the team since ending treatments for Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
There weren’t too many dry eyes in the place, including head coach Alain Vigneault.
“I think he was real nervous, real excited to be back with the group,’’ Vigneault said in a Zoom call from Scotiabank Arena. “The group was obviously ecstatic to have him back.
“Coaches were almost in tears. When you think about everything Oskar has been through and everything our team has been through – showing all the support and going through all the different stages. Today was all about Oskar and the excitement to have him back with our group.’’
Lindblom was leading the Flyers in goals with 11 when he received the diagnosis back in mid-December.
At the time, the game of hockey took a back seat to just getting healthy again. It required the better part of six months of chemotherapy treatments at Pennsylvania Hospital before he received a clean bill of health.
After a trip back to Sweden to visit family and friends, Lindblom, who turned 24 on Saturday, returned to Toronto to rejoin his team, then had to sit in quarantine for eight days.
So Sunday’s first practice was a rather monumental occasion, partly because originally there were no guarantees he would even play hockey ever again.
“My goal was to get back to the team, get back to life,’’ he said. “I was thinking about how I was going to feel when I got back. So I had no thoughts about not playing again.’’
Lindblom was asked how much it meant to his emotional and physical well-being to be around his teammates again.
“A lot,’’ he said. “I’ve been in contact with the team the whole process here. Just to feel like I’m getting back and getting the energy from all the guys helps a lot. To be around the boys is the best thing.’’
During the morning skate, all the Flyers gathered at the center of the rink and did a special stick-tap on the ice to salute their comrade who showed so much courage during the whole ordeal.
They know there’s a good reason why Lindblom is a finalist for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication.
The outward demonstration of support resonated with Lindblom.
“It meant everything,’’ Lindblom said. “They talk to me like I’m still a member of the team (even though he hasn’t played since 2019).
“Those past weeks, when I felt so bad, they would call me or text me. . .they would help get more energy. Now I’m here and I’m happier than ever.’’
Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher surprised a few people back in late July when he included Lindblom on the team’s 31-man eligibility roster.
Now that Lindblom is in Toronto, predictably there are questions as to when, not if, he might play again.
“To be honest, I have no idea,’’ Lindblom said. “It could take a couple weeks, months, I don’t know yet, we’ll see. We’ll see how I feel when I start skating again for real with the team. I’ll take it from there.
“I’m not going to say anything (about a return date). Take it slow and see what happens.’’
Without question, Vigneault will keep an eye on Lindblom if the Flyers make it into the later rounds of the playoffs.
It all depends on how quickly Lindblom can regain his conditioning, etc.
“I’m hoping that when he does come back and play, he’ll give us what he was doing before,’’ Vigneault said. “Contributing at both ends of the rink, he was our top scorer when we lost him.
“The timeframe is tough to say. It’s definitely going to take him a couple practices, a couple weeks. We’re going to talk to him everyday and see how he feels. He wants to play. He’s going to get himself in shape and we have to do our part and continue playing.’’
Skating is one thing, getting in hockey shape is another.
Lindblom knows there’s still a long road to travel before he can compete in an NHL game, especially one in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“It’s a little bit of everything,’’ he said. “I just feel like I need to be strong enough, be good enough to play. I don’t want to be out there if I’m not good enough to play or help the team.
“As long as I feel ready and my body is strong enough, I’ll put myself out there. Otherwise, I’ll keep practicing and work myself up.’’