VOORHEES, N.J. – Given the circumstances, the news didn’t come as much of a surprise.
Nevertheless, when it was announced on Monday that Flyers star forward Cam Atkinson has been scheduled for season-ending neck surgery on Wednesday, the mood in the locker room at the Flyers Training Center was somewhat somber.
For months there has been speculation Atkinson’s injury would sideline him for the rest of the campaign and now those fears have come true.
Atkinson, 33, is one of the more popular players on the team – as well as one of its most talented ones – so the specter of playing without him the rest of the year certainly hit home.
The latest injury reminds players and fans alike that hockey is a physically demanding sport with a dangerous element to it.
They’ve already lost defenseman Ryan Ellis for the season and forward Sean Couturier until March.
Another Flyer, forward Joel Farabee, also underwent neck surgery last offseason although it has not been confirmed that both cases are similar.
To a man, the Flyers are hoping Atkinson will make a full recovery and be able to resume his career next season. He has this season and two more left on a contract which pays him $5,875,000 annually.
“Some of the symptoms, there are some similarities,’’ said Farabee, who had his surgery in late June and was able to play the season opener against New Jersey on Oct. 13. “I won’t go into it too deep, because I don’t know what he’s got going on.
“I think the best thing for him is to figure out the right treatment and the best way to get healthy.’’
The Flyers have not disclosed the name of the surgeon or the hospital where the surgery will take place, but it will take place in Philadelphia
Farabee, who had surgery similar to what Vegas Golden Knight All-Star Jack Eichel went through a couple years back, had his operation performed by Dr. Jon Yoon at Penn Medicine.
According to Farabee, he’s experienced no post-surgery symptoms.
“I feel great, I think the biggest thing for me is just getting back, just getting hit a few times,’’ he said. “In the summer you’re feeling pretty weak but once I got through training camp and started getting hit, I had no issues.’’
General manager Chuck Fletcher said surgery should rectify the issue and allow Atkinson to resume his career at some point.
“When he spoke to this last doctor, he kind of laid it out – ‘you might be able to come back and play if you continue to rehab’,’’ Fletcher said. “But you have to look at the bigger picture here in terms of nerve irritation, your arm.
“If you want to get back to a hundred percent for the long term, you need to do this and I think that really resonated with Cam. This is after weeks and weeks of trying to come back. He made the right decision for him.”
Atkinson took part in training camp activities but did not compete in any preseason or regular-season games.
He’s a fierce competitor and no doubt wanted to get back desperately. The Flyers did their best to put the brakes on that one.
“I think we did a good job of protecting him from himself at times,’’ Fletcher said. “He was antsy to go but our group put together certain performance measures he had to pass in order to play and he just couldn’t meet all those.’’
Losing the services of Atkinson damages a team which is already sitting near the bottom of the standings.
“It hurts because Cam arguably was our best forward last year,’’ Fletcher said. “Played really well. It’s a tough situation for him, I feel for him. He tried hard for a few months to rehab.
“Even last week we thought he might be able to play against the (New York) Rangers (on Saturday night). But he just couldn’t get over the hump. It became less of a focus on this year and let’s just get him right.’’
Fletcher disclosed this is a problem which has dogged Atkinson going back to his playing days at Columbus. The GM characterized it as “more of a wear-and-tear issue.’’ Unlike the situation with Farabee, where he injured himself during an offseason workout, there was no one particular incident which resulted in Atkinson’s current condition.
“Sports like hockey, football, these guys who have played a long time, you take a lot of contact, there’s pounding,’’ Fletcher said. “There’s wear and tear. The important thing out of all this is that it’s obviously disappointing for Cam for this season, but if we can get him back healthy, he’s an important part of our team. If he can be pain-free, that’s very important for Cam as well.’’
Coach John Tortorella and Atkinson go back to their days at Columbus. The final decision by the player appeared to be an emotional one for the coach.
“It’s been hard for him,’’ Tortorella said. “He wants to be a part of it (the team). He sees what we’ve been going through. You have to consider him one of the top players from last year’s team. He’s tried everything to get back in. He’s made the decision, along with the doctors, this is the best route to go. So hopefully we wish good luck on that and he’s healthy and ready to go next year.’’
Several players expressed some relief that the surgery will get the situation headed back in the right direction.
“It’s tough,’’ Scott Laughton said. “What you put your body through on a daily basis. You train all summer to make sure you’re ready but then some things are just out of your control. Obviously we’ve had more than a couple of those over the last couple years with some big guys being out.’’
Added James van Riemsdyk: “It’s definitely scary when you need surgery on that part of your body. You definitely feel for him. He’s dealing with some pain. We’ve been smacked with that (devastating injuries) the last couple years. It’s a physically demanding, violent kind of game. We get reminded of that when stuff like this happens.’’